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Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/13/07 22:15:38

"'Incredible Journey,' no. 'Pretty Decent Journey,' yes."
3 stars (Just Average)

Currently ranked as the most expensive production in the history of Australian television, “The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant” is indeed a vast, sweeping yarn decorated with lavish production design and a truly authentic feel for the late 18th century. But it’s also at times lacking the dramatic weight it desperately needs. As a result, it comes off like one of those decent miniseries you could have on while you work on a crossword puzzle or do a little sewing - tune out every now and then, and you won’t miss too much.

The two-part film stars the impossibly beautiful Romola Garai (sadly still best known Stateside for her role in “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights”) as the titular Mary Bryant, a poverty-stricken commoner who turns to highway robbery to provide for her meals. Those familiar with this real-life heroine knows her legend: she is arrested and sent on the first ship headed out to the new penal colony in New South Wales; along the way she gives birth to a daughter and falls in love with a roguish prisoner; they marry after arriving ashore; years later, she plans a daring escape by stealing an officer’s boat. The rest of the legend I will not reveal, on the off chance you are not familiar with how the tale works out.

While apparently not too concerned with pinpoint historical accuracy (really, though, what epic drama ever is?), there is an admirable eye for detail. Director Peter Andrikidis uses tight, dark shots to present the gruesomely claustrophobic journey to Australia, while set and costume designers worked overtime getting the right amount of grunge and filth before our eyes. This is contrasted nicely with the clean, well-to-do goings-on up top, with its officers and statesmen in regal dress. Most costume dramas feel like the result of folks playing dress-up; here, a sense of somber reality washes over the look of the entire production.

The gorgeous look of the piece extends to the cinematography, which has the good fortune of getting to present some of the planet’s most stunning locales. (I’m reminded of Douglas Adams’ quip about how only the British would bother staying in a dour, rainy land while sending their criminals away to paradise.) “Mary Bryant” spent months shooting in some of Australia’s most magnificent corners, and if nothing else, we can sit back and enjoy the view.

Ah, but we’re here for the story first, right? Penned by Peter Berry, the screenplay awkwardly balances sincere character drama with broader, more melodramatic moments, the ones that push forward the central themes of freedom and injustice. The entire finale comes to a gooey standstill as Mary delivers a courtroom speech about the meaning of being a hero. That is the most blatant, overdone example, to be sure, but the script is loaded with ponderous scenes designed to underline the themes at work here.

With so much plodding, sluggish moralizing (no matter how well meant) in play, “Mary Bryant” becomes a too tedious affair, the sort of expansive work that could stand to be trimmed by a cool hour without losing much impact.

Yet there is also so much here that’s well worth the effort. Garai’s performance is outstanding, making a human out of a legend with remarkable ease. Her Mary is a born leader, with a confidence Garai easily presents. And while her character is quite larger than life, the actress puts a subtlety into the role that keeps Mary from becoming too much a myth. Here is a heroine that grabs our attention because of her humanity.

Also of note is Jack Davenport, who plays a young lieutenant who falls for Mary’s charms. Davenport’s character is an invention of the plot, but it’s a good invention; like his character in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, this young man is a stuffy authority figure taken to smoldering jealousy when the woman he loves goes to the arms of another. It’s curious that unlike the real-life characters played by Alex O’Loughlin (as Mary’s husband) and Sam Neill (as the governor), who are flat and negating (to no fault of the actors, who deliver capable performances), Davenport’s fictional Lt. Clarke would be the most riveting aspect of the film. Here is a man torn between honor, duty, and human desires, yet he is never as cartoonish as that description may sound.

There is much character work in “Mary Bryant” that goes beyond the melodramatic trappings of the miniseries format, and it is for this that the picture becomes worthy of viewing. Too long, too rambling, too obvious, to be sure, but at its heart, “Mary Bryant” is a fine project, a rich, enjoyable retelling of a legend.

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