"The Way We Live Now" (2001)

Matthew Macfadyen (Sir Felix), Paloma Baeza (Hetta), Shirley Henderson (Marie Melmotte), Cillian Murphy (Paul Montague)

Directed by David Yates (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix)

From IMDB: At the centre of the story is Augustus Melmotte (David Suchet), a European-born city financier, whose origins are as mysterious as his business dealings. Trollope describes him as 'something in the city', but the "something" part is not always clear. Within weeks of arriving in London, he announces a new company and promises instant fortune to those who join him in this scheme. Melmotte is surrounded by a circle of decadent aristos, scheming widows and nouveau riche businessmen, all trying to get a piece of the financial pie. Based on the novel by Anthony Trollope.

I decided to watch this for two reasons: miniseries screenwriter extraordinaire Andrew Davies, who was responsible for "Bleak House" and the Darcy "Pride and Prejudice," and Cillian Murphy, the hot androgynous Irish wonderboy known for his work in 28 days Later and Red Eye.

Davies' talent is in melding seemingly disparate subplots into a cohesive narrative with the proper pacing for a sprawling adaptation. He also invents dialogue where the author thought the better of conversation. My favorite example is the scene in "Bleak House" where Mr. Woodcourt's mother rakes Esther over the coals for her soiled ancestry. Dickens includes only a mention that they dined together, while Davies composed a scene of wit, strength, and catty back-biting.

Here, he manages well enough but does not shine. Trollope's plots are far, far too loosely connected to bring together a proper narrative, and a few character motivations -- particularly Mrs. Hurtle's sudden change of heart with regard to Paul and Hetta's love affair -- are sloppily resolved. The finale is more whimper than bang, falling down on most of the tension created by the previous hours.

Cillian Murphy also proved disappointing, but again, I think the source material was to blame. His character, Paul, is a visionary and a chump. We are told on a number of occasions that he is reckless and passionate, but he hardly appears so on screen. The one opportunity for Murphy to demonstrate his strength as an actor came when Paul confronts his friend with regard to their conflicting passions for the same woman. Cillian Murphy is a quiet guy. The camera loves him, but he does his best to avoid the camera. He is an intense actor, always watching and waiting -- so when he blows up, the impact is profound. But four hours of film for a few sparse scenes did not do it for me.

What redeemed this experience? Matthew MacFadyen (aka Inferior Darcy from the Knightley Pride & Prejudice) and Shirley Henderson (aka The Crazy Maid from Tristram Shandy). They are fantastic. Together, they are a priceless comedy duo. Apart, they flail through life and decimate the other cast members' attempts to entertain. MacFadyen's Felix is the Bounder to End All Bounders, a heartless cad with fantastic comic timing and a shrewd sense of his own foibles. Henderson's Marie is a cold, conniving bitch -- or at least she learns to be one because of people who only want her money. Absolutely, hands down, they are the best part of the film.

As for "The Way We Live Now" as a theme, this is no Austen, Dickens or Gaskell novel. This is a messy, chaotic, brutal assessment of a dying way of life. The Christian girl who rejects her Jewish suitor because he cannot provide her a large enough house in London is left a spinster. The main romantic couple is beset by thorny and unAusten mistakes of honor and conscience. The noble, heartbroken country gentleman who is good and selfless does not get the girl. And despicable cads do not necessarily get their comeuppance. No one avoids betrayal, no one dies of random Darcycough, and no one escapes without compromising their judgment for the sake of a living. Therefore the story has less of an "AHHH" happy ending feel, offering itself as a foretaste of the 20th century. I admire its complexity, even if it left me cold.


jmc said...

Have you caught any of MI-5 (aka Spooks), either on A&E or BBC? MacFadyen was a main character in the first two series/seasons, and his Tom Quinn was quite excellent, I thought. Twisted up between being human and doing his job. Lately I've been seeing trailers for a new comedy (Death in the Family) in which he's the lead. And one of his costars from MI-5, Keeley Hawes, is also in the movie.

jmc said...

Gah! Death at a Funeral, not Death in the Family.

Tess said...

Hmm, I quite enjoyed it and LOVED McFadyen - he's wonderful and I even (voice drops to a whisper) enjoyed him as Darcy. Chaqu'un a son goût.

Mostly I thought it was so cool watching Suchet as someone so completely opposite Poirot.

carrie_lofty said...

He was a good Darcy. Like a younger version, just like Knightley was a younger Elizabeth. When his voice catches as he tells her he loves her -- when he almost kisses her in the rain -- yeah, I'm all over that. Besides, after watching "North & South" and having my Darcy feelings all punched up by the massive superiority of John Thornton, poor Firth Darcy has dipped a bit. Must be time for me to rewatch it :)

carrie_lofty said...

And thanks for the rec on Spooke/MI-5, jmc. I liked Keeley Hawes in "Wives and Daughters." I wonder if my Blockbuster account has that -- and "Torchwood," of which we only saw one episode over Christmas in England. Dang, I miss BBC America.