Fine cast and powerful direction do credit to Stevenson’s classic, Adam Sweeting writes in The Art Desk.
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) 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 Penry-Jones’s detailed portrayal, Trelawney 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 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).
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?
For the original report go to http://www.theartsdesk.com/tv/treasure-island-sky1