Wednesday 21 March 2018

So Fargo, so good as Freeman and Billy Bob steal the show

Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
Mary Yellan

John Boland

Traditionally, a television drama series was deemed especially notable if it ended up being made into a movie. Think of the Batman or Charlie's Angels film franchises, or the big-screen remakes of The Fugitive, Miami Vice, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible and Sex and the City.

But now TV has the upper hand, both commercially and artistically, and so we've seen star-studded small-screen spinoffs from such film classics as Psycho (Bates Motel), The Silence of the Lambs (Hannibal) and, beginning on Channel 4 last weekend, Fargo.

The 1996 Fargo, regarded by many admirers of the Coen brothers as their best movie to date, was certainly arresting for its bleak Minnesota landscapes, its sing-song Scandinavian inflections and the genial homespun doggedness of policewoman Marge Gunderson as she confronted bloodsoaked carnage in her friendly little rural community.

Adaped by Noah Hawley into a 10-episode series, the TV version of Fargo plays with our vivid memories of the original while creating something distinctively different.

Thus, while Allison Tolman's Molly calls to mind Frances McDormand's Marge she's very much her own woman and it's not she who's pregnant but the wife of her police colleague.

And while Martin Freeman's hapless insurance salesman Lester Nygaard invites you to recall William H Macy's equally hopeless car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, the browbeaten and bullied Lester is even more pathetic than his predecessor.

The story's propelled into grisly life when Lester finds himself in the same hospital waiting room as out-of-town hitman Lorne Malvo, who offers to exact revenge on the the guy who beat Lester up.

As played by Billy Bob Thornton, Lorne could be mistaken for the murderously implacable Anton Chigurh in that other Coen brothers movie, No Country for Old Men, except that there's a malevolent twinkle to Thornton's performance as he goes about his lethal business.

In fact, the pilot episode was worth watching for him alone, though Freeman was first-class, too, as the worm who suddenly turned deadly in a domestic scene with a naggingly contemptuous wife. This was as brilliantly staged as the waiting-room encounter and left the viewer wondering how Molly will cope with the gathering mayhem. But whatever the eventual outcome, already I'm hooked.

I can't say the same about the BBC1 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn, which had already been adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in a 1939 film starring Maureen O'Hara and Charles Laughton.

It was one of Hitchcock's poorest movies and while the TV version, screened over three consecutive nights, was better, matters weren't helped by a soundtrack that rendered much of the dialogue indecipherable, resulting in floods of complaints to the BBC after the opening episode.

On the plus side, it looked terrific, even if the wilds of Cumbria were used to evoke a windswept Cornwall, which is where the suddenly orphaned Mary took unwise refuge with an aunt and her mutteringly sinister husband, who ran the remote pub of the title.

As played by Jessica Brown Findlay (the prematurely deceased Sybil from Downton Abbey), Mary was suitably fiery and she had a good bickering rapport with horse thief Jem.

But the pacing was often sluggish, which merely gave you time to fume over the well-nigh incomprehensible words coming out of the mouths of most of the characters.

Our national broadcaster appears either unaware or uncaring that its left hand and its right hand might be doing the same thing and so on Easter Monday we were offered two Irish language programmes on the Easter Rising, each of them focusing on lesser-known figures in the bloody conflict.

The half-hour Réabhlóid (RTÉ1), the first instalment of a four-part series, was subtitled 'Death Of A Pacifist', and concerned the fate of journalist, activist and feminist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, arrested for no good reason during the Rising, put into Portobello barracks and then summarily executed by the probably deranged AC Bowen-Colthurst, who hailed from Cork.

The shocking story was vividly told in Kevin Cummins's engrossing film but for scope and impact it couldn't match TG4's A Terrible Beauty, which ran for 100 minutes and which was scrupulously even-handed in its treatment of the various rebels and British soldiers it chose to highlight.

Most of the film concerned the forced occupancy of buildings on North King Street and at Mount Street Bridge by the Irish Volunteers and the British efforts to overwhelm them – a task not made any easier by the soldiers' lack of experience, or even training, and by their unfamiliarity with such urban combat.

Atrocities ensued, especially in North King Street, followed by army cover-ups, but the distinction of Keith Farrell's film was that it was so attentive to its chosen characters that the viewer genuinely registered both sides of the story. While that may not have pleased some of those who are preparing for the Rising's 2016 centenary, it made for a satisfyingly complex and detailed account of what happened during that blood-soaked week.

And the dramatic re-enactments, which in documentaries can often be cack-handed and which took up a good half of this film, were expertly mounted and persuasively acted by all concerned.

All in all, a notable achievement.

Indo Review

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