ShareAll sharing options for:Around the World in 80 Days (2021) review: Entertaining adventure, if not quite the trip of a lifetime
- Twitter (opens in new window)
- Facebook (opens in new window)
- Reddit (opens in new window)
- Pocket (opens in new window)
- Flipboard (opens in new window)
- Email (opens in new window)
There’s nothing quite like an adaptation of a classic Victorian tale, but whether it’s by Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle or Lewis Carroll, they’ve always got a lot to live up to. There have been countless versions of various yarns for both film and TV, so nothing less than brilliance will suffice. Could a brand-new production of Jules Verne‘s Around the World in 80 Days join the elite?
Despite being up there with the most famous nineteenth-century works, the full potential of Phileas Fogg and company has seldom been realised on screen, big and small. The only relatively recent, commercialised movie adaptation came in 2004, with the Jackie Chan–Steve Coogan vehicle. It was heavily-criticised, not least for being unfaithful to the original story, and holds a mere 32% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The 1956 David Niven version is the only effort of genuine note.
Television incarnations (of sorts) to write home about include the Michael Palin travel programme, and – for all you 80s kids out there – an animated series broadcast by the BBC. Still, expectations remain, so how does this lavish eight-parter stack up?
One thing’s for sure, it’s very easy on the eye. Whether it’s the sets, locations (which include South Africa and Romania), or even title credits, everything about it cries big-screen, packing an almost cinematic experience into your TV set. Yet for all that, the big questions with this kind of adaptation lie within how faithful is it to the novel, and whether how much or how little it decides to be is to its detriment.
The dry, subtle humour, that switches seamlessly to a more serious tone, is in keeping with the original story: Around the World never tries too hard to be funny. The big difference comes in the characterisation. While Mr Fogg (David Tennant) remains every inch the Victorian gent, the character of Passepartout (Ibrahim Koma), is far removed from the bumbling sidekick that Verne gave us. Even more stark is the addition of Abigail Fix (Leonie Benesch), who doesn’t even appear in the book. An aspiring journalist and daughter of Fogg’s Reform Club colleague, Fortesque, she chronicles the voyage in a bid to prove her worth. Rewriting a famous tale that’s nearly 150 years old is a brave move and one that could have easily backfired. Yet in reflecting matters of the 21st-century heart, the heavily character-driven nature of the piece is given a real sense of purpose.
Now for the acting. We of course expect nothing less than brilliance from Tennant, and he’s perfectly suited to the role. In fact, he’s managed to take the character to new levels, an achievement even for him. By the end, it’s clear as a mirage in the Sahara that he’s not just a hero for navigating the globe, but also for coming to terms with the man he’s been and what he must become. Excuse the sacrilege, but he may be more born to Around the World than Dr. Who!
And that’s the show’s main strength. All three of our heroes are on personal journeys, and all three are as well-acted as they are scripted. You find yourself gradually buying into it, so the audience are on a journey all of their own. Another positive is the eight-episode length, which is just about right – see last year’s ten-part The Great, for example, which went on a little too long for its own good. Although it takes a little while to appreciate these journeys, both physical and metaphorical, once you do, there’s no going back.
All of which bodes well for a second series that’s already been commissioned. With no original story to constrain it, or judge it alongside, the path is clear to create a 21st-century Victorian classic. Around the world all over again? Let’s wait and see…