Thursday, 15 April 2010

The Prisoner - AMC/ITV

Yesterday I attended the public preview screening of the first episode of ITV's new miniseries, The Prisoner. The screening was followed by a Q&A with the director, producer, designer and stars Jim Caviezel and Hayley Atwell. Here's my customary IMDb appraisal.

The biggest question that this it asks, perhaps, is 'why'? This miniseries deserves to be taken on its own merits yet it seems to be cleaving to the basic premise of the original: a man wakes up in alien surroundings and his attempts to get home, hastened by an early shock, are stymied by uncomprehending locals.

As the template for the miniseries this is probably immutable. Nick Hurran's new show has new ideas of its own built on this. Caviezel's No.6 is an American, trying to get back to New York. The locals behave in a way recognisable to us, i.e. not in the hyper-stylised manner of 1967. Ian McKellen's No.2 is a less interventionist character, though potentially more insidious.

Still, there are a number of clear references to the original, probably
the most effective being the use of Swakopmund as The Village (NB "The
Village" is also retained), a real town on the coast of Namibia. It gives the impression of being the set of The Truman Show re-imagined by a team from IKEA - so, sufficiently unusual - but also retains the same cachet as Portmeirion in being a real location. The first episode, also called Arrival, has a couple of moments of narrative familiar from the original and, yes, Rover still has its cameo moment.
The potential for creative flowering in this updating of The Prisoner is, I'm pained to say, squandered in this first episode. Clearly no-one can decide on a straightforward answer to the purpose of the show, whether to re-imagine the original or strike out on its own. The opening sequence, probably designed to set up the paranoia at the film's philosophical centre, as well as seat the spectre of the
original at the feast, so to speak, does neither: I immediately had the 'why?' question confused - is it a sequel, a remake or is this just a nod to the original?

Right there is the basic problem. In re-appropriating ideas, symbols and plot threads the creators - and thus the audience - establish a postmodern distance from the action. The result is that one cannot be drawn into the story. Rather than empathising with No.6 we become outsiders, locked off from the true drama of his position, waiting to have his protagonist-trope reveal what this franchised arm of the show's about, the 'why'. It doesn't help that No.6 is hysterical from the outset and that No.2 is treated not only by him but also by director Nick Hurran as unequivocally antagonistic, a state which locks off a whole world of dramatic investigation.

Technically I don't think much of this production either. It didn't help that the BFI had decided to turn the screening up to 11, so to speak, but whatever the volume the audio mix is a mess, with many lines incomprehensible. The transatlantic cast haven't decided on a uniformity of accent, with Ruth Wilson and McKellen choosing not to follow Lennie James in affecting an American twang. Above all the thing is positively drowning in music, like a surfeit of cheap, congealed gravy smothering what might have been a perfectly palatable concoction.

The Q&A session afterwards was a now familiar pageant of backslapping & bland. I don't really expect much from the creative team - their work IS their comment - but I felt that we were being told things about the episode and the series to follow that simply were not in evidence on the screen. For example, producer Michele Buck referred to the 'surveillance society' on at least two occasions though we saw not a single camera or relayed image (unlike the original and its elaborate CCTV designs). Caviezel was particularly disengaged. He's a funny sort of screen icon. A tall, handsome matinee idol-a-like he's never really managed to convert the opportunities of playing the philosophical heart of Terence Malick's Thin Red Line or the titular one in Mel Gibson's Passion Of The Christ into A-list stardom. Many 'questions' from the floor were quick to praise his 'nuanced' performance although, as I've already pointed out, the suffocating production obscures what little of that there is to see: I don't believe that Caviezel really understood the philosophical premise for this show - he clearly put a lot of faith in Hurran - just as I struggle to uncover one myself. Asked about the original he said 'No, I haven't seen it. I've been waiting for this to be over with so that I can watch it.' He won't be the only one, I'm afraid. The series starts on Saturday at 9.30pm, ITV1.

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