John Buchan's 1915 thriller novel The Thirty Nine Steps has been adapted to film numerous times, including by such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock. This most recent iteration, produced for the BBC and directed by James Hawes, is slight, undemanding fun, occasionally ridiculous but enjoyable nonetheless.
Set in England and Scotland in the days leading up to the start of World War One, the film stars Rupert Penry-Jones as Richard Hannay, a bored engineer who is accosted in his London flat by a "freelance spy" named Scudder (Eddie Marsan) who claims to have discovered a German spy ring operating in Scotland. The Germans are hot on his trail, and he asks Hannay for help, giving him a coded notebook, and soon thereafter being killed by his pursuers. Since the police reasonably believe, as they found Scudder's corpse in his apartment, that Hannay is responsible, our hero flees London, pursued both by the murderous Germans and the police.
Here follows a series of just barely credible adventures, involving easily bribed ventriloquists, chases across the unspoiled countryside, oubliettes, double agents and Hannay impersonating a political dignitary and giving rousing speeches on British national politics. He eventually takes up with Victoria (Lydia Leonard), a feisty suffragette, who reluctantly agrees to aid him in his effort to foil the Germans, and save England from a possible invasion.
The film is not terribly demanding, and provides some easy thrills, a bit of humor, and a few unexpected plot twists. The actors are across the board engaged and enjoying themselves, even when they have to spout the often silly dialogue or pretend to believe the next remarkable coincidence. Even though our heroes encounter dangers and setbacks, everything seems to work out without too much fuss. When handcuffed together in the oubliette, Victoria easily picks the locks with her hair pin, and there are plenty of explosives on hand (stored for some upcoming sabotage by the Germans) for Hannay to blow their way out. The budding romance between the pair is handled delicately and sparingly, thrown in more as an appetizer rather than a meal. Hannay and Victoria make an attractive couple, and the on screen chemistry between Penry-Jones and Leonard works quite well. In fact, most of the humor of the film derives from their at times difficult relationship, Victoria's ideas on women's lib butting up against Hannay's more traditional views.
The locations, particularly the aforementioned Scottish countryside and the moldy castle dungeons, are pleasant to behold in themselves, and lovingly photographed. The direction is confident, and allows the plot holes and questions to float by with few backward glances. The film picks up steam in the second half, when the dangers grow more concrete and the specter of betrayal rears its head, and the ending is emotionally satisfying, if a bit confusing. Taken as a whole, The Thirty Nine Steps is the cinematic equivalent of a good scone: enjoyable if not nourishing, and entirely unobjectionable. Don't expect too much, and this film can provide some simple fun.