HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Monday, March 16, 2015


If they'd shown us "Turn: Washington's Spies" back in History class, I might've made A's instead of B's and C's. I'm not sure how historically accurate this AMC series is, but with all its undercover intrigue and under-the-covers illicit sex, it certainly isn't as boring and dry as the average textbook.

Anchor Bay's 3-disc, 10-episode Blu-ray set TURN: WASHINGTON'S SPIES: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON is more of a "ripping yarn" than blockbuster entertainment. But that's okay because once you've settled into this slow-simmering story it really starts to grow on you.

The year is 1776, and in a small British-occupied town on Long Island, farmer and family man Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell, who played "Jimmy" in Peter Jackson's KING KONG) is chafing under the oppressive rule of Major Hewlett (Burn Gorman, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES) and the ambitious, supercilious Lt. Simcoe (Samuel Roukin). Abe's father (Kevin McNally, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) is the town magistrate, a loyalist in whose home Major Hewlett resides, and their disagreement over the current situation keeps father and son at odds.

When Abe's friend Selah Strong is imprisoned for a minor offense, he makes Abe promise to take care of his wife Anna (Heather Lind). This isn't a good idea since Abe and Anna are former lovers. (If you can predict how this will eventually turn out, you get a Johnny cake.) Plus, Lt. Simcoe is stationed in the Strong home and has his eyes on Anna as well, which only exacerbates what will become a deadly ongoing rivalry between the two men.

As Hewlett tightens his grip on the town--with Simcoe egging him on--an increasingly disgruntled Abe encounters some former friends who have joined the underground rebellion and ends up doing some spying for them. This turns out to be such a success that General Washington himself decides to create a whole new spy network with Abe (code named "Mr. Culpepper") as his main agent.

Anna and her former slave Abigail (Idara Victor) will later join the budding "spy ring" as well, with their most exciting mission being to infiltrate a wild booze-and-hookers stag party in the home of Major John Andre (JJ Feild) in New York City. Major Andre, it turns out, has recruited a beautiful prostitute as his own spy in order to root out suspected traitors in his ranks.

"Turn" has an ongoing air of suspense as we fear the rebel spies will be discovered sooner or later, by either the British or their own loyalist families and friends. The ever-encroaching war grows closer as well, with the town on the verge of open rebellion when citizens start being framed by Simcoe for various crimes and convicted in Hewlett's court. This is compounded by the further outrage of having the gravestones in the local cemetery dug up to serve as shields for Hewlett's artillery crew.

Also making things more interesting is a bloodthirsty guerilla warfare squad, the Queen's Rangers, led by deadly and cunning Scotsman Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen). The series doesn't shy away from violence, which we see right off the bat when one of the Rangers passes amongst the fallen enemy after a battle and admininsters a coup de grĂ¢ce to each with his bayonet. (At least they're equal opportunity--former slave Jordan, played by Aldis Hodge of DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, becomes one of their fiercest fighters.)

Action is confined mainly to the occasional gunfight or small skirmish until the final episode when the town's garrison of British soldiers is attacked by rebel forces at last and our season-long anticipation is rewarded with an exciting battle sequence.

As mentioned before, the show finds ample time during all this to indulge in drama of the sex-and-scandal variety, with the affair between Abe and Anna (who thinks her husband is dead) serving as the main course. What gives it more import is the fact that adultery in those days was no small matter and discovery could have tremendous consequences. Which, of course, makes it more exciting.

The series is a triumph of production design, using a combination of impressive sets, ideal historical locations, and well-rendered CGI for a convincing recreation of the era. Costumes and other aspects of the show's look are fine as well.

Among the uniformly excellent cast, Jamie Bell makes the most of a role much more substantial than the one he was stuck with in KING KONG. Beautiful Heather Lind is also well-cast as Anna Strong. Stephen Root of OFFICE SPACE inhabits the officious role of Washington's espionage coordinator, Nathaniel Sackett. As Major Hewlett, Burn Gorman manages to make his character not so much a heartless martinet as an insecure man who finds solace in strict abidance to regulations as well as a childlike attachment to his horse.

For me, though, it's Samuel Roukin's exquisitely villainous Lt. Simcoe who gives "Turn" its most interesting character. Enduring torture and hardship with an upper-crust smirk, Simcoe is a roguish, arrogant officer who's totally out for himself, and when he finally challenges Hewlett's authority in the climactic battle(in one of the most memorable high points of the season) this ruthless scoundrel is almost my hero.

The 3-disc Blu-ray set from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish. Extras consist of deleted scenes and two featurettes, "The History Of TURN: WASHINGTON'S SPIES" and "From Art To Image." Also included are instructions for downloading or streaming a digital HD copy.

TURN: WASHINGTON'S SPIES: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON isn't quite the most riveting television series I've seen, but its rich atmosphere, intriguing characters, and engrossing storylines make for satisfying viewing.

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