HBO’s adaptation of the best-selling fantasy novel has been winning an army of fans on both sides of the Atlantic but reviewer Kieran Mathers hasn’t quite been won over. Could that be about to change? Read on, find out and let us know where you stand in the comments section.
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I’ve been looking forward to reviewing this one. Finally, after two episodes of faintly stilted action, it seems the show has managed to find its natural rhythm. It also produces its strongest scene so far.
The first thing to note is that there has been a change of director and the difference is marked. From the very first arrival of the party in Malta King’s Landing, the dialogue feels right and the pacing spot on. Even Sean Bean has discovered a little more ability.
In a great opening scene, Ned Stark is confronted in the throne room by Jamie Lannister. The two characters being who they are, it’s all threats, but the direction allows the scene to grow naturally, avoiding the pitfalls of the previous episodes and the entire exchange is skilfully laden with subtext. It’s great to see the series begin to match up to its potential.
We’re also introduced to four major new characters, who are the members of the King’s small council and crafters of much the intrigue which will develop. Two of these match my mental images from the book very well. Lord Varys, the eunuch, is perfectly cast in the form of Conleth Hill, who manages to show a silent, calculating intelligence very well and strikes a good balance between threateningly well informed and passively submissive. His soft and persuasive voice is particularly well judged and he deserves credit for this.
Lord Renly (Gethin Anthony) is also well cast and seems as charismatic as will be required in the future.
Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover) was a bit of a shock as, while he is supposed to be old, I did not expect him to be quite so doddery and ancient. He seems like he would not be much use as the King’s personal physician, and I had definitely imagined him as somewhat sprightlier.
Aiden Gillen did not immediately meet my expectations for the character of Paeter Baelish, or Lord Littlefinger, as he is known. He takes a similar approach to Conleth Hill’s Varys, and his voice work is oddly mannered and distinct. It’s also quite slow, and I worry that in the hands of another director he may end up being terribly monotonous.
There’s another attack of HBO nudity, but it’s getting dull complaining about this. I suppose a trip to a brothel is a decent enough excuse for showing topless women and it suits the decadence of the capital to have them draped around the silk encrusted boudoir. Catelyn Stark’s outrage at being dragged there is another strong moment for the episode.
The children continue to be outstanding, with Maise Williams inhabiting the role of Arya Stark more and more as the weeks go on. She and Sean Bean have a wonderful chemistry in their later scenes, when Ned Stark explains the danger they are in.
It’s not perfect, however. The sense and flow of time needs to be addressed; we have no idea whether a scene takes place days or weeks after the previous one. The arrival of Catelyn in the capital demonstrates this problem well; she was left behind in Winterfell for at least a week once the royal party had departed. Now, taking into account the fact she could have travelled more quickly than they did, she still manages to arrive on what seems like the same day. We see Littlefinger speaking to Ned Stark, apparently after the first meeting of the small council, but have already seen him meet Catelyn. Does that mean he meets Ned Stark after another meeting, or the same one? It might seem like a minor point but it’s a moment which undermines the realism of the piece.
Despite some improvements, Sean Bean remains slightly wooden. He can do threats and sadness very well but his range is limited when it comes to other emotions. He still isn’t convincing me of Ned Stark’s overall ability, which is surprising since we know Ned has led armies into battle. He currently seems to lack the necessary conviction to fulfil such a role.
This episode also struggles to adapt its source material. In the novel, Catelyn and Ned’s assumptions about who tried to kill Bran seem sensible, as they don’t possess all the facts. But without their internal dialogue, they just appear to be jumping severely to conclusions, which makes them seem easy to manipulate.
Meanwhile, to the extreme north, Jon Snow continues to bed down into the Night’s Watch. The action choreography deserves a mention here; the sword fight has a brutal physicality about it, which is all too rarely seen. It’s similar to The Lord of the Rings, and close to what I imagine a real sword fight would actually be like. Use the blade, yes, but also use the hilt, the pommel, your fists and your feet to defend yourself. This is Errol Flynn in a bar-brawl. Nothing pretty about it!
That said, the conversion of Jon from antagonist to assistant needed drawing out a little more. We are able to observe the change from the outside but it seemed to lack internal realisation. We also missed the dialogue in which he apologises, which is in the books. That new-found humility would have made Jon even more personable which, with Kit Harrington’s reserved acting, would have helped us care for the character even more.
The final scene is without doubt the best translation of the book and just a wonderful moment of drama between Arya and her dancing master, Syrio Forell (Miltos Yerolemou), the former first sword of Braavos. This is the man whom her father has hired to train her with Needle, the sword that Jon gave her in the previous episode, and though visually different from his print counterpart (he has hair) the character of Syrio has clearly survived the transition to the screen.
He is portrayed as charming but with a real edge; a dangerous swordsman from across the sea, and the interplay between the two of them is lovely. Again, the choreography is great, but it is the immediate connection between the characters which gives the scene its spark. There are moments of softness which complement the dangerous reality of what they are training for. Everything from the camera work, acting, set and sound design comes together to create a really memorable scene.
Oh, and the set designers discovered that a palace should actually look like a palace too. I was happy to see that, while the northerners have yet to discover plaster, the southerners live in great comfort!
So, now they’ve finally brought Westeros to life, bring on the next one…