Aug 17, 2008

DVD Review: Noble House (1988)

When Pierce Brosnan had to pass on James Bond because of his Remington Steele contract only to have the show cancelled, he drowned his sorrows in this 1988 miniseries adaptation of James Clavell’s epic novel Noble House–and he could have done a lot worse. Noble House, co-starring Brosnan’s would-have-been Living Daylights co-star John Rhys-Davies, is great entertainment and enormously fun to watch–despite a disappointing conclusion. I never realized that I loved miniseries until I saw Noble House, but it leaves me wanting to see more. Yes, the miniseries (particularly in its 1980s incarnation) is not only a format (what used to be called "long form"), but a genre unto itself. It’s typified by bombastic theme music, lavish sets, high production values (for 80s television, anyway), a whole season’s worth of over-the-top soap opera drama (twists, turns, reversals and betrayals galore!) packed into several nights’ viewing, and a slew of high-profile guest stars who wouldn’t normally do TV. Furthermore, it gives those actors a license to perform Miniseries Acting, which is an acceptable prime-time variation on Soap Opera Acting befitting the material, usually involving lots of clenched teeth and raised eyebrows. (Come to think of it, that’s a lot like Eurospy acting!) This is definitely not a criticism. It gives the material the kind of exaggerated dramatic weight associated with Greek Tragedy or silent movies, and that makes it an ideal format for adapting dense, convoluted novels like Clavell’s or Ludlum’s. It sucks the viewer in.

Noble House sucked me in from the very start, introducing us in the first episode to a cast of fascinating characters so huge that it could never exist in a movie. Another advantage that a miniseries has over a regular television show is that the shorter production schedule and higher profile attracts a higher caliber of actor to smaller parts, and consequently every single role is populated by a recognizable face–especially to spy fans! Everyone in the cast is familiar, and they’re all from other spy things as varied as Bond, True Lies, The Avengers, The Saint, The Professionals, The Wild Wild West, Department S, No. 1 of the Secret Service, Tiffany Jones, Wonder Women and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, to name but a few. I could go on, but that would take away some of the fun of watching: pausing the DVD every five minutes to check the IMDB and figure out where you recognize "that guy" from.

Playing powerful Hong Kong business rivals, Brosnan and Rhys-Davies are excellent anchors for the starry supporting cast. Brosnan, as Tai-Pan (supreme boss) of the Noble House Ian Dunross, gnashes teeth and raises eyebrows with the best of ‘em and, in playing a character far more ruthless and conniving than Remington Steele, demonstrates that he actually would have made an excellent 007 even back then. (Nothing against Dalton, mind you, who also made an excellent 007!) Rhys-Davies, whose presence in supporting roles has elevated many a mainstream feature, relishes this rare starring role. In the sublimely-named Quillan Gornt, he creates a complex antagonist who truly believes he’s in the right (and, frankly, could be–if the story were told from a different point of view). Unfortunately, the script betrays him in the final part, transforming the character into a mustache-twirling Villain who inexplicably assaults the leading lady. Even then, though, Rhys-Davies makes the most of it. Under no circumstances should his fans miss Noble House.

Dunross and Gornt run rival Hong Kong trading companies with long and well-remembered histories; their families have been rivals for generations. Dunross’s firm, Struan’s, is the largest–and therefore known as the "Noble House." Gornt would kill (perhaps literally) to take that title from him. Into this small and incestuous world of Hong Kong business come two Americans, Linc Bartlett (Ben Masters) and KC Tcholok (Deborah Raffin, as the only woman on the playing field at this level of the corporate ladder), with their own aspirations on the Noble House. The plot unfolds at a deliberate–but never slow, despite some of the requisite miniseries padding–pace, as we meet a number of other characters who will play pawns or would-be kings in this struggle of corporate titans. These include bankers, tycoons, kept women, cops (the always reliable Gordon Jackson as Superintendent of Police), crooks (Hawaii Five-O’s Khigh Dheigh in a stellar, subdued, multi-layered performance) and spies–of both the corporate and professional variety.

As the various players cross and double-cross each other, the inevitable love stories develop as well. Linc’s romance with a Hong Kong socialite is trite, with all the lingering glances and sappy, swelling music you could ask for. These are the moments to fast forward. Ian’s relationship with KC is more interesting and more complex. Raffin is actually a very gifted actress, as well as very beautiful, and I’m amazed she didn’t go on to have a bigger career. She and Brosnan share great chemistry together.

Amidst the romance, the business, the blackmail and the rest of the high-stakes shenanigans, the miniseries hits a tremendous crescendo at its midpoint with a spectacular fire on a multi-tiered luxury boat. The boat is hosting a party that all the main characters are at, which is no stretch of the imagination because, as presented in Noble House, that’s the insular nature of Hong Kong business in the 1980s. This exciting scene is really a remarkable setpiece for any television production. It also provides fantastic character moments for both Brosnan and Rhys-Davies. By putting their characters in such a life-or-death scenario, it allows them to show their true natures which, rather surprisingly, turn out to be worthy of the title: noble. Despite their daily struggle to ruin one another in games of high finance, both men quickly work together when they find themselves and others in real peril, and both behave courageously. The next day, of course, it’s back to business as usual, but having witnessed this revealing moment, you realize that they really do view their business battles as a bit of a game. For me, this makes things even more exciting.

The intrigue, politics and constantly changing alliances are actually enough to make a story about big business thrilling on its own (I imagine that’s Clavell’s gift), but on top of all that, there’s also a legit spy story. When Superintendent Armstrong discovers that one of his officers (and a trusted mutual friend of his and Ian Dunross’) is really a sleeper agent placed by Communist China, his Commissioner orders him to break the man. This leads to an Ipcress File-like sequence in which Armstrong reluctantly puts his friend on a two-hour sleep cycle in a psychedelic red room with moving, angular floors in order to make him lose track of the days and confess. Meanwhile, Dunross crucially needs financing from a Chinese bank, and the Chinese need their agent back. Commerce and politics (inextricably entwined) converge explosively as the drama reaches its conclusion...

While the spy aspect pays off nicely, other storylines unfortunately don’t in the miniseries’ lackluster finale. In a major cop-out, a natural disaster suddenly derails a terrific, tense, high-stakes business/espionage/crime plot by conveniently killing off primary antagonists and eliminating the threats they pose in what can only be described as a dramatic cheat. No matter how impressive the disaster was supposed to look (and, frankly, on a TV budget, it’s not great–and the model work is painfully obvious, especially compared to the excellent boat fire earlier), it shanghais the plot (wrong city, I know) entirely. Instead of satisfying resolutions to the complex scenarios that had been set up, we get standard-issue survivor rescue not nearly as dramatic enough to live up to the wonderfully dramatic score. And, somehow, Dunross manages to instantly hone in on the exact person he’s looking for in the mangled wreckage of an entire skyscraper without coming across any other survivors!

One of the several storylines sacrificed for these disaster antics is Burt Kwouk’s, which is a shame because the prolific actor turns in a very good performance, and gets to be a lot more dignified than the 80s and 90s Pink Panther efforts ever let him be! Not having read Clavell’s brick of a book, I can’t say how faithful all this is to the novel, but it certainly feels like a rushed TV ending meant to wrap things up quickly because the production was running low on time and money.

As much of a letdown as the ending is, however, its not nearly enough to ruin the excellent hours of entertainment that have led up to it. In addition to its compelling story and first-rate cast, Noble House is packed with great subtleties that would never fit into a movie, but really convey both the world of high finance and the exotic setting of 1980s Hong Kong well. Furthermore, there are great travelogue shots of both Hong Kong and Macau, taking full advantage of the location shoot. There’s plenty of time for sightseeing in a miniseries, and I like my spy entertainment to transport me to foreign lands! In fact, these locations really made me wish that Richard Chamberlain had followed up his Bourne Identity miniseries with one of The Bourne Supremacy, also largely set in Hong Kong.

Not only did I thoroughly enjoy Noble House; it opened my eyes to a whole genre I was largely oblivious to. I’ll be checking out more 80s miniseries now, and I hope they all turn out to be half as rewarding as this terrific Pierce Brosnan vehicle.


Paul Bishop said...

As always an incisive review. I remember this mini-series from when it played on televison, but your review makes me want to see it again.

DT said...

Really great review! Check out my 'business lessons from the Noble House miniseries' too

Tanner said...

Thanks for the link! That's a cool analysis you've done, and opens up another way to view this miniseries to me. Very interesting! Reading it also makes me want to re-watch this. I really enjoyed Noble House. I wish there were a follow-up to watch.

The Rush Blog said...

In a major cop-out, a natural disaster suddenly derails a terrific, tense, high-stakes business/espionage/crime plot by conveniently killing off primary antagonists and eliminating the threats they pose in what can only be described as a dramatic cheat.

Can you be a little more precise here?

Tanner said...

Well, not without getting into spoiler territory, I'm afraid, which I was trying to avoid. But I suppose I can reveal that the disaster causes a building to collapse, trapping many of the characters. Some had been on a collision course that promised to lead to a dramatic confrontation, but instead the disaster prevents that. I wonder if the book ends the same way. I'm eager to read it one day, but daunted by the amount of time it's bound to take at that length! But it almost feels as if the miniseries is rushed at the end in a way that a book might not be. I'm curious, anyway. Whatever the case, there was so much to enjoy in the miniseries leading up to the disappointing finale that that conclusion didn't really detract much from the overall experience. I'd certainly still recommend it!