Movie review: ‘Noble House’ (TV mini-series)

nIt’s difficult for me to ever forget the TV mini-series “Noble House.” Not only is it based on one of my Top 10 favorite books (the James Clavell best-seller of the same name), it first aired the week I was in the hospital for knee surgery. Back in the day, orthopedic surgery for injuries such as my depression fracture could leave you hospitalized for six days as it did me. My wife recorded it for me (on VHS, naturally) while I was laid up in the hospital. I came home and immediately watched it and have a number of times since. With the advent of DVDs, I bought the special edition that I watch occasionally today. It isn’t as good a mini-series as the first and most famous from a Clavell novel (“Shogun”), but it is solid and of course has a large supporting cast. “Noble House” takes a different path in its translation from book to screen, as it modifies the story to change from 1963 in the book to 1988 in the mini-series. However, they pull it off – with reservations.

‘Noble House’
(1988; 355 minutes; directed by Gary Nelson and starring Pierce Brosnan, Deborah Raffin and Ben Masters)

IT’S GOOD, BUT STILL MISSES A MARK IT COULD NEVER HIT

(NOTE: I expanded this review on March 26, 2016, by adding some opinion and updating some links. This is the single most-read review on my blog. Thank you for finding it and reading it.)

I’ve always been a huge fan of novelist James Clavell and his work in film. He wrote the screenplay for the World War II classic “The Great Escape” (click here for my review) as well as directing and writing the screen version of “To Sir With Love.” On television, the mini-series taken from his classic novel “Shogun” captured U.S. viewers’ imagination and was one of the biggest mini-series ever when it came out 1980. He followed up his novel “Shogun” with “Noble House,” which was also turned into a mini-series in 1988. Both were on NBC.

(CLICK HERE FOR ALL MY MOVIE REVIEWS)

However, there is a key difference between the two.

While “Shogun” the mini-series stayed true to the novel, the producers of the “Noble House” mini-series decided to make it current as to the airing date. Instead of being set in 1963 like the novel, the mini-series is set in the 1980s as Hong Kong continued headlong from British rule back to administration by China. All-in-all, a period piece would have been much better – and a much more difficult production (but it would have been worth it to be set in the 1960s, as you can see in the coolness of the 1960s setting for the hit AMC series “Mad Men”).

Noble House” is part of the continuing “Asian Saga” by Clavell, which in his novels encompasses (in story chronological order): “Shogun,” “Tai-Pan,” “Gai-Jin,” “King Rat,” “Noble House” and “Whirlwind.” The film version of “Tai-Pan” is an utter stinker (released in 1986, it has Bryan Brown trying, then embarrassing himself and the film fails on oh-so-many levels) and I haven’t seen the film version of “King Rat” (1965 – with George Segal) for some reason.

The plot of “Noble House” can be summed up as business-romance. It is the story developing over several days in Hong Kong of a traditional Asian trading house looking to boost its fortune by teaming up with a company from the United States. The plot then plays out with a variety of subplots of personal animosities, business animosities, lovers, ex-lovers and the culture of both a faded British empire and the emerged dominance of China.

All in all, it would take too much space here for me to give even a synopsis. The mini-series skips over significant portions of the novel out of the sheer volume of detail that a 1,000+ page work offers. So, click here for Wiki’s page on the mini-series. If you like, you can click here to read Wiki’s entry about the novel. Suffice to say that despite negative events that threaten to become cataclysmic, Pierce Brosnan (who plays “Ian Struan Dunross” and is the head of the biggest and most influential company) gives his best stiff upper British lip and manages to conquer all (as he should – he’s THE Tai-Pan).

I’ll give a quick rundown of the main players here. It’s an interesting cast of solid main players; veteran character actors; and a couple of (then) up-and-comers. Here goes:

  • Brosnan’s character is top-shelf and British and, although he’s Irish, the actor does his best Brit here – just as he did four times as “James Bond.” He has to navigate a number of emotions here and is more versatile than the character should have allowed. He simply oozes power and how to be the consummate leader. Casting couldn’t have been done any better. Brosnan is a two-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) and was in the awful “After the Sunset” (click here for my review), the spy thriller “The Fourth Protocol” (click here for my review) and was delightful as the straight man bearing the brunt of Robin Williams’ nasty barbs in “Mrs. Doubtfire.” He was especially good in the remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair” where he sizzled with Rene Russo (click here for my review).
  • Deborah Raffin wasn’t (and isn’t) a household name in entertainment, but she is solid and knows her craft. Raffin plays “Casey Tcholok” and is the executive VP to the American businessman coming to Asia. She becomes infatuated with Brosnan and becomes part of the web that helps him succeed. Still, despite having a choice cut of a character, she is somewhat bland and almost counter to the smolderingly sexual character in the book. Hmmm. I wonder if that was a deliberate change from the novel or Raffin’s inability to elevate the role. Interestingly, Raffin was nominated both best and worst actress for “Touched by Love” – a Golden Globe and a Razzie – and was also in a string of TV movies and the Jacqueline Susann potboiler “Once is Not Enough.”
  • TV veteran Ben Masters is American multi-millionaire “Linc Bartlett” and becomes the hub of everything business in the film (although Brosnan remains the sun around which all characters revolve). Masters does workmanlike job here, but, like Raffin, doesn’t distinguish himself and, unlike Raffin, give a very milquetoast performance. He has also been in “Dream Lover” from 1986.
  • I always seem to enjoy John Rhys-Davies, who was in “Shogun” before this mini-series. He appears to get joyful glee out of playing bad guy “Quillan Gornt” and his character is the opposition of Brosnan’s. Rhys-Davies, who was also in the “Indiana Jones” franchise, does the villain really nicely here and conveys the glee, cruelty and ruthlessness of his character perfectly. Just as Brosnan IS “Ian Dunross,” Rhys-Davies IS “Quillan Gornt.” Both transcend the change of eras in the story from novel to TV. Rhys-Davies was also in “The Lord of the Rings” franchise.
  • Julia Nickson plays the glamorous and beautiful “Orlanda Ramos” and as the former mistress to Rhys-Davies is directed by him to “distract” Masters. She’s the romantic hub that affects many in the story. She doesn’t have much to work with, but doesn’t make any mistakes and doesn’t elevate her character. Nickson, who is the ex- of David Soul, was also somewhat competent in the little-remembered and not-very-well-done Chuck Norris karate flick “Sidekicks” (click here for my review) as well as “Rambo: First Blood Part II.”
  • A young Tia Carrere (she was 21 when “Noble House” aired) plays vixen and kept woman “Venus Poon” four years before her breakout role in “Wayne’s World.” It’s not much of a part, but Carrere does an acceptable job and pouts pretty well. She was much, much better as the bad girl opposing Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis in “True Lies” (click here for my review).
  • Denholm Elliot, who was so marvelous in the “Indiana Jones” franchise and “Trading Places” (click here for my review), has a small role as “Alistair Struan,” the tai-pan who steps down and gives the mantle to Brosnan. He’s very effective in his short time in the mini-series – as he is in most of his work. He also has a bit more of an edge than in some of his better-remembered works.
  • Burt Kwouk plays “Philip Chen” and is best remembered as “Cato Fong” in “Revenge of the Pink Panther” with Peter Sellers. He is the Chinese “compradore” to Brosnan’s company. Kuwok does a commendable job here and is on top of his game … despite the limitations I’ve mentioned earlier about the mini-series and how it handles Asian themes for the actors.
  • Khigh Dheigh plays top criminal “’Four-Finger’ Wu” and the only problem with his character is that he is asked to do what look like silly Asian mannerisms (little-understood stereotypes, actually). He tries, but it doesn’t always come off well as the mini-series tries to convey some of the nuances from the novel (such as cursing a bird as it flies overhead) without being able to realistically accomplish it. In any case, Dheigh does an overall excellent job here and conveys the part as well as anyone could. He was also in the original “The Manchurian Candidate” and “How to Murder Your Wife.”
  • John Houseman, most famously “Professor Kingsfiled” in “The Paper Chase” film and TV versions, plays Hong Kong “Governor Sir Geoffrey Allison” and does his typical haughty “I’m looking down at you” condescension here. He won an Oscar for “The Paper Chase” and that one is his signature role in both film and TV.

A small point: IMDb.com notes that “Noble House” has 355 minutes of running time. The original mini-series was set out over four episodes and the 355 minutes does not include commercials. In comparison, “Shogun” was 547 minutes over five episodes. On one Internet site, “Shogun” was rated No. 7 mini-series (click here to read it), while “Noble House” doesn’t get – and didn’t get – the same amount of attention.

In this review I listed Clavell’s “Asian Saga” novels in chronological order by when each story is set. In the publishing order it was “King Rat” (1962), “Tai-Pan” (1966), “Shogun” (1975), “Noble House” (1981), “Whirlwind” (1986) and “Gai-Jin” (1993).

Of course “Noble House” didn’t rank in the listing of top films, but here goes on the movie rankings: the No. 1 film of 1988 was “Rain Man” with $172.8 million. Here are other films from that year that I’ve reviewed:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Here’s one from me and NOT from IMDb.com: Brosnan mispronounces feng shui early in the mini-series and this is just one of several missteps the producers take in trying to communicate subtle Asian traits and mannerisms to a Western audience. They didn’t have the canvas provided by the long novel, but I still can’t overlook this mispronunciation.
  • Clavell has a character (“Peter Marlowe”) in the book that is basically … him. However, the character didn’t make the cut and was eliminated as an unnecessary accoutrement in the mini-series. However, Clavell was executive producer of “Noble House.”
  • Directly of IMDb.com: “The story is based on fact: Struan & Co. is actually Jardine-Matheson and the events of Noble House actually took place over a period of seven years in the 1960s, not seven days. Though Jardines has transferred its headquarters to Bermuda and sold its shipping interests in 1984, it is still a major presence in Hong Kong; by one estimate, 1 of every 10 shares of stock traded on the Hong Kong exchange are owned or controlled by Jardines.”
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Struans was founded in 1841 and celebrates its 150th anniversary – meaning the miniseries takes place in 1991. Since the mini-series was broadcast in 1989, that makes it a ‘future history’ story and, by the strict definition, qualifies it as a science fiction film!”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015-2016.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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