Ivanhoe (1997)
Review by Doc Ezra

Written by Deborah Cook, based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott
Directed by Stuart Orme
Starring Steven Waddington, Victoria Smurfit, Ciarán Hinds, Susan Lynch, David Horovitch, Trevor Cooper, and a couple dozen other people that deserve mention, but there's no space.


Rating: NR, suitable for 16+

Anamorphic: N/A, presented in original TV aspect ratio

My Advice: Own it.

With all the axes I've ground to powder over the issue of literary adaptations, I have at last found my refuge from Hollywood's insistent deluge of adaptive crap. The wonderful folks at A&E. To date, I've yet to see one of their presentations of a literary classic that I didn't find at the very least tasteful, and in the best circumstances, I feel they've presented some fantastic work. The 1997 six-part miniseries presentation of Ivanhoe is definitely in the latter category.

With a running time of a full five hours, the director was able to include most of the novel's intricate subplots, and allow the characters room and time to develop thoroughly. Despite being the villain, Ciarán Hinds' portrayal of vicious Knight Templar Bois-Guilbert is thoughtful, brooding, and as human as can be. The Jewish healer Rebecca (played brilliantly by Susan Lynch) comes across as intelligent, practical, and perfectly aware of how doomed her love for Ivanhoe must be.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it's actually quite simple. Ivanhoe falls in love with Rowena, whom his father has taken in after the death of her parents. Ivanhoe and Dad argue, Dad throws him out, Ivanhoe joins Richard's Crusade. Crusade goes sour, Richard is captured, and rumor has it that Ivanhoe betrayed him. And now he's back, looking to clear his name, return to his father, and plead for the hand of Rowena in marriage. All of this is complicated by the rising Norman/Saxon tensions in the air, and Prince John's consistent attempts to usurp the throne and tax the people to death in order to recover from Richard's profligate spending. Oh, and there's a bit with Robin Hood. Essentially, the story runs concurrent to the tale of Robin Hood, and between RH's thievery and Ivanhoe's ability to stir up the Saxons, it's little wonder that Prince John was so very tense and paranoid.

As noted above, it was very difficult to decide which names to list in the "Starring" position, as the entire cast was well-chosen. The only potential soft spots are Ivanhoe and Rowena, who occasionally come across a little bit wishy-washy, but on the whole, they too are excellent. The villains are played with understated menace, and never reduced to the ridiculous caricature that a movie like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves perpetrated. Stand-outs among the cast are Hinds, Lynch, and Horovitch, but on the whole the acting is stellar.

The rest of the production is very nice, though obviously underfunded (most notable in the anemic crowds in tournament scenes). Excellent cinematography and a solid score round out a quality adaptation of a literary gem.

The DVD presentation is a bit sparse, with only some text bios for features, but with five hours worth of mini-series to watch, I didn't miss the extra fifteen minutes of documentary footage. The inclusion of some academic analysis of the text would have been cool, even in text-only form, to give the viewer unfamiliar with Scott's work some historical context for the novel. Or perhaps some discussion of Scott's romanticized 12th century versus the real events of the period.

If typical Hollywood book adaptations set your teeth on edge, or make you want to run through Beverly Hills with a large-calibre machine gun, I highly recommend you pick this one up. The folks at A&E have a different agenda, I think, concerning themselves more with preserving the integrity of the original source than exploiting it for a quick buck. In my book, that makes them about the only trustworthy source of such adaptations on the market.

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