Avenging the Avengers

On Saturday I decided to watch The Avengers movie on Channel 5, the first time I’d seen it since it came out back in 1998 and in complete defiance of the general critical opinion that it’s The Worst Movie Ever Made And No Mistake. Now maybe I’m missing something here, but it’s by no means that bad. In fact, it’s not even The Worst Movie Exhuming An Old 60s Spy Series (Val Kilmer in The Saint anyone?).

In all fairness to the tastemakers, it’s not great. I went to see it on the day of release as I was big fan of the original, and have to admit I came out pretty disappointed. Throughout the film’s production, there was a genuine sense of excitement, compounded by those great pictures of Fiennes and Thurman in costume and the fantastic trailer, both of which indicated that the show had been updated with a great deal of care and respect for the series. As I walked into that cinema, the only dissenting voice was a newspaper article that was a little sniffy about the lack of a press preview and a report on Radio 1 stating that the biggest celebrity at the launch party was Sian Lloyd (and even she didn’t stay long).

So what went wrong? Watching it seven years on, it’s still a deeply flawed film, but if you believe the critical savaging it’s had over the years you’d think it misfires on just about every level. Not a bit of it. The design and photography are absolutely stunning, hitting you at every turn with beautifully constructed surrealist images. The scene in which Steed walks across Sir August’s garden to reach the phone box while a snowstorm picks up is absolutely gorgeous, as is Emma’s dilemma on the Escher-esque staircase and Sean Connery chairing a meeting full of teddy bears. The construction of a spotless, practically deserted Little England is carried off with honours, giving the film genuine atmosphere.

The script, too, is actually very true to the series, with a couple of exceptions (the occasional lapses into crude innuendo, Steed and Emma’s utterly unwarranted kiss). You can well imagine Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg breathing life into the dialogue, and therein lies one of the central problems of the film: it’s actually being delivered by Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, who fail to ignite any of the chemistry that Macnee and Rigg had (and which would often paper over some incredibly unnaturalistic dialogue). Fiennes seems to be attempting a Macnee impersonation, but ultimately ends up sounding stiff and mannered, whilst Thurman puts all her energies into her plummy English and comes off charmless. I think much of the film’s failure can be laid at the doors of these two. The Steed and Emma of the movie are poseurs, trying to maintain a level of detached cool, whereas in the TV series you got the sense that they really loved what they were doing.

But the biggest crime lies in the editing. Apparently about an hour was carelessly lopped out of the film (including scenes that were in the trailer) after a disastrous preview screening in Arizona (!), while Michael Kamen’s score was dumped in favour of a very generic one. Over a third of the film is missing, and consequently so is any sense of coherene. There’s now no explanation for why stuff happens, and the film’s climax is a bewildering and ultimately uninvolving blur.

I for one would love to see the original director’s cut of this film. No amount of re-editing can save Fiennes and Thurman’s appalling performances, but I’d like to see some of the film’s inventive images given some breathing space. As it stands, The Avengers is no classic and falls flat as often as it shines, but when it does shine it hints at a potential that seems to have gone unfulfilled. Seven years after the event, I can see little to justify the critical bile the film continues to receive, but maybe in the years to come it will be chalked up as one of Hollywood’s more interesting failures.