The 39 Steps (2008)


   

our rating: 4 out of 5 
reviewer: Charity Bishop

          

While the protagonist in this pre-WWI drama is "terribly bored," the audience is guaranteed not to be.

 

Richard Hannay (Rupert Penry-Jones) is back from a military stint in India and finds Great Britain dull. He is counting down the hours until he can leave -- that is until one night he returns from his club, and a neighbor in the building (Eddie Marsan) pushes his way into Richard's apartment without so much as an explanation. The two men pull guns on one another and Richard then learns Scudder is in fact a spy for the English government. He is running for his life from Germans who intend to prevent him from revealing their plan to infiltrate secret operations and make off with important plans that might render their navel bases inoperable. Richard doesn't really believe a word of it, but invites Scudder to have breakfast. He changes his mind when the spy promptly dies -- not of natural causes, mind you -- and the police believe Richard is responsible. Leaping out the window, covered in blood, and fleeing for his life, Richard doesn't know quite what to do when it becomes apparent that German interest has shifted off his dead "friend" onto him!

 

A thrilling chase into the country lands him in the company of Victoria Sinclair (Lydia Leonard), a radical suffragist who mistakes him for the labor party spokesman from London. By the time she realizes her mistake it's too late and the pair of them are caught up in the same adventure of intrigue and peril. Some have complained that this doesn't hold a candle to the excitement of the earlier production, but it's much more watchable due to its updated camera work and classic humor. There's a sense of subtle sarcasm present in spite of the frequent danger and it brings a unique aspect to what otherwise could have been a grim pre-war drama. Richard is an old-fashioned sort and Victoria just about drives him batty with her constant going-on about women's rights. The two have a fun and tempestuous romance as they insult one another, launch many complaints about being in one another's company, and wind up sharing more than a passing fondness for each other. It is this relationship more than the thriller aspect that make the film so enjoyable to watch -- enhanced by the presence of Victoria's brother Hellory (Patrick Kennedy) as the sort of comic relief (but an adorable sort!). True, there are some obvious gags ("... the gun isn't loaded anyway..." BAM!) but most of it is clever and quirky.

 

There is not much to disconcert audiences apart from some mild violence, and a handful of abuses of deity, and the romantic tension between Richard and Victoria. A man is shot and killed within the first few minutes; he bleeds all over Richard, who then spends a fair amount of time in bloodstained garments. There is a dramatic shoot-out between our leading lady and German spies; several people are shot and either killed or wounded. Richard is chased down numerous times, once by an airplane that is firing at him. There are a couple of explosions, threats toward bodily harm that include references to torture, and some slapstick violence. The apparent death of a main character might dismay some audiences. I don't recall any profanity. Richard and Victoria are forced to share a room in an inn to belay suspicion; the two undress in one another's presence (backs are turned, and neither of them go all the way in changing clothes), and then put balm on each other's shoulder wounds (this is played up for tension, with lots of intense looks). Richard intimates he intends to sleep on the floor and she invites him to share the bed (since she "trusts him"). Humorously, both of them just lie awake and uncomfortably stare at the ceiling. Later, after a passionate kiss she asks if he would like her to stay the night; Richard is "flattered and honored" but declines.

 

Response to this drama has been varied; most people love it but a few attempt to compare it to Hitchcock's version and find it lacking. The director and writers have chosen to change the setting and circumstances of the book in order to make it stand apart from other adaptations and the result is a unique approach that does contain indirect references to other films in the genre. (Portions of it reminded me of Enigma, but I'm not sure whether or not the original novel went with that particular plot thread first.) It is wonderful in its aura of the early 1900's, with beautiful costumes and picturesque settings. The classic automobiles are marvelous and all of the actors have been well-chosen; they fit in well with the time period. There is a certain need to suspend our disbelief toward the end with a particular twist, but the mystery does unravel at a reasonable pace and provides us with an entertaining turn. It may not be the finest spy drama ever produced by the BBC, but it is certainly too much fun to pass up.

  

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