Did we really need the biplane?
Produced for BBC One and originally broadcast in December 2008, "The 39 Steps" is the fourth film version of John Buchan's adventure novel. Like those previous attempts, this, too, veers away from the book, this time adding cutesy Hitchcock homages, like the shot-by-shot reworking of the "North by Northwest" crop duster scene. Unnecessary? Absolutely. Entertaining? Not really. Up to this point, the film was holding its own decently enough as an endearingly stuffy and adequately thrilling yarn. Then comes the biplane, and we're lifted out of the story as the movie nudges us deep in our ribs, reminding us that we'd be better off watching Robert Donat.
The basics remain the same: Richard Hannay (Rupert Penry-Jones), a former intelligence officer and veteran of the Second Boer War, is struggling to adjust to high society back in London. Ah, but adventure calls when a neighbor passes on a secret message and begs Hannay to deliver it to the Secret Service Bureau, and be careful to avoid German spies along the way. Hannay makes his escape but gets framed for murder; daring chases and close-calls fill the trail as he makes his way to Scotland.
All of this is handled quite nicely - if never truly inventively - by director James Hawes. The whole thing moves at a steady clip, the supporting cast is colorful, and Penry-Jones does a fine enough job as the smug, smooth hero.
But Lizzie Mickery's dialogue is a total drip (who thought dropping words like "cliquey" into the script was a good idea?), and, more problematically, her insistence that the romantic interest (never in the book, but added in every other film version, and with good reason) be an anachronistic feminist who (spoiler alert) can out-spy any man, and who is revealed to be the mastermind behind the entire British intelligence community.
I mean, it's good for a writer to want to add some girl power to the proceedings, but Mickery misses the mark with her wild overcompensations. Perhaps it's all in the presentation - it's not that Victoria (Lydia Leonard) is a strong woman, it's that the teleplay keeps stopping itself cold to tell us that she is. Oh, the sloppiness in how Mickery throws us dialogue about the suffrage movement and women's lib, and oh, the obviousness in how she tries so hard to Buffy up the heroine. By this point, one wonders why Hannay even needs to be present.
The final act blunders through some decent action and plenty of unneeded plot twists that come off as insincere and rushed, added just for the sake of the "a ha!" moment. The finale is so bogged down in such gimmickry that the only possible response is annoyance. Until then, it's sort of a fun ride, almost, in bits and pieces, minus the pointless homages and lame writing. It's a classic adventure reduced to the background noise of barely-involving television.
Video & Audio
"The 39 Steps" looks quite sharp in its 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, with crisp detail and a richness to the autumn hue-heavy color palette. As a modern production intended for HD, its solid look should not surprise.
Neither should the Dolby 5.1 soundtrack, which balances dialogue and effects nicely. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.
None, unless you count the BBC promos that play as the disc loads.
Comparisons to the Hitchcock classic are unfair, but even then, this "39 Steps" revamp doesn't quite hold up on its own, with all the iffy script issues. Rent It for a quick rainy day entertainment.