The 39 Steps (2008 version)


Rating 2

Directed by James Hawes

Written by Lizzie Mickery, adapted from the novel by John Buchan

Starring Rupert Penry-Jones, Lydia Leonard, David Haig, Patrick Kennedy, Patrick Malahide, Eddie Marsan and Alex Jennings

Richard Hannay (Rupert Penry-Jones) has reluctantly returned to London from Africa. He encounters Scudder (Eddie Marsan), who claims to be a spy working for the Secret Service Bureau. Scudder says he has uncovered a German plot to assassinate a member of the European aristocracy and so plunge Europe into war. He gives Hannay a code book, but is then killed by German operatives. Hannay is accused of the murder and flees to Scotland, searching for evidence to prove the plot and clear his name. Once there, he is assisted by Victoria Sinclair (Lydia Leonard), the daughter of Sir George Sinclair (David Haig), a member of the National Committee of Defence.

This famous novel, written by John Buchan, a Scottish-born politician, and first published in 1915, has been filmed several times, most famously a version directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. This new version was produced for the BBC and first broadcast during the Christmas 2008 schedule.

The novel is very much of its time, with the British portrayed as gentlemen and the “Bosch”, as they are repeatedly referred to, portrayed as scoundrels who will stop at nothing in pursuit of their aims. Frequent references are made to cricket. By any present day interpretation, the story, or at least the characters portrayed in it, betrays bigotry and xenophobia typical of the British mentality, even if the story itself draws on the real-life assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand for inspiration.

To counteract this and give the story a more contemporary feel, the new adaptation portrays Victoria Sinclair as a suffragette, constantly bickering with Rupert Hannay, who doggedly maintains a stereotypical male opinion of the role of women. This does not work, simply because it jars with the old-fashioned feel of the story, not to mention that it is never-ending and we are constantly bludgeoned with it. By the time the bickering becomes playful banter we simply no longer care.

This is a middling version, efficiently made and acted, of a story that is best viewed in context and is probably best served now via the Alfred Hitchcock film.


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