Sat 13 Nov 2010
NOSTROMO. BBC-TV mini-series, 1996. Claudio Amendola, Paul Brooke, Lothaire Bluteau, Claudia Cardinale, Joaquim de Almeida, Brian Dennehy, Albert Finney, Serena Scott Thomas, Colin Firth, Roberto Escobar. Based on the novel by Joseph Conrad. Director: Alastair Reid.
Somewhere over the last couple months I found time to watch Undersea Kingdom (Republic, 1936) in which Ray Corrigan battles the tyrant of Atlantis while dressed as a Mardi Gras Queen. It’s done with the usual care Republic lavished on their serials: splendidly tacky sets, ambitious special effects and action action action, but it lacks the energetic stuntwork that usually graced their films of this period, and I only mention it because shortly after seeing this I watched another lengthy tale of internecine warfare in an exotic locale, a 5-hour BBC miniseries from 1996 of Joseph Conrad’s 1904 Nostromo.
While I was watching it, I re-read the book, which proved to be a rewarding experience as the film adds some clarity to the characters and narrative while the book … well Nostromo is Conrad at his best, which is very good indeed: fights, shooting, hair-breadth escapes and house-to-house street battles, all laid on with surprising thoughtfulness and skill as Conrad makes it happen to people we believe in.
The mini-series carries this complex plot without dropping it, though they expand on the narrative where Conrad didn’t and rearrange it for clarity, which was probably necessary in the miniseries format. Characters who come on late in the book are introduced earlier in the film to provide for continuity, and sometimes they say baldly what Conrad only hinted at.
Colin Firth and Serena Scott Thomas as the English couple who form the nucleus of the story acquit themselves quite well, Albert Finney throws in a fine character part as a disreputable doctor (one of Conrad’s finest characters) while Joaquim de Almeida and Roberto Escobar make a daunting pair of villains.
Only Claudio Amendola, in the title role, disappointed me, and that was probably a personal thing. Conrad wrote the character as a stylish swashbuckler, the kind who would have been played by Doug Fairbanks Sr. in the old days, or perhaps Errol Flynn or Gilbert Roland in Hollywood’s golden age: a man who can leap onto a speeding train, gallop across the plain, and cut buttons off a coat with one sweep of a knife.
Amendola seems formidable enough, but entirely too serious, as if the producers saw the character’s end and wanted to telegraph it to us early on. As I say though, that’s entirely a personal thing and I didn’t let it spoil my enjoyment of a fine effort that should be more widely available.
Editorial Comment: The mini-series, for which I have not yet unearthed the exact dates of its first (and only?) run, is available commercially on VHS but not on DVD. For the former, think the $40 range.