AMC's new period drama, Turn, hopes to show that spies were cool, even in the 18th Century. While that's probably true, the show needs to quickly pick up the pace if it wants to keep its modern audience engaged.
Based in part on Alexander Rose's best-seller, Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring, the show stars Jamie Bell, a Long Island farmer named Abe Woodhull, who is caught between his father (Kevin McNally) who is loyal to the crown, and his childhood friends Ben Tallmedge and Caleb Brewster (Seth Numrich and Daniel Henshall, respectively), Continental Army regulars who are trying to recruit Abe as an informant in British occupied New York during the summer of 1778.
What's more, Abe is married to Mary (Meegan Warner) and has a young son, but his heart truly belongs to local tavern-keeper Anna Strong (Heather Lind), who broke off their engagement over his family's loyalist beliefs.
The pilot does a decent job of setting everything up, with McNally's Quaker judge explaining his son's romantic backstory as he partners with the local British commanding officer, Major Hewitt (Burn Gorman) to keep Abe out of the gallows after he stops a British officer from killing Anna's husband. The fact that the husband is arrested and shipped off anyway provides the impetus for Abe and Anna to renew a closer relationship, as well as for her to assist with the espionage efforts.
The show is beautifully shot and does a terrific job of bringing home the horrors of a war fought up close, as blood flows freely and dead bodies litter every field. The producers have done as good a job as you possibly can in recreating the look and feel of the Revolutionary War era. They also, thankfully, don't spend too much time explaining where we are in terms of historical context, figuring that if viewers don't already know what was happening in 1778 they can go on their website and look it up (something that AMC actively promoted during commercials).
Bell, barely recognizable from his Billy Elliott days, is fine as Abe, even if he did come across as a little too anxious to make sure that we understand the character's internal conflict. The first episode bounced him around so much as we learned where we were in Abe's story that it was hard to get a true read on him. In particular, with the British officers being played as either foppish (Gorman) or brutal (Samuel Roukin's menacing Captain Simcoe) it's hard to understand why Abe's father is on their side. Since this is a series instead of a movie, it would be helpful to explore why they were loyalists in the first place. Lind as Anna, though, is a keeper. Displaying all of the inherent tension of a woman who is forced to be nice to the resident British Army — especially the lecherous Simcoe — when she's a staunch supporter of independence, Lind helped establish the conflict with her body language better than anything in the script.
The stage is set for plenty of drama, as besides being in love with a woman who isn't his wife, Abe's father more or less disowns him and his buddies Tallmedge and Brewster knowingly betray his trust for the greater good. There's also a subplot involving a band of Scottish mercenaries led by Angus MacFadyen's Robert Rogers that, while only briefly added to the mix in the first episode, hints at the cat-and-mouse game to come.
It's obviously limited by the actual history behind the story — let's face it, we all know what the war's outcome will be — but that doesn't mean that the story can't come quicker. The show is done well enough that it will appease the target audience, like fans of the HBO's miniseries John Adams, but for everyone else there probably needs to be more hooks that propel the story and keep viewers interested in what comes next. Otherwise, the audience might just turn away.
The irresistibly named Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a wide-eyed--accentuate the positive--cheerleader of a school teacher with an attitude that says “I want to be your friend.” She is endlessly Happy Go Lucky and even several encounters with those who don’t share her optimistic outlook can’t seem to knock her down. The film doesn’t have a traditional plotline but rather is a series of recurring scenes from her life. After her bike is stolen she decides to take driving lessons from an increasingly frustrated instructor (Eddie Marsan). Their frequent episodes grow more intense each time as the lessons tend to bring out the pent-up anger of the man trying to teach Poppy how to make a left turn. She also takes Flamenco lessons from a loopy Spanish dance instructor (Karina Fernandez) gets romantically involved in an intense relationship with a social worker (Samuel Roukin) spends time with her best pal and roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) who provides a soothing counterpoint to Poppy’s non-stop cheerfulness and tries to deal with problems involving her sisters (Kate O'Flynn and Caroline Martin) and brother-in-law (Oliver Maltman).
Leigh is known for an improvisational style of filmmaking spending months working everything out with his actors in rehearsal and then letting them do the scenes with only an outline of what it will be. In this environment actors have to be top notch and indeed Leigh has elicited a few Oscar-nominated performances in the past including Brenda Blethyn in Secrets & Lies and Imelda Staunton in his last film Vera Drake. Add Sally Hawkins to the top tier of actors in Leigh films. She is in nearly every scene and the film lives or dies on her inherent appeal. We are with this irrepressible life force from the very first moment she hits the screen with her rather garish but colorful outfits and unflappable demeanor. Hawkins is a breath of fresh air a real discovery. Also getting lots of screen time is Eddie Marsan as the driving instructor who goes ballistic. His slow simmering rage is fascinating to watch as the dynamic of the student/teacher relationship goes into unexpected--and uncomfortable--territory. Fernanez provides most of the film’s comic relief as the demanding flamenco instructor and her scenes with Hawkins are the film’s highlight. Leigh is a director known for exploring the lives of British working class. His unique films focus generally on those poor blokes and birds just trying to get by and live a life of dignity despite England’s class system. As one of his film titles suggests Mike Leigh characters have High Hopes. But Happy Go Lucky is perhaps his lightest and certainly most optimistic film yet. By focusing an entire feature on a central character who exudes happiness and goodwill toward her fellow man he turns a light also on the problems and hang-ups of people who bounce their woes off her in this oddly segmented film. Leigh’s improv filmmaking techniques work well here but seem less structured and disciplined than usual. The film is too long for its own good and many scenes wear out their welcome halfway in. Still it’s good to have a craftsman with the kind of singular voice Leigh has still able to make movies his way because in this instance at least that has produced the gift of Sally Hawkins.