fri 27/04/2018

Treasure Island, Sky1 | reviews, news & interviews

Treasure Island, Sky1

Treasure Island, Sky1

Fine cast and powerful direction do credit to Stevenson's classic

Eddie Izzard as a cunning and morally ambiguous Long John Silver

Robert Louis Stevenson's classic swashbuckler has been made into countless films and TV series in several languages, and has survived Muppet Treasure Island as well as an interstellar Disney animation called Treasure Planet. Pleasingly, Sky1's new version made a fine addition to the lineage, combining a shrewdly picked cast with lush production values while retaining much of the darkness and menace of Stevenson's novel.

The opening scenes established an appropriate atmosphere of near-supernatural dread, as the crazed Billy Bones (David Harewood, pictured right) arrived at the Admiral Benbow inn near Bristol. He was drinking himself to death in his terror of being tracked down by his buccaneering ex-comrades from the Caribbean, because Bones it was who had acquired Captain Flint's map of where the treasure was buried. Ha-harrr! Long story short, the pirates turned up (not least Blind Pew bearing the ominous Black Spot), Bones died of fright, and young Jim Hawkins (Toby Regbo) managed to scarper with the map with the pirates on his trail. He told his tale to Dr Livesey (Daniel Mays), who had the bright idea of hooking up with Squire Trelawney.

Big mistake, because while the toffee-nosed Trelawney pretended to be a friend and ally who would bankroll the treasure hunt, in fact he was planning to seize the treasure for himself (a departure from the blustering but decent character in the book). In Rupert Penry-Jones's detailed portrayal, Trelawney (pictured below) was desperate to prove himself worthy of his father, a distinguished naval officer, but despite his sword-fighting and shooting skills, his flawed character left him humiliatingly short of the powers of leadership he aspired to.

These had to be provided by Captain Smollett (Philip Glenister), a sun-baked, wind-dried veteran of the seven seas hired as skipper by Trelawney. Although not averse to doubling his money by threatening to quit, sensing rightly that the expedition had the makings of a blood-soaked debacle, it was Smollett (pictured below) who brought backbone and a whiff of grapeshot to the poop deck.

Fears that Eddie Izzard might turn Long John Silver into a one-legged stand-up comic with a wisecracking parrot on his shoulder rather than a murderous, scheming pirate were rapidly dispelled, and as the story developed, the layers of his characterisation were gradually unpeeled. At first masquerading as an honest, if obsequious, old sea-dog looking for nautical employment, Silver proved adaptable and cunning in his quest for the buried treasure of his previous boss, the despicable Flint (a brief but exceedingly salty cameo by Donald Sutherland). Though more than happy to murder anyone who got in his way, whether it was his own villainous crew or Trelawney's squad, Silver was also capable of reflection and remorse, and in the case of Jim Hawkins even of paternal feelings.

This moral ambiguity hoisted the piece several notches above, let's say, Pirates of the Caribbean. For instance, it became quite tempting to side with Silver and his mutinous vagabonds, since there was undoubted merit in their claim to be the rightful owners of the treasure, of which they'd been robbed by Flint. As long as you didn't object to their bloodthirsty uncouthness or think the treasure belonged to the people from whom the pirates had stolen it, that is. But let's face it, they'd probably nicked it from some rival colonial power in the first place. 

Shooting the Caribbean sequences in Puerto Rico paid major dividends, not least because of the way they contrasted starkly with the grey, freezing scenes back in England (actually shot in Dublin).  Under director Steve Barron - who made not only Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but also Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" video - some eloquent camera-work fully captured the physical struggle of sailing a schooner or trekking sweatily across a parched island landscape under the blinding force of the tropical sun (Jim Hawkins and Dr Livesey, pictured below).

The scenes where Smollett, Trelawney and co were holed up in a crude stockade and fighting off the pirates were handled with visceral grit, from the scrape and clash of blades to the clumsy rigmarole of loading and firing a musket. In the heat of battle the timorous Dr Livesey managed to find some courage in the nick of time, commenting sadly to Jim Hawkins that "we're not always the men we hoped we would be." In contrast, we saw Jim putting away childish things and being forced prematurely to become a man when he shot the leering Israel Hands through the head.  

Barron had wheeled in a few technical tricks, such as sudden sharp bursts of accelerated motion which recalled Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies, but these didn't loosen his overall grip on character and narrative. This Treasure Island was a mystery, a boy's own thriller and a probing moral examination, with a bit of pithy social observation for good measure. Could one reasonably ask for more?

Sky1's new version made a fine addition to the lineage, combining a shrewdly picked cast with lush production values

Explore topics

Share this article

Comments

Now I want to read the book!

i was looking forward to this and it was going along quiet nicely then the idiot director/writer decided to rewrite the ending not totally but enough to show a complete disrespect for this literary classic very dissapointed!! it is written for you just follow the story you pratt

This whole production was SUCH a wasted opportunity. Good cast, good sets, good locations...and then an attempt to update a classic story by meddling with the plot. Bad idea. The story is SUPPOSED to be about a boy who sees the excitement of the pirates lives and is tempted away from the 'good' side - ie the Captain and his legitimate crew by the persuasive and morally ambiguous Long John Silver. When he realises how blackhearted the pirates are, he rejoins the 'right' side and saves the day. By making Trelwany a villain (typical modern twist that anyone in a position of power must be corrupt and evil) and Dr Livesy a coward they totally ruined the whole message. Once they'd succeeded in destroying that aspect of the plot, they compounded matters by having the survivors tip all the gold into the sea, having seemingly suddenly realised that material goods are evil. Oh and killing off Trelawny in a hamfisted attempt at showing that greed doesnt pay. Are you kidding me?! In one scene they destroyed the entire point of the film - all those people died for nothing! Rubbish. Absolute rubbish. Oh and having Jim free Silver at the end - Nooooooo! He ESCAPES - he's LONG JOHN SILVER - he doesnt need a boy to free him..!!!! Maybe one day the screenwriters will actually read their source material....there's a reason why a classic is a classic...

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters