Bloomberg News

Civil War Vet Stalks Wife’s Killers; David Hare’s Spy Games: TV

November 01, 2011

Oct. 31 (Bloomberg) -- With their stovepipe hats, plaid waistcoats and -- in the case of one gorgeous hooker -- some very cool facial tattoos, the dusty denizens of AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” would be the envy of any Steampunk fashionista.

Set in 1865, the series chronicles the construction of the transcontinental railroad by immigrants, emancipated slaves and Civil War veterans toiling under the merciless whip of a corrupt tycoon. It’s a Western for the Occupy Wall Street era.

Anson Mount plays Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier traveling with the mobile Hell on Wheels railroad crew while secretly carrying out his own deadly plan: One by one, he stalks and kills members of the Union regiment who raped and murdered his wife.

Lest anything as thorny as Civil War politics muddy this Johnny Reb’s heroic status, we’re told Bohannon freed his slaves and began paying them a year before Secession.

Mount’s performance, unbothered by a consistent Southern accent, aims for Spaghetti Western stoicism but is merely bland and too contemporary -- much like the show. The Old West hasn’t seen the likes of Bohannon’s budding interracial friendship with the proud, angry Elam Ferguson (played by the rapper Common) since “Blazing Saddles.”

Head-Scalping

Other characters in this 10-episode series (written and created by Joe and Tony Gayton) include the beautiful railroad executive Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), survivor of an Indian attack; “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney), the megalomaniacal tycoon bent on taming the West at any cost; and Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), a Native American converted to Christianity and traveling as a missionary.

Despite the show’s grit and blood (the head-scalping, arrow- piercing violence is very graphic), “Hell on Wheels” is unwilling to tackle race, gender, religion and capitalism with anything but the most modern sensibility.

Photographed in the same trendy, desaturated look of AMC’s much better “The Walking Dead,” the show costumes itself in revisionism but seems no deeper than “Gunsmoke.”

“Hell on Wheels” airs Sunday on AMC at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: **

‘Page Eight’

In “Page Eight,” David Hare’s erudite eulogy for the glory days of Cold War espionage, the former wife of an aging, increasingly irrelevant British agent sneers to her ex, “You’re like jazz.”

It’s not a compliment.

Airing as an installment of PBS’s “Masterpiece Contemporary” series, the two-hour show works as both a taut thriller and an impeccably performed character study of a man who has outlived his era.

Bill Nighy plays Johnny Worricker, a veteran MI5 agent whose decades of spying have left him with little reward but cynicism. When he remarks to a colleague that he is “apolitical,” the co- worker retorts, “You’re a-everything, aren’t you Johnny?”

But the old spy still has a few tricks left. Worricker comes upon information that implicates the British prime minister (Ralph Fiennes, in a brief but fine appearance) in the earliest days of America’s secret black-site prisons and post-9/11 use of torture.

When his boss and confidante (Michael Gambon) dies suddenly, Worricker is left alone to unravel a conspiracy that could take down MI5 and the prime minister.

Davis’s Spy

Well, not entirely alone. Worricker is intrigued by and suspicious of a beautiful next-door neighbor (Rachel Weisz) whose sudden appearance may be connected to the conspiracy.

The cast couldn’t be better, from Nighy and Weisz to a scene-stealing Judy Davis as a longtime spy with a well-honed knack for bureaucratic survival.

Hare, who wrote and directed, gives all of them fine material.

“Weather’s changing,” Nighy’s world-weary spook mutters beneath a cloudy sky. “Feels like the end of an era.”

“Page Eight” airs Sunday on PBS at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***1/2

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

--Editors: Rick Warner, Jeremy Gerard.

To contact the writer on the story: Greg Evans at gregeaevans@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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