The Changeling (1993) *** Jacobean Tragedy Season 2013

Director: Simon Curtis

Writers: adapted for screen by Michael Hastings from the play by Thomas Middleton

Cast: Hugh Grant, Bob Hoskins, Elizabeth McGovern, Sean Pertwee, Leslie Phillips, Adie Allen.

As part of the Jacobean Tragedy Season at the BFI, The Changeling is an excellent modern version of the classic play by Thomas Middleton, filmed for television in 1993 and directed by Simon Curtis, who then went on to success as a producer and director with David Copperfield (1999) and My Week With Marilyn (2011) which spawned Oscar nominations for Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh.

Elizabeth McGovern gives a commanding performance as Beatrice-Joanna, one of the most intelligent and cynical heroines in English literature and her machiavellian servant De Flores, who secretly lusts after her and is played here masterfully by Bob Hoskins. This adaptation has removed a sub-plot that takes place in a madhouse, in favour of its central focus on the stormy but close relationship between De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna.  It opens days before her wedding with a chance encounter that will change her life forever.  She then collaborates with De Flores to have him kill her fiance in order that she is free to marry her true love, but misjudges the mood, and tragedy naturally ensues.

All the cast skillfully handle the Jacobean text with aplomb, making it feel completely natural: no mean feat requiring a deep understanding of the dialogue and its meaning. The monochrome, predominantly black and white-themed costumes perfectly complement the dark nature of the piece and there’s also an excellent use of light and shadow to convey the sinister tone and murderous intent. Bob Hoskins is availed of a navaja folding knife, an accurate weapon for this 16th Century story, it was a time purportedly even more violent than that of Shakespeare.

Hugh Grant shines in a remarkably good turn as the dark and dashing character Alsemero: he was relatively unknown at this stage in his career before Hollywood stardom beckoned. There is also a wonderfully convincing performance from Leslie Phillips as Vermandero. The whole piece is set off by Stephen Warbeck’s atmospheric and unobtrusive original score. MT

A 1974 version of The Changeling starred Helen Mirren in the role of Beatrice-Joanna (pictured above).  Simon Curtis is married to Elizabeth McGovern.

The Duchess of Malfi (1972)**** Jacobean Tragedy Series BFI

Director: James MacTaggart

Script: John Webster (play)

Producer:  Cedric Messina

Cast: Eileen Atkins, Charles Kay, Michael Bryant, Gary Bond, Tim Curry, Dallas Cavell, Roy Evans, Jerome Willis, Sheila Ballantine

 UK                                             116mins           1972         Jacobean Tragedy

Circa 1612, Malfi is a Five Act Play written by John Webster and loosely based upon true events in an Italian court of the early 16th Century. It is renowned to this day for the superb complexity of the characters, particularly Bosola and the Duchess, here played by Atkins. Indeed, Michael Bryant was nominated for a BAFTA for his portrayal of Daniel de Bosola in this dramatization.

Starting out a love story, as so many Jacobean tragedies do, it all inevitably goes Pete Tong by the end, as the Duchess marries secretly beneath her and her two brothers set out exact their revenge for this unholy transgression.


Webster has a rare staying power, this play in particular has had many and varied productions throughout the intervening centuries and by the most feted actors of their day, surviving the fall from favour with audiences for it’s bloody and violent content, only to be revived again decades later. It is still appreciated today not only for Webster’s extraordinary and timeless characterisation, but also his undeniably powerful use of the language;

Whether we fall by ambition, blood or lust,

Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust.

Broadly, a play concerning corruption- of power and of the mind as much as of society, of cruelty and of the place of women in society at that time. By meddling with any given intractable Law, one invoked The Wrath and things would inevitably be put right, albeit with much bloodletting and grievance along the way.

Eileen Atkins and Charles Kay (giving a rather unnerving though inadvertent impression of Peter Sutcliffe) as her twisted brother are the stand out performances and the language is brought alive by the entire cast. It must however not be forgotten that this is a ‘Play Of The Month’ and is styled such, rather than a more naturalistic production that we may now be more used to on our screens.

It falls down a little on the sound; without the use of radio mics, the sound suffers somewhat, muffled and indistinct in places, due to the limited manner of recording. The costumes however are excellent and the production is augmented by filming on location rather than a set, which also allowed the director to open it out to include exteriors.

So overall, a faithful interpretation of the original play, albeit inevitably shortened for TV and a rare treat to step back in time, if not to 1520, then at least to 1972 and see a different generation in the fire of their youth tackling an ageless story with vigour and aplomb. AT


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