Review: The Ebony Tower

DVD. Network

Made when TV movies were still ‘plays’ in Britain, this 1984 Granada production is an interesting, if flawed version of the John Fowles story, adapted by John Mortimer, and quite a big deal at the time, in part because of the casting of Laurence Olivier in a rare TV production at the twilight of his career.

The slight story sees a young artist and critic, David Williams (Roger Rees) visiting legendary artist Henry Breasley (Olivier), who is living in a secluded chateau in the French countryside with two young women – The Mouse / Diana (Greta Scacchi) and The Freak / Anne (Toyah Willcox). Over the course of two days, the pair argue about art and life, Breasley annoyed by both modern art movements and the stiffness of his guest, while Williams, a married man, finds himself increasingly drawn to the enigmatic Mouse, egged on by Anne.

Not much actually happens in this 80 minutes story, but it’s surprisingly fascinating all the same. While Breasley is deliberately provocative, Williams is not quite the innocent he seems, willing to manipulate to get what he needs, and all too eager to disapprove of the somewhat ambiguous relationship between the old man and the two girls. It makes for a fascinating dynamic, and while the outcome of all this is not exactly a surprise, the journey there is quite impressive.

ebonytower02Ironically, the film’s faults are in the casting. Olivier doesn’t really convince as someone who was a free spirited libertarian in his youth, and his tendency to ham it up unfortunately comes to the fore here, as he frequently chews the scenery where a more subtle form of provocation and anger would have been better. Meanwhile, Willcox just doesn’t have the acting chops to carry off her role as the more rebellious of the two girls, eager to sow the seeds of discontent. Rees, though, is well cast as the rather straight-laced and self-righteous guest, and Scacchi, though, is excellent in what could have been a fairly thankless role. Of course, during the 1980s, she had taken over the Helen Mirren contract that required her to get her kit off in a string of artistically valid films, and fans will be relieved to know that this is no exception. Willcox too lies around naked – which must have been an eye-opening moment for teenage fans of her then-recent pop career – but seems terribly self-conscious about doing so.

There’s little excitement in this story, but as a character study and a look at power games, manipulation and obsession, it’s pretty impressive, and I’m glad that it’s emerged on DVD.