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The 39 Steps
cast: Rupert Penry-Jones, Lydia Leonard, David Haig, and Patrick Malahide

director: James Hawes

85 minutes (12) 2008
ITV DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by James A. Stewart
The 39 Steps is a classic novel by the brilliant Scot, John Buchan. Its pace is fierce and the shadowy undertones and atmosphere grips the reader right till the end. Sure, there are some criticisms of the novel, especially the convenient coincidences that allow it to run apace, but as a straight down-the-line thriller combining political intrigue with espionage, it has it all. To date, there have been three notable film adaptations of the novel (with another to follow in 2011). The first was Hitchcock's excellent 1935 version; a loose interpretation at best, with significant character additions - in particular a female love interest, scene changes and general made-for-the-big-screen tinkering. The end result was an entirely satisfying film.

Following on, in the 1970s a wonderful offering with a thrilling ending as Hannay hangs from Big Ben. To my mind, this was actually the better of the two earlier renditions. Then comes the British television's new millennium addition, fully sanitised by the PC brigade and amazingly, takes Buchan's thrill-a-minute novel and makes the story seem as about exciting as scrambled egg on toast.

I shouldn't be too hasty here; there are some real highlights from this modern version. Firstly, it is as close to Buchan's novel in terms of bare plot as any version so far, albeit the idea of a female love interest is added a la Hitchcock. In the female love interest, Victoria, played by the feisty and quite excellent Lydia Leonard, we have the film's top performer. Some of her lines were painful, and in particular a piece where she hides the notebook and then goes back to find it made my head hurt, but all in all she is standout throughout.

Hannay, the reluctant hero, is played by Spooks' Rupert Penry-Jones in quite simply, a tabletop performance that's more wooden than Sherwood Forest. There was not a lot endearing about Hannay in this film, save the fact that Penry-Jones does look splendid and tailor-made for these parts, but even his supposed misogyny was painfully contrived and in comparison with Donat and Carroll in Hitchcock's version, the chemistry between the two stars was sadly non-existent.

In respect to scenes, the backdrop of the Scottish lowlands was used well, and being from there, remarkably well lit! The scenes were aesthetically pleasing and gave the impression of a polished finish - however, here comes the gripe, that does nothing for the tone and atmosphere of the story and in many ways it seemed a case of style over substance.

The whole pace of the story is like watching a tortoise towing a caravan. The direction and photography are actually really good, and in fairness, some of the peripheral cast put on decent performances. There are also some moments of mirth, and this is something new compared to previous versions, but that is about it.

Possibly the worst part of the film is the ending - the link to the 39 steps is so tenuous as to stretch the boundaries on poetic licence to breaking point. After a shootout at a loch-side poor Victoria is gunned down by a half-dead German officer who previously couldn't hit the proverbial cow's arse with a banjo. Franz Ferdinand is then shot and the war commences and the Brits march out to save the day.

The 39 Steps British TV style is pretty naff, especially as its predecessors are so good. If you want to see a film adaptation of Buchan's tremendous novel, grab one, or even better both, of the previous films; you won't regret it.

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