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"But he's a solicitor, father, professional men don't do that sort of thing."
DVD ReviewA curious fellow, that Major Armstrong. Always so proper, but with such a bad head for business; he seems so much more interested in ridding his precious garden of the evil dandelions than in his work as a solicitor. And he does seem to pop into the chemist's rather too often for arsenic, don't you find?Dandelion Dead is based on a notorious British murder case from 1921, in which Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong (played here by Michael Kitchen) was tried for poisoning his wife and trying to do the same to a principal business rival. This 1993 British mini-series comes to DVD stateside courtesy of HBO, and it's unlikely to make your hair stand on end.
Mrs. Armstrong (Sylvia Miles) bullies her husband, persistently reminding him that it's her family money he's squandering, and recoils at any sort of physical contact with him—it's easy to sympathize with his desire to get rid of her. The Major's fixation on purging his lawn of dandelions plus his gardener's remedy for them—arsenic—plus his professional and financial problems plus his shrew of a wife—it's not too tough to do the math, and figure out where this is headed.
There are a couple of times when the film produces the hope that it will go in the direction of Hitchcock—early on, we cross-cut between a tennis match and some nefarious doings at home, and you may start thinking that you're in for something akin to Strangers on a Train. But no such luck, as there's just an accumulation of boring detail, nothing at all fetishistic or dramatically compelling.
Even after he springs the idea, it takes the major a good long time to summon up the courage to finish the deed, and because Mrs. Armstrong is such a horrible woman and because you're eager for something to happen, you may find yourself pulling for him—just how much arsenic does he have to force down the gullet of the old bag to get her to kick off? After ninety minutes of nothing much happening, it's hard not to hope: Good God, kill her already. And even after he starts lacing the cocoa, her tolerance for the arsenic is Rasputin-like—she survives a first poisoning attempt and a subsequent trip to the sanatorium, but Armstrong finally takes care of business when she returns home. (The first of two parts ends with the murder.)
The parallel story concerns Oswald Martin (David Thewlis), the newest barrister in town and therefore Armstrong's competition, and his courtship of Constance Davies, the pharmacist's daughter. Martin's office is across the street from Armstrong, and they play some unintentional peek-a-boo to see whether or not the other is at his desk. It's the kind of thing that's effective the first time out, but soon grows tiresome, and the film goes to the well many times too often. In Part II it's Martin who is in Armstrong's crosshairs, and after two and a half hours, it takes the characters all of thirty seconds of detective work to figure out that Armstrong is spiking the scones with something more than raisins.
The historical material obviously provides some rich dramatic possibilities, but it's extraordinarily difficult to empathize with Armstrong—as Kitchen plays him, he's little more than extreme propriety and moustache wax who takes a wrong turn, but we share almost none of his emotional life. Kitchen is convincing as a proper chap nudged by circumstance into offing the wife, but this Armstrong is not an especially compelling hero (or anti-hero), and so the enterprise rather sags around him.
Even more troublesome is that the pace is so leisurely as to cross over frequently into stultifying. It feels like this is better than three hours long not because there's a lot of ground to cover, but because the running time needed to be padded out for so many slots on the television schedule. And so nearly every scene begins with someone opening a door, walking through it, hanging up a coat, wishing another character a good morning, and so on. It is very polite, yes, but as cinema it's astonishingly boring, and there's not a lot of interesting behavior on display to hold our attention in the absence of narrative drive.
What's unclear to me is how well known the facts of the case are to a contemporary British audience, because that's the only reason I can think of to justify how stodgily the story moves along. But even then, that's really no excuse. It covers territory similar to Reversal of Fortune, and is a reminder of just how good that movie is, and how artfully it deals with issues of money, class and marital tension.
The venture isn't entirely without its virtues. There are some nice period details, for instance, such as the makeshift urinals, little more than sheets of canvas strung up on poles in a field, as the gentlemen, clad in their tuxedos, take care of their business. Armstrong's relationship with his oldest child, Eleanor (Chloe Tucker), has a certain fascination, too, for after her mother dies, Eleanor takes the reins as mistress of the house, and starts bullying her father in exactly the same manner his wife did.
But those few things aren't nearly enough to sustain an audience's interest through better than three hours. A tidier and more dramatically satisfying version of this story longs to be made, and this mini-series provides some lessons in how not to go about it.
Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: C+
Image Transfer Review: The colors are terribly washed out, and the resolution is poor; it looks much worse than it should for something shot less than ten years ago. The reds fare especially badly, reading either as hot pink or muddy maroon, and nothing in between. Black level is more like gray level, but at least it's consistent.
Image Transfer Grade: C
Audio Transfer Review: The ambient noise level is very, very high, and given that the actors take epic pauses between their lines, you'll find yourself listening to lots and lots of room tone. Otherwise, it's a pretty clean track, principally without buzz and hiss.
Audio Transfer Grade: C-
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Layers Switch: 01h:41m:57s
There isn't much by way of extras—the brief biographies are for the director, three principal actors (Kitchen, Miles and Thewlis) and the characters they portray. The brief production notes provide information on the wealth of dandelions required by the production, and how they were conjured up, given that the shoot wasn't during dandelion season.
Extras Grade: C-
Final CommentsIf you've plowed through each and every Agatha Christie novel and just have to have some Edwardian misdoings, Dandelion Dead may be for you. Otherwise, it's a long, long road to travel for meager rewards, though it may make you think twice the next time a professional opponent has you to tea.
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