Monday, February 02, 2009

John Adams and The Virgin Queen

Since when is Laura Linney the most fabulous actress alive? Last I checked, she was Meryl in The Truman Show. Now she's knocking my socks off as Abigail Adams in an HBO miniseries adaptation of David McCullough's book, John Adams. Go figure.

And how about Paul Giamatti? What was it about the guy who played the slovenly apartment manager killing cockroaches under the sink in Lady in the Water that just screamed "John Adams!!" to the people who made this movie?

I guess it doesn't matter. Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti are fantastic, giving perhaps the seminal performances of each of their careers, in HBO's sumptuous drama about the birth of the United States of America. So are the actors who play Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Sam Adams, and...well, every character in the whole dang movie. (Jeremy didn't care for Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin, but that may have been because neither of us can really get over him as Falcone in Batman Begins. Our fault, not his.)

There's something to be said for watching a movie about a story you already know, inside and out, and still being enthralled by it. In this case, it's the same old story about the first Continental Congress, and it being a hot summer in Philadelphia in 1776, and navigating treaties with England and France during our own revolution as well as the latter's.

Except it's not the same old story, not quite. John Adams brings it all to life in thrilling detail, and reminds you of the stuff you don't remember - or never learned - in your sophomore year US History class (or, God forbid, American Heritage at the BYU).

John Adams' story manages to be both remarkable and mundane at the same time. As a friend put it, it's the story of a guy who tried his best to do everything right, and everyone still kind of hates him.

The entire miniseries is seven parts; parts one, two, six, and seven were my favorites. The middle chapters suffer from the same affliction as John Adams himself during that period: ennui. Watching the episodes where he's in France trying to rally support for the American Revolution even as nobody is interested in his message gets a little slow and frustrating at times, as I'm sure it was for John Adams when he was living it.

The soundtrack for the miniseries is excellent, too. It reminded me quite a bit of the soundtrack for Last of the Mohicans, which is definitely a complement.

And with that, John Adams makes 1776 redundant and silly, which means you never have to watch 1776 again, which makes me happy. Sorry, mom.

Ah, yes. Queen Elizabeth. I've seen this character played by no fewer than six actresses that I can recall. Think about it - there was:

Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (and Elizabeth, which I haven't seen),
Helen Mirren in Elizabeth I (too edgy for me so I didn't finish watching it),
Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love (but let's face it, it was just Judi Dench playing herself, in costume),
Glenda Jackson in Mary, Queen of Scots (and Vanessa Redgrave, who apparently used to be young, is Mary),
and some child actress in Anne of the Thousand Days.

The sixth actress is Anne-Marie Duff in The Virgin Queen, a BBC/Masterpiece Theatre production from 2005. I didn't think any actress could really do anything different with the same old tired character of Elizabeth I, but Duff succeeds spectacularly in The Virgin Queen. Even though this miniseries is essentially the same story we've all heard a dozen times before, I found it to be fresh, compelling, and somehow different, mostly because her excellent performance informed the tone of the entire movie. I loved it.

Well, I loved the first half anyway. I haven't seen Part 2 yet, so this review is kind of cheating.

The other awesome thing about The Virgin Queen, besides the casting, costumes, and efficient restructuring of certain plot elements (I'm sure we can all agree that it is far more dramatic for Queen Mary to be pregnant, die of a tumor, and with her death make Elizabeth a queen in one fell sweep rather than have those events spread out over several years), is the music. The composer, Martin Phipps, is apparently one of my favorite soundtrack people, though I didn't know it until now. He is also responsible for the lovely music from several other miniseries (just take a look at his filmography).

Also, The Virgin Queen is filled with stirring moments such as this one, when Elizabeth is overturning Mary's ruthless Catholic regime:

"As for religion... Henceforce, all services will be conducted, not in Latin, but English, starting with my Coronation. How can my people understand the power of prayer unless they first understand its meaning? If they are to accept the Protestant faith, it must be through persuasion, not purges. Let the Catholics keep their crucifixes and robes, if they wish. There is but one Jesus Christ. The rest is trifles."

Inspiring, no?

So there you have it. Two movies about the upheaval, formation, and reformation of nations, featuring brilliant actors, compelling stories, and evocative soundtracks. What's not to love?


Aimee said...

I thoroughly enjoyed "John Adams" last summer, and now I can't wait to watch "The Virgin Queen" when I get home from Austria.

Britney said...

At last!

Wasn't the cast brilliant? Laura Linney has always been one of my favorite lesser-known actresses. Selecting Paul Giamatti was genius. Interestingly, Giamatti is a son of a Yale professor and former Yale president. Bios aside, they were both brilliant and brilliantly cast. All I can say is, thank you, HBO.

AND even more, thank you, David McCullough, for bringing this story out of obscurity!

Suzanne Bubnash said...

I wouldn't put 1776 in the same category as a drama about J.A.!

JackJen said...

Were you in Provo when David McCullough spoke at a Tuesday forum?

Changed. My. Life.

He's just as good an orator as he is an author.

Craig said...

You could add "Elizabeth R" to the list, with Glenda Jackson in a highly acclaimed performance. The early 70's production is dated by current standards, but still noteworthy.

I can't wait to watch "John Adams". I've already noted how absolutely fascinating and inspiring the book was for me.

By the way, we watched North and South and really enjoyed it.

Craig said...

I finally finished the Elizabeth you recommended. It was really really good & I learned some things unknown to me before. The quality was top--when she was old she wasn't just a young person w/ makeup on--she looked every bit her age & moved like an old lady. It was so convincing.


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