Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #598
Number of Views: One
Release Date: 22 January 22, 2017 (TV Premiere), February 20, 2017 (DVD)
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Running Time: 240 minutes
Director: Jessica Hobbs
Producer: Chris Carey
Screenplay: Amanda Coe
Based on a novel by Louise Doughty
Cinematography: Matt Grey
Score: Halfdan E
Editing: Paulo Pandolpho
Studio: Kudos Film & Television
Distributor: Arrow Films
Stars: Emily Watson, Ben Chaplin, Mark Bonnar, Steven Elder, Susan Lynch, Kezia Burrows, Steven Elder, Franc Ashman, Laure Stockley, Olivia Vinall, Assad Zaman, Robin Morrissey, Jack Hamilton, Grace Carey, Beth Chalmers, Jim Creighton, Alexis Conran, Susannah Doyle, Darren Morfitt, Rhashan Stone, Frances Tomelty
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 Halfdan E “Soft Spots”
 Halfdan E & Lars Daniel Terkelsen “Secrets”
 Marina Van Rooy Sly One”
We Brits love a nice bit of drama. Indeed, there is nothing we enjoy more than a nice cup of tea, nice digestive biscuit (custard cream should we be feeling particularly risqué), and a nice bit of Sunday night TV drama to make our awfully nice lives vaguely less pedestrian. I may jest, but the fact remains, seldom does a week pass when a new serial dramatization doesn’t hit our screens. As a rule they tend to be well-mannered, dignified, and ultimately reasonably unmemorable but I’m very much aware that this isn’t my field of expertise and also that I’m in the minority here. Viewing figures suggest that the English are simply crying out for all the drama we can get our hands on and it’s not like we’re not generously catered for.
My issue is that an episodic TV drama commands a different level of investment than a film. For starters, miss the opener and you’re left playing catch-up, something I’ll openly admit to sucking at. Then there’s the fact that it is required to keep you gripped for as long as it runs and supply valid reasoning for tuning in at the same time next week. More than anything else, it all feels so dreadfully proper and dare I say a tad stuffy. I’m generalizing wildly of course but we all have our quirks and one of mine would be a woeful attention span when anything feels more like business than pleasure. It takes a lot to snag my attention and a little thing called timing. New BBC four-parter, Apple Tree Yard, certainly had the latter down to pat but there were two distinct reasons why I willingly offered it more than a cursory glance.
The first is Emily Watson and I’m of the opinion that she is one of the UK’s most naturally endowed performers. Since her breakout film role in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, I have studied her closely and been repeatedly impressed by her performances. Watson has popped up Stateside on numerous occasions with the likes of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, and Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium all showcasing her talent exquisitely. However, she has never forgotten where her roots lie and remains dedicated to assisting with the development of homegrown talent first and foremost. Her leading lady status here acted as a badge of authenticity and my interest in Apple Tree Yard piqued instantly.
The second is Ben Chaplin and he first caught my attention in a short-lived but amusing TV sitcom called Game On back in 1995, where he played an agoraphobic twentysomething with a tendency to let his untamed imagination get the better of him. For a while there, it appeared as though Chaplin would make a name for himself across the pond but, though his output has been steady, the ideal role appears to have perpetually eluded him. I’ve heard it stated that he doesn’t possess quite the range to truly command our attention and, to that, I would point you to the front line of Terrence Malick’s majestic anti-war masterpiece, The Thin Red Line, and the Appalachian accent he nailed syllable-perfectly. This gentleman just needs the right platform and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Watson appeared to provide him precisely that.
Apple Tree Yard is the adaptation of an original novel of the same name by Louise Doughty and is directed by up-and-coming New Zealander, Jessica Hobbs. Commissioned last year, it has just concluded its four-week run on BBC One, with a DVD release to follow shortly. I’m not altogether sure how well it was received by the general public but the critics seem to have found plenty of reasons to pull it apart thread by thread and that is where I come in to raise objection like the twisted firestarter that I am. You see, while there may not be a great deal here that we haven’t seen countless times before, it’s all in the execution and its ability to hold the audience captive while it gradually unfurls before us. It gripped me by the short and curlies pretty much at “how the devil are you?” and tugged them teasingly right through to an ultimate “toodle-oo” that you will never have seen coming.
Our chief point of focus is middle-aged scientist Dr. Yvonne Carmichael (Watson). Yvonne is well-respected by her peers, polite and courteous without question, and appears quietly satisfied with the hand she has been dealt, on the surface level at least. But, contrary to reports, eyes have been known to tell lies from time to time and something concealed within these particular peepers tells a far different tale. Increasingly disillusioned with her failing marriage, she seems to have reached that “what does it all mean?” stage and is more desperate for a dash of adventure than she is even willing to admit to herself. With life in danger of passing her by and growing suspicions that her husband Gary (Mark Bonnar) may be getting his extracurricular kicks some place else, Yvonne could really do with an epiphany right now.
What she gets is Mr. X (Chaplin), a dashing civil servant whom she happens across in the Houses of Parliament by chance after giving a presentation to a select committee. The attraction between them is instantly evident and, after a few minutes of discreet flirtation, he offers her a personal guided tour of the Secret Chapel of the Commons to which she graciously accepts. What begins as an enlightening history lesson soon takes a mad dash to whistle-stop broom cupboard coitus (of the knickers around ankles and one foot in a mop bucket variety) and suddenly the pilot light flickers inside her after a far lengthier stretch dormant than she’d care to be reminded.
After catching her breath, Yvonne makes any readjustments necessary to not look like a woman who has just had tempestuous sex in a poky broom cupboard, and the pair go their separate ways. As far as brief encounters go, this one seemingly has one-time deal written all over it. However, after likening sex with this mysterious stranger to “being eaten by a wolf” during one of many resulting musings, she finds herself yearning for a repeat performance. She doesn’t have to wait long as their paths soon cross again and both parties seem at ease with the come and go dynamic of an illicit no strings affair. It’s a good job for her that Mr. X knows all the best hot spots and Apple Tree Yard just so happens to boast just the ambiance they crave.
And so their dangerous liaison continues. While either party can choose to walk away at any given moment, neither seem capable of making such a flash judgement when the magnetic pull between them is so overpowering. Yet she knows practically nothing about this man other than his fondness for having sex in public places and this only fuels her giddy excitement further. All this sneaking around like a naughty schoolgirl reminds Yvonne that she is more than just a good little wife and mother and the effect it has on her is profound. Unfortunately for her, something is about to happen that will rock her to her very bones and life as she knows it will never be the same.
Revealing any more would largely diminish the impact once the story takes a darker turn but I will say this – while its burn is gradual, Apple Tree Yard flat refuses to slacken its python-like grip on our senses. It also tackles one particularly thorny topic both convincingly and intelligently, highlighting just how isolated and conflicted a “victim” can feel when attempting to process something they never imagined could happen to them. Every last one of the challenges faced rings true as our lead battles to overcome something she hasn’t the first idea how to.
Watson’s monumental turn is one consisting of many layers, peeling away one at a time until Yvonne is revealed at her most vulnerable and, more critically, primitive. Hers is the kind of performance where dialogue feels almost superfluous to requirements as her features effortlessly convey such a myriad of emotions. Curiosity, anticipation, reawakening, joy, love, denial, fear, frustration, disgust, anger, culpability, shame, self-loathing, regret – every last one is present and correct, networked together like a map of the London underground across a face that’s never anything less than expressive. That said, while Yvonne’s thankless plight is front and centre here, great care and attention is taken to ensure that other key players are accentuated.
One of these is her husband Gary, a character who could so easily have been portrayed as simply black and white, but turns out to be far from it. His importance to the plot becomes more clear once events take a turn for the worse and the strength of their long-standing partnership is brought sharply into focus as his priorities become abundantly clear. Bonnar is downright excellent and his considered turn wouldn’t have been possible without Doughty and screenwriter Amanda Coe placing such credible words in his mouth. Indeed the cast is superb right across the board and this is testament to a story extremely well researched, well told, and meticulous in its detail.
As for our mysterious stranger, Yvonne’s “knight in shining armor” Mr. X, Chaplin is only ever afforded a certain amount of freedom to operate and this is understandable given that events are primarily shown from a female perspective. Despite being consigned largely to the background for the most part, he convinces every time the lens requests that he step forward and do so. His character may appear ambiguous and we are kept guessing about his grand scheme for as long as is humanly possible, but there’s more than sufficient warmth behind those big brown eyes to ensure that we give the benefit of the doubt. Are we heading for a fall just like our tormented lead? Or could his chivalry actually be genuine? Watson and her co-star have been dear friends for some time now and this shows through the unspoken on-screen chemistry they share.
The titular passageway itself is a real location in St James’s, London SW1 and may be set to become a new dogging hot spot after this, although not without a great deal of risk assessment beforehand I’d imagine. The strengths here are numerous, from assured direction, to the utterly sentient writing from which it’s sourced, and a multifarious turn from our leading lady that reminds us why she was once nominated for an Oscar and no doubt will be again some day. I urge you to take the time to visit Apple Tree Yard first-hand; as what burns slowly also burns particularly brightly. Having now performed my own risk assessment of sorts, I can state categorically that it’s every bit worth the commute.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Read Basic Instinct Appraisal
Read Six Feet Under (2001-2005) Appraisal
Read American Beauty Appraisal
Read The Thin Red Line Appraisal
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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Rich- my friend Kirt saw this and raved about it. Your review was terrific and now I am literally DYING to see this show. Do you know if it will be coming to BBC America? We usually do get programs after they run on the beebs. I have loved Emily since “Hilary and Jackie.” She reminds me of a female Gary Oldman. As for Ben Chaplin, I don’t know why but he has always reminded me of Ben Cross for some reason. However in looking at him now, I could imagine him and Dominic West as brothers. The entire premise of this film is intriguing and I can’t help but think this affair will definitely be one to remember albeit maybe unpleasantly? I really enjoy how your reviews provide information without spoilers. Truly commendable!
Thank you Susan, I always try and keep things spoiler-free and just provide a flavor instead unless it’s an old classic that everybody knows. I’m not entirely sure whether Apple Tree Yard is coming Stateside but I know it receives a UK release in the next couple of weeks so it should be available on Amazon. Nice comparison with Emily Watson and Gary Oldman by the way, I can see that. Both make acting look so effortless and I don’t think I’ve ever seen either of them any less than brilliant. If you manage to track this down and watch it, let me know what you think. Really gripped me from start to finish.
Hi Richard, thank you so much for your review of Apple Tree Yard. It expresses my opinion exactly and is beautifully written. I too found this series entertaining, gripping and extremely well acted by all, especially the two leads. I have always admired Emily Watson and Ben Chaplin is a revelation – I had never seen him in anything before. My next step, after the effect of the series has worn off a little, is to read Louise Doughty’s book to gain even more of an insight into the motivations of the characters.
Great review! I loved this series and the book as well.