1984's "The Far Pavilions" was reportedly one of the most expensive miniseries' produced at the time, costing an estimated $12,000,000. Adapted from M.M. Kaye's epic length novel of the same title, the series, which originally aired on HBO would appear to be far more than capable of doing the novel justice, breaking the story down into what could be assumed to be three, 110-minute acts. Furthering bringing credibility to the table was a cast consisting of "Chariots of Fire's" Ben Cross, Amy Irving, Christopher Lee, Omar Sharif, and John Gielgud. However, such promise sets the bar high and from minute one, "The Far Pavilions" is kneecapped by TV-director Peter Duffell's uninspired helming, putting the full weight of keeping viewers engaged on the shoulders of the cast and eventually incomplete feeling script.
The most consistent positive in the series is Ben Cross as Ash, our hero form birth, who flees certain death after uncovering a murder plot against a boyhood friend. Initially raised by his Hindu nanny, Ash finds himself with a conflicted sense of self, multiplied by his adoption by the British government. Ultimately Ash returns a man and a person from his past, Anjuli (Amy Irving) become the catalyst for the young man's quest to find himself in a world where two cultures dear to his heart are on shaky grounds with one another and Cross does a fine job of balancing the role of stoic but humane soldier and the smitten romantic. Running roughly two-thirds of the series' runtime, Ash's return and eventual forbidden romance with Anjuli make for slightly melodramatic but compelling viewing, with part two of the series ending at a spot that could have been a bittersweet but logical conclusion. From there, things in "The Far Pavilions" go awry and magnify the series' stiff, static direction.
A marginally shot film can often be overlooked if the story is airtight and performances are on their toes, but as good as Cross and the rest of the cast are, "The Far Pavilions" contains enough script issues that are supplemented by a supporting cast, often determined to overact and upstage principals. Main offender a horribly miscast Christopher Lee as an advisor to Ash; Lee does his best to remain a supporting figure, but the concept of the distinguished British actor playing an Indian character coupled with an almost comical accent coming from the unmistakable voice of Christopher Lee, make his scenes stick out like bizarre caricatures. On the other hand, Amy Irving, manages to overcome the fact she's essentially in "brown face" (her character is half-Russian, half-Indian) and makes no attempt to pander to audiences with a phony accent. As the story enters its third act, some actors are downright guilty of crimes against acting, going as far as to bug their eyes out and stiffly drop to the ground when the script asks for a death scene.
The elephant still in the room though remains Duffell's direction, which for all the money he was given is often embarrassing. Held up to contemporary miniseries' of its time, namely "Shogun," a contemporary epic of four years prior, "The Far Pavilions" makes India look downright dull with the camera lazily lingering on a caravan. I'm quite convinced some second unit work was done without a Steadicam, since no epic establishing shot should wiggle as much as some do here. Duffell's work does nothing to help the third act, which according to my research was stripped down from the book, and in the context of the miniseries feels like a bloated epilogue interrupted by a melodrama painted action sequence, set amidst a scene of suspense plucked out of your average TV-mystery but wearing period costumes. A looser adherence to source material and more time spent in the editing room could have easily saved the third act from total mediocrity. While "The Far Pavilions" never reaches a low that makes a viewer's time feel wasted, it does squander the admirable buildup of the first and second act. No one will ever mistake the miniseries as a hallmark of the genre, but its positives outweigh its negatives enough, that genre fans should find enough substance amidst the flaws.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer is a bitter disappointment, robbing the on-location shoot of its ability to highlight the natural beauty of India. Colors are noticeably washed out with a few shots varying in intensity depending on shot chosen. In one instance a red ribbon appears a faded magenta in a long shot and then a drab, red in a close-up, only to return to the lifeless look in a subsequent medium shot. Print damage is noticeable but generally mild, but more noticeable than any fine detail, which the transfer is almost devoid of. In general, poor contrast levels are the biggest issue making shot composition look haphazard and second rate.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track is thoroughly unimpressive once the feature strays from dialogue drive scenes. The wonderful score of Carl Davis is merely heard and not felt, while the few action set pieces exhibit issues with tinny effects and some higher end distortion. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included.
On disc one, a text based set of production notes from both Ben Cross and Amy Irving are included, as well as text-based biography for original novel author M.M. Kaye.
"The Far Pavilions" may devolve into uninspired melodrama, but despite it's inconsistent concluding tone, is far from being an awful miniseries. Sometimes being a slave to authenticity unravels the most earnest adaptation, and it highly appears that trying to get every detail of M.M. Kaye's monstrous epic imagined in 307 minutes was a noble fumble. I still contest, the overall package might have been satisfied with some more judicious editing in the miniseries' third part, even if that would have drastically altered the accuracy of the adaptation, but as a coherent piece of televised entertainment, the result would have been more favorable. Recommended.