by Joe Sanders
Available now on DVD from Acorn Media
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Lost Empires is a dramatic British mini-series telling the story of Richard (Colin Firth) who, after being injured in battle during World War I, has returned home to join his Uncle Nick’s (John Castle) traveling variety show. Nick works as a magician in the show alongside singers, dancers, and comedians like Harry (Laurence Olivier). Richard goes from working backstage to becoming more involved with the performance and business elements of the show; the whole time enjoying a series of romantic affairs with the revolving door of female characters that spring up during the series.
If you’re a fan of Masterpiece Theatre and similarly presented British dramas, then there’s no reason you won’t enjoy this, too, but a large portion of Lost Empires’ audience will have trouble connecting with the now antiquated mode of storytelling. Based on J.B. Priestley’s novel, the miniseries moves very much like a novel. It’s slow and detail-oriented and this will make it more than a little boring to a lot of viewers. It’s a difficult lesson to learn, but a story that works in a novel form cannot be slavishly recreated in a television format. The process of adaptation demands some change and reinvention to be effective, and this story’s sloppy, overly-realistic structure does not successfully utilize the conventions and possibilities of the TV format.
Colin Firth demonstrates that, even at a young age, he was going to be an enormously successful talent. He does a fantastic job of carrying the seven part mini-series basically by himself. His performance is reserved and believable in its subtlety and one can’t help but feel that his talents were somewhat wasted in this low-budget, over-hyped endeavor.
Probably the most surprising aspect of this is how much credit is given to Laurence Olivier, who received an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of failed comedian Harry Burrard. Olivier is hardly in the show, and doesn’t leave that large of an impression when he is on screen. His scenes have a certain level of emotional resonance, and the character is likeable enough, but the only thing remarkable about these scenes is that they star Laurence Olivier. It’s also important to note that this was one of Olivier’s final performances. He appeared in one film (War Requiem) three years later in 1989, the same year he died.
Worthy of much more credit is John Castle, who plays Uncle Nick. He’s a paternal presence in the series not only for the Firth’s character but also for the audience. We relate to him and trust him and want to see him succeed. As fun as it is to see all the old fashioned vaudevillian acts in these seven episodes, Uncle Nick’s magic acts are definitely the best. On top of that, his tendency to show off at Billiards and other skills makes for some very entertaining sequences throughout the series.
Joe Sanders is a playwright and college instructor in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has a Master’s degree in playwriting and a Bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches Thought and Writing.
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