Sunday, 28 June 2015

Things you might watch – if in one case, not for long...

Turn’s worth watching, partly for the acting – it’s great to see Billy Elliott (well, Jamie Bell, who played him in the film) turn adult, give up dancing, take up spying and move 250 years back in time. But the pleasure of Turn is mostly in the story: it’s fascinating to learn how George Washington ran a spy network called the Culper Ring in New York City, then under British occupation, on lines that ought to gain at least the grudging approval of modern spy operations. He was concerned for his agents’ wellbeing, keen on keeping their communications secure, and only pressurised them to keep the information flowing.

Intelligent military intelligence, in fact.

The series has the merit of sticking quite closely to the known historical facts. It’s not as good as the book on which it’s based, Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies, which draws on close research and talks about more aspects of espionage in the American War of Independence than Turn. Even so, the TV series takes its structure from the record, so in broad lines and occasionally in detail, sticks to it with some degree of faith.

Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull,
lead agent of the Culper Ring, in
Indeed, it’s at its least good when it diverges from history: in an attempt to give the series more of a soap feel, it takes some liberty, for instance adding a love triangle where there was none, between Jamie Bell’s character, his wife and his lead female agent: in reality, the female agent existed but was ten years his senior and in a perfectly good marriage, while he married only later. What it does well is to avoid a simple black and white distinction between supporters of the American or British causes – in fact, one of the most attractive characters is John André, the British spymaster, a historical figure involved in one of the iconic moments of American infamy, who was regarded by most who met him as charming and witty.

It’s that degree of fidelity to the record that also makes Vikings watchable. Here the issue is less historical fact, since it’s not even known whether the central character, Ragnar Lothbrok, ever existed outside legend. Myth or history, the tales of Lothbrok at least provide a framework for the series, as the history of the Culper ring provides one for Turn. That somehow makes the stories told more plausible, and therefore makes it easier to suspend disbelief.

Ragnar with his first wife, the shieldmaiden Lagertha
Travis Fimmel and Katheryn Winnick
Nor does the series whitewash the brutality that was the hallmark of Viking raiding. Even if it cuts it back considerably, there is more than enough violence for anyone likely to be put off by its depiction. For example, there was a particularly vicious form of Viking execution by torture called the Blood Eagle; while it doesn’t happen as often in the series as it did in reality, it does happen once – be warned.

That being said, the series also puts into play a series of extraordinary characters who are a delight to follow: Ragnar himself has boldness and ingenuity that are not completely proof to failure (he has his share); Floki is almost as cunning as the god Loki his name conjures up, as well as wild to the point, occasionally, of lunacy; Ragnar’s first wife Lagertha is strong, courageous and straight; Athelstan is a monk captured by the Vikings in a raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne who finds himself sucked into their way of life (an early case of Stockholm syndrome, one might say, but these Vikings are from Norway not Sweden); even Ecbert King of Wessex is a well-painted study in deviousness, intellectualism and fascination with a past greatness (that of the Romans).

Gustaf Skarsgård as Floki in Vikings
Fascinatingly wild, to the point of craziness
In order to keep the series going, it again resorts to some soap-like devices – inexplicable failures of communication sustain misunderstandings or unjustified suspicions to fill a sub-plot or two – but overall it relies on the original story for some remarkable plot twists and a generally compelling narrative.

As for Revenge, it was highly entertaining for the first few episodes. The backstory is that a man has been betrayed by his friends at the top end of business and framed for collusion with a terrorist outrage. Particularly bitter is that one of those who sold him was the woman he loved, and who apparently loved him as strongly.

The best part of two decades later his daughter Amanda is back in the Long Island Hamptons, haunt of these gilded individuals, under the assumed name Emily, ready to wreak her revenge. She has the means because an internet billionaire (Nolan, much the most entertaining character), owes his fortune to her father, and has given her half of it. In the first few episodes she uses her resources and her intelligence to start destroying her enemies in ways that are brilliantly ingenious and devilishly effective, but then alas the series starts to decline and, to a far worse degree than the other two, descends into pure soap.

Emily Van Camp as Emily and Gabriel Mann as Nolan in Revenge
His is the only consistently entertaining, if not wholly believable, character
So we get characters who change character or, even more often, allegiance: he was intent on killing her before she killed him, there was nothing but intense hatred between them until, lo and behold, in this week’s episode they’re working together (usually against the ones we’re sympathising with). Love simulated for the purposes of revenge becomes real, without much plausibility and only in order to create tension that might otherwise be lacking. And ruthless, effective killers, fail to finish off adversaries when it would rather shorten the series if they did.

Reasonable entertainment if you’ve nothing better to do but, believe me, by the end of season 1, you have to be able to find better things to do.


waggledook said...

I seem to remember reading that there is very little (if any) contemporary evidence for the blood eagle execution, and that it was, in fact, the fruit of the imaginations of much later writers, post Christianisation. As such, I felt its use in the show was a little gratuitous, merely capitalising on a bit of "sexy" violence.

David Beeson said...

Thanks for pointing that out – I've checked it out and I think you're right. Sounds like the theme was gratuitously introduced in the literature of the time so, as you say, its use in the series was gratuitous too... Still not a bad series otherwise, though. I liked the fact that it showed Vikings as farmers as well as raiders – not something most films point out.