Brian Cox

War and Peace E1 (BBC One) (2016)

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peace-0I’ve never been one of those people who have been remotely tempted to ‘tackle’ any of the great classics – those 19th century works of literature that come in inch-thick doorstopper editions capable of causing subsidence to the average bedside table. It’s true that many people do see this activity as some sort of lifetime milestone that has to be undertaken at some point, the sedentary equivalent of running a marathon or climbing Everest; they grit their teeth, put their head down and plan their campaign as if going off to battle.

I am not one of those people. Frankly if a book doesn’t appeal to me intrinsically as something that I actually want to read and would enjoy doing so then nothing and no one is going to persuade me otherwise, and I shall be moving quickly on. After all there are a lot of excellent modern books out there that do appeal to me that I also have yet to get around to, so I’m simply not going to squander my short time on this planet on something that people tell me that I should read just so that I can boast about the alleged achievement. I’m perfectly happy to leave that to others who really do enjoy doing such things.

The idea of a 1,225-page tome about the lives and loves of the old Russian aristocracy with unpronounceable names in 1805 simply holds no such inherent appeal. Accordingly the task of reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is so far down my to-do list that I would need two or three lifetimes for it to make it to the top of the pile. While watching a TV adaptation of the novel is a distinctly less challenging prospect – the latest BBC adaptation only requires one’s attention for a relatively scant six hours in total – I’m afraid that my ambivalence toward the novel quickly spilled over to a firm resistance toward embarking upon the small screen version as well. Only the slightest nagging sense of intellectual obligation – that I really should at least give something a chance before completely dismissing it – made me think that I had to sample a few minutes of the first episode to see how far I could actually get before gratefully throwing in the towel and moving on. Read the rest of this entry »

The Game S1 E1 (BBC 2)

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The memory of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy looms heavy over this new spy thriller set in MI5 during the early 1970s, originally shown last November by BBC America. And by that, I mean specifically it’s the presence of the 2011 feature film directed by Tomas Alfredson starring Gary Oldman that we feel breathing over our shoulder rather than the original John le Carré novel or the acclaimed BBC mini-series starring Sir Alec Guinness.

game-picThe Game follows the film’s mise-en-scène so closely that it almost feels the one was an unofficial pilot for the other, much as Gosford Park was a de facto try-out for Downton Abbey and The American President similarly an early go at the first episode of The West Wing. But whereas those two prior examples had strong connective tissue (Julian Fellowes created both Gosford and Downton, and Aaron Sorkin was responsible for both American President and West Wing) there is no such link between Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Game,: the latter is created and written by Toby Whithouse, who has jumped genres from his normal home amidst cult outings including Doctor Who, Torchwood and of course his own creation Being Human. Read the rest of this entry »

Shetland S2 (BBC One)

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Having enjoyed Hinterland from BBC Wales, I thought it only fair to give the Scottish detective series Shetland a go as well. Based on novels by Ann Cleeves, it’s a fairly straightforward police procedural set on the eponymous group of islands to the north of the British mainland. The lead character is DI Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall) and he’s supported in his investigations by a detective sergeant (Alison Macintosh, played by Alison O’Donnell) and constable (Sandy Wilson, played by Steven Robertson.)

Story-wise the show doesn’t really have anything particularly new or noteworthy in the genre, and there’s also nothing stand-out about the working methods of Perez who just gets his head down and works through each case through solid police work and minimal angst. The first of the three stories in this season of episodes follows the investigation into the death of a teenage girl with suspicion focused on a local recluse (Brian Cox); the second features the death of a journalist looking into a potential local business scandal; and the last centres on the death of a renowned scientist in her laboratory on Fair Isle during a storm that cuts Perez off from his normal forensic support. Read the rest of this entry »

An Adventure in Space and Time (BBC2)

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Cutting straight to the chase, An Adventure in Space and Time is without doubt one of the best dramas that’s been made this year.

Of course I’m biased, being a long-time fan of Doctor Who to which this biographical docu-drama is an emphatic and unashamed love letter (as it is also to the iconic BBC Television Centre building, so beautifully used as a location throughout.) The 80 minutes tell the story of how the world’s longest-running science fiction programme was created by the BBC in 1963, and of its first three years which starred William Hartnell in the title role. However you don’t have to be a ‘Whovian’ to appreciate just how good this drama is, just as I didn’t need to be a fan of a certain long-running soap to be wowed by the similar The Road to Coronation Street in 2010, which I still rate as one of the best things the BBC made that year.

To true Who fans, all the characters involved and a lot of the events of An Adventure in Space and Time will be as well known as one’s own family myths and legends, and writer (and life-long fan) Mark Gatiss tells them all with a lightness and deftness of touch which keeps everything both breezy and entertaining while at the same time also utterly true and reverential to the documented facts – a very hard high-wire act to pull off as successfully as he does here. For example, scenes showing Hartnell fretting about mapping out what each button on the Tardis console does – and refusing to follow the instructions of a director where it contradicts what he’s mapped out – are very much part of established Who lore and yet are included here as important character traits rather than being shoe-horned in to flatter the Who cognoscenti. Read the rest of this entry »

Hannibal S1 E1 “Apéritif” (Sky Living)

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It seems that filmmakers simply cannot leave Dr Hannibal Lector alone to dine in peace. He first appeared on screen played by Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s 1986 film Manhunter adapted from author Thomas Harris’ initial novel Red Dragon, but it was the Oscar-winning film of Harris’ follow-up book The Silence of the Lambs (which was essentially a re-write of the first but with a female lead) that really made Anthony Hopkins’ incarnation of the cannibalistic serial killer into a global phenomenon. After that, Lector rather took over Harris’ stories and became the (anti) hero of Hannibal and then the prequel Hannibal Rising, which were of decreasing quality. Both were made into films (Gaspard Ulliel playing the younger version of the character) and Hopkins further reprised the role in a second adaption of Red Dragon.

castNow that cinema has picked the bones of Dr Lector clean, it’s time for television to have its go with a brand new project entitled – oh, how imaginatively – Hannibal. But it’s not a new adaptation of the novel/film of that name, nor is it a new run at the prequel: although set prior to the events of Red Dragon, it’s not as far back into Lector’s childhood. Instead it takes as its jumping off point certain references from Harris’ first book referencing how a young FBI profiler by the name of Will Graham – cursed with exceptional empathy and insight into the minds of serial killers – first met and eventually exposed Lector.

The latter stage is a long way off as the new NBC series developed by Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Heroes, Dead Like Me) opens with noted and respected psychiatrist Lector (played here with considerable cold relish and underplaying by Casino Royale’s Mads Mikkelsen) meeting Graham (Hugh Dancy) and his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) for the first time to consult on a series of abductions and killings. Read the rest of this entry »

Manhunter (1986) [Blu-ray]

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Before there was The Silence of the Lambs with its Oscar-winning turn for Anthony Hopkins as urbane psychiatrist turned cannibalistic serial killer Dr Hannibal Lector, there was Manhunter, Michael Mann’s film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ original 1981 book Red Dragon.

It was, as far as I can recall, the first film I ever saw or heard about that featured this new-fangled concept of a ‘profiler’. In the years that followed we had angst-ridden profilers seeping out of every cinematic corner and then also popping up on TV in the likes of Cracker, Profiler, Millennium and most recently Criminal Minds. But back in 1986 this was a thrillingly new concept: a detective who doesn’t merely track down clues, motives and alibis but who instead seeks to get deep inside the mind of his prey, to think like them in order to get the jump on them.

Lector (or Lecktor as he’s named in this film, apparently due to a copyright legal wrangle at the time) isn’t the star of Manhunter but a relatively minor part played by the then little-known British actor Brian Cox. The real star of the film was a young stage performer by the name of William Petersen, who had caught Mann’s eye with the lead role of To Live and Die in LA because of his very quiet, intense style of underplaying that went against traditional leading man cop/action hero conventions.

Petersen is terrific here, as we follow him worming his way into the mind of an unseen serial killer who has already slaughtered two suburban families in different parts of heartland USA. The two sets of victims had nothing to do with each other, no overlap to suggest how the killer selected them in the first place or what he was seeking to achieve with the murders. The FBI is stumped, and the boss of the profiling unit Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) – aware that a third massacre is imminent – turns to Graham for help. His gifted protégé now lives in retirement on a Florida beach with his wife and son, having quit the FBI after nearly dying at the hands of a previous psychopath: Lecktor. Graham doesn’t want to take the case because to do so drags him into some very dark places, mentally speaking; but neither can he walk away knowing that others will die without his help.

In the 1980s, Mann was usually dismissed as being a style-over-substance director and it’s certainly true that every frame of the film dazzles with its conspicuous styling in a shoulder-pads-and-pastel-colours fashion that will put you right in mind of Miami Vice, which Mann was indeed heavily involved in. Music, too, is also a very important part of Mann’s mise-en-scène, and the score by The Reds pervades the film throughout – although it’s the moments when the soundtrack stops to belt out The Prime Movers’ “Strong as I Am” and Iron Butterfly’s “”In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” that you’ll really sit up and pay attention, and have playing in your mind for days after. All of this visual and audio 80s influence means that the film initially dated very quickly (in just the way that the dour, gothic trappings of The Silence of the Lambs seem timeless.) As an example, compare Lecktor/Lector’s cell in the two films: in Manhunter it’s a searing, clinical all-white that allows Brian Cox’s dark eyes, hair and eyebrows to float malevolently in a sea of light; whereas in The Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins is situated in a dark medieval stone dungeon. The latter still works just as well today; what’s interesting is how fashion has come round to the earlier film, too, and everything that initially seemed super-cool and then became painfully dated is now back in vogue again.

But style only goes so far in making a successful film: it’s actually the performances and the slow meticulous attention Mann pays to how Graham uses his empathetic insight to unravel the mystery in small careful steps that really grips. True, the film follows the book’s lead in having a strange mid-film break that switches us to the serial killer’s story (a memorably weird Tom Noonan) but that merely structurally emphasises how he and Graham are mirror images of one another; moreover it doesn’t get in the way of the sense of our following Graham’s satisfying break-through revelations that finally get the FBI within touching distance of their target. All in all it’s a terrific story and a primer in a whole new type of detective/mystery thriller fiction.

After the box office success of The Silence of the Lambs and its sequel Hannibal, the film makers returned to the original novel and made a new adaptation of Red Dragon, sweeping away Mann’s ultra-modernistic stylings in order to make a new version more stylistically in keeping with the Oscar-winning film: Lector this time is back in that dark stone dungeon. The story is pulled and pushed about a bit in order to accommodate Hopkins as the star where Cox had been a minor part, but even so Edward Norton does a good job taking on the role of Will Graham. Of course he can’t quite match Petersen, at least as far as I’m concerned; that’s because Manhunter is still an incredibly effective and impressive cinematic experience, one that if you haven’t seen yet then you really must. It’s that good.

Despite the age of the film, Mann’s predilection for sharp lines, bright slabs of colour and geometric shapes means this print brushes up extremely well in high definition so it’s well worth springing for the Blu-ray version; it allows allows an ‘extended version’ with new scenes to be branched in, but it’s worth adding a caveat that these haven’t been cleaned up and are in standard resolution, so it can be rather jarring when the quality suddenly dips for a minute or two before getting back on track. It’s less of an issue on the harder-to-get Collector’s Edition DVD, and both contain a director’s commentary from Mann and a couple of short making-of featurettes.

Manhunter is available on DVD and Blu-ray.