“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” (1975) Review

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“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” (1975) Review

Nearly fifty years ago, 1969 to be precise, a play written by novelist Barry England was first staged at the Theater Royal in Bristol, England. Set during the height of the British Empire, England’s play focused upon an Army regiment stationed in India. The play became a hit and was eventually adapted into a movie released to the public in 1975. 

“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” begins with two young British officers arriving in Indian to join a prestigious regiment. Lieutenant Drake comes from a middle-class background and is eager to make the right impression. Lieutenant Millington is the son of a General and does not seem enthusiastic over the idea of a military career. He plans to leave the Army at the first opportunity. While Drake manages to make a positive impression with his fellow officers, Millington antagonizes them with his cynical behavior, causing the other officers to dislike him. A military ceremony takes place, honoring the deceased members of the regiment and their widows, including Mrs. Marjorie Scarlett, whose husband won a posthumous Victoria Cross after being killed during a battle on the North-West Frontier.

Later that evening, the regiment holds a ball. The younger officers take part in a ceremonial tradition that involves the pursuit and sticking of a pig in the mess. Lieutenant Millington tries to charm Mrs. Scarlett, but is lightly dismissed. Later, the disheveled widow bursts into the mess, claiming to have been attack. She identifies Milington as her attacker. During an evening in the mess, involving the younger officers taking part in a ceremonial tradition that involves the pursuit and sticking of a pig, Mrs Scarlett runs in claiming to have been attacked, and identifies Lieutenant Millington as her attacker. Although he is innocent, Millington sees the potential disgrace as an easy way to leave the Army and return to England. He does not bother to cooperate with Drake, who has been selected to defend him at his secret trial. But when both men realize that Millington might suffer a more serious punishment other than a dishonorable discharge and Drake discovers that another widow had been similarily attacked six months earlier, the latter officer goes out of his way to clear Millington.

I have not seen “CONDUCT UNBECOMING” for a good number of years – over a decade and a half, to be exact. I recall being very impressed when I last saw it a long time ago. I still am – to a certain extent. But there were two aspects of the movie that left me feeling a little unsettled. One of them focused upon the movie’s setting. With the exception of the first ten to fifteen minutes, most of “CONDUCT UNBECOMING” was either set in the regiment’s mess, other exterior shots or on the cantoment grounds, which could have easily been shot on a sounstage. By the time the movie ended, I felt as if I had watched a filmed play. And I never could understand Lieutenant Millington’s original attitude toward the charges against him. I mean . . . this is the Victorian Age we are talking about in which women – especially white upper and middle-class women – were put on pedestals by men. I could understand Millington’s attitude if he had been accused of assaulting the other acknowledged victim in the story – an Indian soldier’s widow named Mrs. Bandanai. But surely he should have realized that he could have suffered serious repercussion for assaulting someone as cherished as Mrs. Scarlett, right off the bat.

Despite these shortcomings, I must admit that “CONDUCT UNBECOMING” is a first-rate movie. Playwright Barry England wrote a tantalizing peek into the world of British India that featured not only a psychological drama, but also a very interesting mystery and the damages causes by misogyny and racism (in the case of Mrs. Bandanai) that was rampant during the Victorian Age (as well as now). I feel that England created a murder mystery that would have done Agatha Christie proud. I also feel that Robert Enders did an excellent job in adapting England’s play.

The movie began with a great set-up of the mystery – the ceremony honoring the dead Captain Scarlett and the other men who died with him, intertwining with with the arrivals of Lieutenants Drake and Millington at the regiment’s cantonment. The movie also had a rather creepy scene that featured the younger officers engaged in the “stick-the-pig-in-the-anal” game, which foreshadowed the attack on Mrs. Scarlett later in the evening. But what I really admired about the film is that it did not make it easy for the audience to guess the identity of Mrs. Scarlett’s attacker. For that I am truly grateful. If there is one kind of mystery I cannot abide is one that gives away the culprit’s identity prematurely.

“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” also benefited from a first-rate cast. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of James Faulkner (who portrayed Millington), Michael Culver, Rafiq Anwar, Persis Khambatta and James Donald. Christopher Plummer gave an interesting performance as the intimidating Major Alastair Wimbourne. Although there were moments when I found his performance a little theatrical. I certainly cannot accuse Trevor Howard’s performance as theatrical. He gave an appropriately poignant performance as the regiment’s aging commander, who finds it difficult to accept a possible scandal within his command. Richard Attenborough proved to be equally complex as Major Lionel E. Roach, who seemed to live and breathe the regiment. I was surprised to see Stacy Keach in this cast as Captain Harper, the officer charged with prosecuting Millington. He did an excellent job in developing his character from the hard-nosed, blindingly loyal officer, to one who finds himself appalled by the possibility of a serial attacker. Susannah York gave a superb role as the enticing Mrs. Scarlett, who seemed first amused by Millington’s attempt at seduction and later, angry over what happened to her. But the film actually belonged to Michael York, who more than carried his weight as the main character. I was impressed by how he managed to dominate this film, while retaining his character’s quiet and reserved nature.

Would I consider “CONDUCT UNBECOMING” a classic? I do not know. I certainly would not consider it a candidate for a Best Picture nomination. And it certainly had its flaws. But due to its first-rate story, solid direction from Michael Anderson and an excellent cast led by Michael York, I still would consider it a very good story that is worth viewing time and again.

“THE YOUNG VICTORIA” (2009) Review

“THE YOUNG VICTORIA” (2009) Review

About a year or so before his popular television series, “DOWNTON ABBEY” hit the airwaves, Julian Fellowes served as screenwriter to the lavish biopic about the early life and reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria called “THE YOUNG VICTORIA”. The 2009 movie starred Emily Blunt in the title role and Rupert Friend as the Prince Consort, Prince Albert

“THE YOUNG VICTORIA” began during the last years in the reign of King William IV, Victoria’s uncle. Acknowledge as the next ruler of Britain, Victoria became the target of a political tug-of-war between her mother, the Duchess of Kent royal aide Sir John Conroy on one side, and King Leopold I of Belgium on the other. The Duchess of Kent and Sir John want to assume power of the country by having Victoria sign papers declaring a regency. And Leopold I tries to influence the British throne by securing a marriage between Victoria and one of his two nephews – Prince Albrt and Prince Ernst of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Meanwhile, King William eventually dies and Victoria becomes Queen. Once she assumes the throne, Victoria becomes beseiged by her mother and many others to assume some kind control over her.

I was surprised to discover that one of the producers for “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” was Hollywood icon, Martin Scorsese. A biopic about the early reign of Queen Victoria did not seem to be his type of movie. Then I remembered that this is the man who also directed an adaptation of an Edith Wharton novel and a movie about Jesus Christ. But for the likes of me, I never could see his interest in this film. Did he ever read Julian Fellowes’ screenplay before he took on the role as one of the movie’s executive producers? Or was there another reason why he became interested in this project? Perhaps Fellowes’ screenplay seemed more interesting before it was translated to screen. Because if I must be honest, I was not that impressed by it.

You heard me right. I did not like “THE YOUNG VICTORIA”. Perhaps it was the subject matter. Aside from being Britain’s longest reigning monarch, until her great-great granddaughter surpassed her record last year, Victoria never struck me as an interesting subject for a motion picture. I am surprised that both the Hollywood and British film and television industries were able to create a few interesting movie and television productions about her. Unfortunately, “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” did not prove to be one of them.

I am not saying that “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” was a total washout. It had a good number of first-rate performances and other technical details to admire. Emily Blunt did an excellent job in portraying the young Victoria by effectively conveying the character from a naive teenager to an emotional, yet slightly matured young mother in her early twenties. Blunt had a decent screen chemistry with Rupert Friend, whom I thought made a superb Prince Albert. If I must be frank, I feel that Friend was the best on-screen Albert I have seen so far. Miranda Richardson gave her usual uber-competent performance as Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent. Actually, I believe that both she and Friend gave the two best performances in the movie. Paul Bettany gave a very smooth, yet ambiguous performance as one of Victoria’s favorite ministers – William Lamb, Viscount Melbourne. Other members of the cast that included Jim Broadbent (as an emotional William IV), Thomas Kretschmann, Julian Glover, Genevieve O’Reilly, Rachael Stirling, Jesper Christensen, Michael Huisman, Jeanette Hain and David Robb all gave solid performances.

I also thought the movie’s physical appearance was sharp, colorful and elegant thanks to Hagen Bogdanski’s beautiful photography. Patrice Vermette did a first-rate job in re-creating royal Britain of the late 1830s and early 1840s, thanks to her elegant production designs; and the art direction team of Paul Inglis, Chris Lowe and Alexandra Walker, who all received an Academy Award nomination for their work. Of course I cannot mention “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” without mentioning Hollywood legend Sandy Powell’s gorgeous costume designs shown below:

 

Not only were Powell’s costumes gorgeous, they accurately reflected the movie’s setting between 1836 and 1842. It is not surprising that Powell won both the Academy Award and BAFTA for Best Costume Design.

So, why am I not enamored of this movie? Well . . . I found it boring. Let me rephrase that answer. I found most of the movie boring . . . as hell. I will admit that I found Victoria’s emotional struggles with her mother and the latter’s courtier, Sir John Conroy, rather interesting. There seemed to be some kind of quasi-fairy tale quality to that particular conflict. And I will admit to finding Victoria’s relationship with her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne slightly fascinating. Otherwise, the movie bored me. Most of the movie centered around Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert. But despite Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend’s sterling performances, I was not able to sustain any interest in that particular relationship. It did not help that Fellowes made a historical faux pas by allowing Albert to attend her coronation in 1838 – something that never happened. The most interesting aspect of the royal pair’s relationship – at least to me – was their shitty relationship with their oldest son, the future King Edward VII. Unfortunately, the movie’s narrative ended before his birth.

There were other aspects of “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” that did not appeal to me. Although I found Victoria’s early struggles against the Duchess of Kent and Sir John Conroy rather interesting, I was not impressed by the movie’s portrayal of the latter. I do not blame actor Mark Strong. He still managed to give a competent performance. But his Sir John came off as a mustache-twirling villain, thanks to Julian Fellowes’ ham fisted writing. And could someone explain why Paul Bettany had been chosen to portray Lord Melbourne in this movie? The Prime Minister was at least 58 years old when Victoria ascended the throne. Bettany was at least 37-38 years old at the time of the film’s production. He was at least two decades too young to be portraying Victoria’s first minister.

The one aspect of “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” that I found particularly repellent was this concept that moviegoers were supposed to cheer over Victoria’s decision to allow Albert to share in her duties as monarch. May I ask why? Why was it so important for the prince consort to co-reign with his wife, the monarch? Granted, Victoria was immature and inexperienced in politics when she ascended the throne. Instead of finding someone to teach her the realities of British politics, the government eventually encouraged her to allow Albert to share in her duties following an assassination attempt. This whole scenario smacks of good old-fashioned sexism to me. In fact, I have encountered a similar attitude in a few history books and one documentary. If Victoria had been Victorand Albert had been Alberta, would Fellowes had ended the movie with Alberta sharing monarchical duties with Victor? I rather doubt it. Even in the early 21st century, the idea that a man was more suited to be a monarch than a woman still pervades.

It is a pity that “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” failed to appeal to me. It is a beautiful looking movie. And it featured fine performances from a cast led by Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend. But the dull approach to the movie’s subject not only bored me, but left me feeling cold, thanks to Julian Fellowes’ ponderous screenplay and Jean-Marc Vallée’s pedestrian direction. How on earth did Martin Scorsese get involved in this production?