Monday, 12 September 2016

Review - 'Going Postal'

The third, and so far last, in a series of live-action adaptations of Terry Pratchett's popular Discworld novels, Going Postal is an adaptation which also manages to be the most successful of the three. It is a tale of love, redemption, and postage stamps - and, one in which a talented con-man isn't so much given a second-chance at life as he is practically forced into it by circumstances well beyond his control.

Moist von Lipwig (Richard Coyle) decided early on that he would choose his own path through life - and, that he would be responsible for his own success. Unfortunately, the way that he has chosen to go about this is one that relies exclusively on other people's money, and on his ability to take it for himself. Over the years, von Lipwig has made a significant fortune through what he considers to be, essentially, victimless crimes - and, in all of that time, he has always been able to easily avoid the consequences of his actions.

The one that Moist von Lipwig could not possibly have anticipated, though, is that the officer of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch assigned to investigate his most recent crimes should happen to be a werewolf - and that, as a result, she should be easily able to track him down and arrest him. Within a matter of days, Moist is tried, convicted and sentenced - and, in no time at all, he is also hanged.

Much to his surprise, though, Moist's life does not end here. Instead, he wakes soon after to find himself in the office of the the Patrician, Lord Vetinari (Charles Dance) - the true ruler of Ankh-Morpork. The Patrician, it seems, has an unusual offer for Moist von Lipwig - either the clever young man can take on a government position as the new head of the Ankh-Morpork post office, or his next execution will prove to be a little more permanent than his first.

Coming to what he considers to be the only sensible conclusion, von Lipwig promptly accepts the position - then, just as promptly attempts to flee the city. Despite his best efforts, though, von Lipwig is quickly tracked down once more - this time by his parole officer, Mr. Pump (who just so happens to be a golem).

Resigned to his fate as the new Post Master, now, Moist von Lipwig finds himself confronted by the impossible backlog of a few years worth of unsent mail, by the surprisingly fierce competition of the city's new part-semaphore/part-telegraph 'Clacks' system, and by the knowledge that each of the last four people to hold his current position seems to have died a rather violent death.Then, there is the uncomfortable fact that the post office, itself, seems to be haunted. And, on top of that, there is also the matter of his increasingly complicated relationship with a stern young woman by the name of Adora Belle Dearheart (Claire Foy) - a relationship made even more complex with the realisation that one of his previous scams may have been directly responsible for her family's fall from grace.
As both an adaptation of one of Terry Pratchett's popular novels, and a story in its own right, Going Postal would have to be classified as a success, over all - though, to be fair, it is still not without its issues.

During the first of the two episodes which make up the mini-series, for example, a rather big deal is made about the strange, and distinctly supernatural, nature of the post office, itself. There is the series of strange 'dreams' experienced by von Lipwig, in which he is forced to experience the broader consequences of some of his earlier scams - which ultimately come to serve as an important part of his development as a character, early on. Then, there is the even stranger idea that the 'ghosts' which seem to haunt the post office may, in fact, be the unsent letters, themselves - which have, somehow, come to life.

Each of these details adds a slightly surreal, and genuinely fascinating, element to Moist von Lipwig's earliest experiences in the post office - and, each seems to hint at an intriguing mystery to be solved. But, in both cases, the exact nature of what is actually happening is never really explored in any real detail. In the case of von Lipwig's strange 'dreams', for example, we are given clear indication that they not simply his own guilt-ridden imaginings (and, that what he is seeing is actually what happened) - but, we are never given any sort of explanation about how, or why, he would suddenly have these visions. Similarly, in the case of the post office, itself, there is nothing more complex than a cryptic speech about the 'power of words' to explain how a room full of forgotten mail might somehow come to life and demand to be sent. By the time we reach the second episode, too, each of these strange little sub-plots seem to have been quietly forgotten - so, it ultimately ends up becoming little more than a frustrating sticking point.

It's not so much of a problem for any viewers familiar with Terry Pratchett's novels, of course. For long-time readers of that remarkably strange series, these sort of occurrences are a well established part of the world. The Disc is, after all, the sort of place where words really do have power, and where beliefs can shape reality in a very genuine and very profound manner (and, where the Disc's various gods are known to spend their time heading around to athiests's houses, to throw stones through the windows). Long-time fans would already be familiar with all of this - but, for the new-comer, some of the idea that might be presented in a Discworld story might seem to be willfully strange. And, they might seem like details which really need to be developed with more care and attention than they are able to receive in a short adaptation.

But, then, that's an issue shared by all three of these live-action adaptations. It is also one that links to another recurring problem - that being the occasionally baffling continuity issues that crop up when you try to adapt a small portion of such a long-running series. Why is there a werewolf in the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, for example? Well, that's Angua - there's a whole bunch of Discworld novels specifically about the City Watch, which give her a much large role to play. Also, why does a newspaper photographer who shows up in the background of a couple of scenes look a classic vampire, straight out of some cheesy old horror movie? Well, that's because he actually is a vampire - again, there's a book about it.

In each case, the casual way in which these extra details are worked in does an effective job of creating a sense of a broader, and much more complicated, world - but, it is also one which can seem a bit unwelcoming to new-comers. Honestly, coming in blind to an adaption of one of the later books in the series would have to feel a little bit like being tossed into the deep end of the pool, only to remember that you never quite got around to learning how to swim.

Despite that, though, Going Postal still manages to be the most successful of the three live-action adaptations that have been released, so far. In many ways, Going Postal manages to strike a good balance between the respective strengths of the previous two adaptations. Much like The Color of Magic, Going Postal is often genuinely funny - and, much like Hogfather, it also manages to tell a genuinely compelling story, featuring genuinely well-rounded characters. Moist von Lipwig, as played by Richard Coyle, makes for a surprisingly likable figure - both before and after the series of revelations which see him finally begin to take responsibility for his actions. Adora Belle Dearheart, meanwhile, is an entertainingly abrasive foil for the naturally charming con-man. She is also as fair from the classic image of the 'love interest' as it is possible to get. Much of the supporting cast which surrounds the pair is also great.

For the villains, meanwhile, we have two different flavours of 'over-the-top' performances - one of which is genuinely entertaining, while the other is less successful.The first, in the form of the corrupt business-man Reacher Gilt (David Suchet), provides a fun example of some fantastic 'scenery-chewing' from an actor who is clearly having a great time on-set. This is especially true as we move into the second of the two episodes - when the story shifts focus onto a more straight-forward 'battles of wits' between Reacher Gilt and Moist von Lipwig. Unfortunately, with the monstrous assassin Mr. Gryle, there was a combined failure of both make-up and performance which resulted in something cringe-worthy, rather than compelling. In the case of Mr. Gryle, the best that can really be said is that, at least, he only featured in a couple of scenes.

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