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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

LORNA DOONE -- DVD review by porfle

LARRY: "And what might your name be, lass?"
LORNA: "Perhaps you've heard it, 'tis Lorna Doone."
SHEMP: "Hi, Lorna!  How ya Doone?"

This exchange from the Three Stooges short "Scotched in Scotland" was pretty much all I ever knew about Lorna Doone, never having read R.D. Blackmore's 1869 novel, seen any of the previous film adaptations, or eaten the cookies.  Now, Acorn Media's DVD release of the Thames Television production of LORNA DOONE (1990) brings me up to speed on the story, although not quite as entertainingly as I might've liked.

It gets off to a good start with a prologue showing how young John Ridd's father was murdered by Carver Doone (Sean Bean, FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, GOLDENEYE) of the Doone clan, a once-noble family now known as marauding outlaws.  This sequence is quite well done and gives John his first glimpse of Lorna, whom Carver has just kidnapped after killing her parents.  It also introduces us to the vast, gloomy countryside that plays such a major role in setting the mood of the film.

Twelve years later we find the older John (Clive Owen, SIN CITY) living with his sister Annie (Jane Gurnett) and mother Sarah (Billie Whitelaw, THE OMEN) on their small farm beneath the ever-lowering sky of rural England.  A chance meeting with the now-grown Lorna (Polly Walker) sparks a forbidden love that stirs things up big-time between the Ridds and the Doones, leading to a deadly feud involving half the local population.

Being a fan of Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights", I was expecting a tempestuous romance similar to that of Heathcliff and Catherine, but the match-up of John and Lorna is a rather tepid affair.  It begins with a 17th-century "meet cute"--John tumbles over a waterfall while fishing and is plucked from the water by Lorna--and never really gets all that passionate or even convincing.  Clive Owen's stiff performance doesn't help, and Polly Walker's Lorna scarcely resembles Bronte's feral nature-child Catherine.

The most warm and heartfelt love affair, in fact, is the one between John's sister Annie and their cousin, notorious highwayman Tom Faggus (Miles Anderson), who comes to the farm seeking asylum.   Tom is a likable rogue and the story comes to life when he's onscreen, whether courting Annie or helping the Ridds fend off the attacking Doone clan in one of the film's two major battle sequences. 

It's here that LORNA DOONE sparks the most interest, although the direction and editing during these scenes is somewhat clumsy.  Sean Bean does all he can with his one-note character and is an effective scenery-chewing villain.  A later attack on the Doone compound by John and his fellow farmers, after the local militia fails to take action, is another relative highpoint.

Still, it's a pretty bland affair, with uninspired direction and unremarkable performances in the lead roles.  The script seems to be checking off the main parts of the story in rather cursory fashion, while the Cliff Notes dialogue lacks depth.  It all gets much more involving when we begin to learn of Lorna's true origins, with some pretty grand surprises in store for the Ridd family, but little of it truly effects us on an emotional level.

Supporting performances are strong, with Jane Gurnett and Miles Anderson as Annie and Tom being the most likable members of the cast. Billie Whitelaw, of course, can't help but be good no matter what she's in.  As Carver's young son Ensie, who is later adopted by John, the diminutive Euan Grant MacLachlan is wonderfully expressive. 

The DVD from Acorn Media is in fullscreen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles.  Text-based extras consist of cast filmographies and a biography of novelist R.D. Blackmore.

I probably shouldn't be too picky, since this is a television production that was probably done on a low budget and a tight schedule.  It does manage to maintain interest throughout its running time, with a rich period atmosphere and a smattering of fairly good scenes here and there.  But in the end, this version of LORNA DOONE does little more than make me want to seek out a better one.

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