Sunday, 18 April 2010

The Prisoner (2009)

Sunday, 18 April 2010

"Arrival" "Harmony" "Anvil"
"Darling" "Schizoid" "Checkmate"

The original series is a classic that continues to influence modern film and TV since it arrived on British screens at the tail-end of the '60s. Its fingerprints are evident on countless projects that likewise tackle themes of identity, memory, imprisonment and individualism; from the satirical drama of The Truman Show, through the sci-fi noir of Dark City, to the cyberpunk thrills of The Matrix, all have borrowed from Patrick McGoohan's revolutionary slice of pop art paranoia...

A remake of McGoohan's seminal 17-part opus has been oft-rumoured (both as a movie adaptation and TV sequel), but only now have the planets aligned for a six-part miniseries updating the core ideas of The Prisoner for the 21st-century. The show was always a bedfellow of the Orwellian surveillance nightmare of 1984, so it seems only fitting that its cautionary tale is being revoiced now we're living in a "Global Village" of our own creation; a world of closed-circuit cameras, terrorism, biometrics and genetic cloning. As a concept, The Prisoner is actually less fanciful than it perhaps appeared 40 years ago.

I'm not even against remakes per se, provided they're done respectfully and bring something new to the table, so I went into AMC/ITV's remake of The Prisoner with an open mind. I came out believing the thunderstorm that hailed the original's opening titles were a warning from history: you can't catch lightning in the same bottle twice...

The Prisoner '09 isn't a mindless travesty of pseudophilosphy and fan-servicing (be glad), but it's just a victory of style over substance that lacks the original's drum-tight plotting and slick characterisation. To set the scene; a man known only as "Number Six" (Jim Caviezel) wakes up in a desert with no memory of how he got there. Immediately, he rushes to the aide of an elderly man called "93"1, helping him elude those chasing him with barking dogs, before the old geezer dies of exhaustion in a nearby cave -- but not before telling Six to "go to 554"...

Six progresses to the "The Village" (here envisioned as a beatific pastel-coloured resort in the middle of said desert) in search of answers, discovering that every inhabitant is identified only by number and nobody has knowledge, or can even conceive, of anywhere beyond their idyllic community. The Village's "mayor" is an elderly English gent with a penchant for white suits, referred to as "Number Two" (Sir Ian McKellen), who in this remake isn't replaced by a different actor every episode, and has been given a family to humanize him: estranged, rebellious teenage son "11-12" (Jamie Campbell Bower) and a wife he keeps bedridden and catatonic with pills.

The setup is largely the same as the original, although Caviezel's Six has an immediate mystery to unravel regarding the old man's alleged escape from the Village, which leads him to realize a few of the villagers are so-called "Dreamers" (people who wake up and sketch famous landmarks), which gives him fresh impetus to prove that the population have been brainwashed and to lead a breakout. We're also given flashbacks to Six's life in New York shortly after he resigned from his job as a surveillance expert for his "Summakor" employers, which is in stark contrast to the original's dedication to keeping Six's name, career and reason for resigning a closely-guarded secret for both the audience and Village agents alike. In this remake, Six is never really questioned about the reasons for his resignation to any notable extent.

The new series certainly gets a few things right, or at least adds some interesting wrinkles to the core concept. The new-look Village is a striking location of quirky colonial architecture amidst a barren landscape reminiscent of Dali, but it loses the sense of theatricality and claustrophobia that quaint Portmeirion had in the original. This Village is a tonal crossbreed of The Truman Show's Seahaven and Pleasantville (tinged with a colonial African feel), in that it's a seemingly pleasant '50s-esque resort that feels peculiar, but isn't overtly bizarre. The villagers don't walk around dressed like comic-strip seafarers in marching bands, for one thing.

For what it's worth, I liked this sand swept Village a fair bit, and I could well imagine McGoohan choosing to film in a desert if that possibility had been available to him, too. The endless sands are a more credible barrier to escape and offer a melancholic sensibility that fits The Prisoner like a glove, with its unseen but heard ocean and mirage of two crystal towers on the horizon. The climate evokes a sense of fevered heat stroke, too, which subconsciously adds stress to all the mind-fiddling. It's just a shame that The Village itself is a relatively normal and pleasant construct, whereas Portmeirion was a bizarre confluence of styles old, new and prescient.

The casting of Ian McKellen is, as expected, paradoxically perfect and very predictable. He proves to be the prime reason for watching this reinvention through to the end, though. It's a character well within McKellen's comfort-zone, and he slips so effortlessly into the role of playful antagonist that it's hard not to be charmed by his devious Number Two, but still a very risk-free performance. Unfortunately, it's in the casting of the all-important Number Six that this miniseries truly flounders, as Jim Caviezel is a poor substitution for McGoohan and something of a charisma vacuum even without the comparison.

Forget the clash of crazy aesthetic and highbrow ideas that are rightly celebrated about the original -- it's remained popular for nearly half-a-century because of McGoohan's edgy, fastidious, angry, intelligent performance. With his lilting smirk and curt mannerisms, McGoohan was a compelling antagonist who had your support and attention every step of the way. On the flipside, Caviezel's just a handsome Yank thrown into the deep end and forced to keep his head above water. More peevish survivalist than shrewd rebel. In the few moments when he's required to act like a defiant hero, his performance lands all the impact of a dry sponge. It doesn't help that Six does very little throughout the series to actually escape, and his small victories over Two are fleeting and of no real significance anyway. At least in the original you had a sense that Six was a tenacious man of great intellect who presented The Village with a worthy opponent, but the remake's Six is a largely helpless inmate cursed with knowledge of the outside world and kept at arm's length like a child having a tantrum.

Writer and self-proclaimed Prisoner fan Bill Gallagher (Lark Rise To Candleford) opts to layout the miniseries in six hours, which is a blessed relief. "Arrival" handles the setup to give the audience their bearings as Number Six wakes up in The Village; the Truman Show-esque "Harmony" gives Six a bogus brother who claims he's a humble tour bus driver with mental problems; "Anvil" delves into issues of surveillance and paranoia, as Six is partnered with "909" (Vincent Regan, very good) to spy on villagers, many of whom also moonlight as spies; the terrible "Darling" finds Six's emotions being manipulated by drugs to make him fall in love with someone resembling a woman he knew in the "other world"; "Schizoid" involves twisted doppelgangers of Six and Two being released into The Village to stir up trouble for their progenitors; and "Checkmate" gave us relatively firm answers to the Village's "Plato's Cave" nature, with a tinge of resulting confusion and dissatisfaction at how empty everything feels in retrospect. In 1968, bamboozled viewers descended on McGoohan's home demanding answers after his joyously weird finale; in 2009, fed-up viewers will raise a collective eyebrow, change the channel, and barely give it another thought.

Overall, The Prisoner '09 can be viewed as a well-meaning flop with a modicum of strong ideas, some clever updates (love the giant "Rover" balloon), reputable performances from McKellen and Bower, gorgeous production design, a few witty in-jokes (Penny Farthing bicycles hang from the ceiling of a nightclub), and a half-decent explanation for all the weirdness (albeit one that still doesn't really hang together that well, by its own logic.)

But it falls down in too many key areas: the lifeless reinterpretation of Six (dull, hardly instrumental in solving the mystery), the lack of cohesion between episodes to give a sense of cumulative buildup (ideas like Six's bogus family are just dropped2), and a palpable malaise that polluted every storyline. The original felt elliptical at times, sure, but it always had a strong narrative undertow and a sense of pace and action to pull you through the strangeness. The remake is a more soporific art-house piece, intending to draw viewers into a mesmeric experience, but proving unable to charm us into taking the trip. It's a failure with ambition, constructed with care and attention, but a failure nonetheless.

The Prisoner really did feel like a jail sentence for long stretches, and Number Six wasn't the only one who wanted to escape this Village.

17 APRIL 2010: ITV1/HD, 9.30PM (cont'd Saturdays)

1 - Am I alone in thinking the character of 93 was written as the perfect Patrick McGoohan cameo? This must have been intentional -- the actor even looks slightly like McGoohan in later life, and he wears the iconic black blazer with white piping and buff trousers. The idea to have seen McGoohan one last time before his death gives me a real fanboy ache, but unfortunately McGoohan was on the record as saying he wanted nothing to do with this production shortly before his death.

2 - I assume this is because it's inferred that Six loses his memories after being taken to The Clinic after each episode, but is that removal of memory selective? He doesn't exactly start from square one every episode.

The show proved to be a crushing disappointment for AMC last year, ratings-wise. It premiered with a decent 0.8 million (equaling the viewers for Mad Men's third season finale), but dropped sharply to 0.3 million for the next two nights. I wonder how the show will fare on ITV, where it's not being stripped across three consecutive days, but will instead air one episode every week for six weeks. The Prisoner has a larger fanbase and name-recognition on home turf, but I haven't seen much promotion.