A&E // 1999 // 198 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // December 19th, 2000
High seas adventure and political intrigue in the race to discover the life or death secret of Longitude.
A finely crafted tale of history, Longitude tells a story of two driven men: John Harrison, a self-educated 18th Century clockmaker, driven to find a "useful and practicable" way to determine longitude, and thereby save lives. Rupert Gould, a shell-shocked WWI veteran, who becomes obsessed with restoring the intricate mechanical Harrison clocks, regardless of the personal cost. This story is simply packaged by A&E into a two-disc set with scant extra content.
Longitude is a story told in two times, switching back and forth between them as events unfold. In the 18th Century, the problem of precisely determining longitude at sea has cost the lives of many sailors and destroyed many valuable ships. When Britain's Parliament offers a huge prize to any person to creates a "practicable and useful" solution to the problem, self-educated clock-maker John Harrison (Michael Gambon) embarks upon a struggle that spans well over thirty years of his life. Not only do technical details and skeptical sailors bedevil his fight, but Harrison must also stand against the elite intelligentsia of religious and scientific figures, all of whom refuse to accept that such a modest man could accomplish such a feat.
Two hundred years later, weary World War I-veteran Rupert Gould (Jeremy Irons) stumbles upon John Harrison's clocks in the disused basement of the Naval Observatory in Britain. Instantly struck by their mechanical genius and their need for rehabilitation, Gould begins his own long-term obsession. Cleaning and restoring the machines to perfect operating condition, as well as researching their creation, takes all of Gould's time, leaving little for his wife, his family, and his own health of body and mind. Regardless of the personal cost, he soldiers on, determined to again breathe life into Harrison's clocks and so to find a purpose for his own existence.
I can hear you out there. "Longitude?! Clocks?! BORING!" Well, I must admit that I was somewhat skeptical when I first heard of Longitude. The subject matter, dealing with astronomy, mathematics, and similar areas, does not naturally appeal to modern audiences raised with satellites, global communication, and GPS systems. Furthermore, this glimpse of history is not a familiar one to any but a most dedicated student of history or seamanship. However, it does come as a pleasant surprise to watch Longitude unfold its twin stories and become a captivating tale of living history.
The full-frame video is good, given Longitude's status as a television movie, though it falls short of modern theatrical quality. Sharpness is good, though on occasion fairly soft, and colors modestly saturated. Fortunately, the video is quite clean and devoid of all manner of flaws, as well as digital enhancement artifacts. It's not quite as crisp and clear as one might like, but all in all, a good job.
The audio track is a competent stereo mix. I did not notice substantial channel effects, or any use of the rear surrounds or subwoofer. Thus, the soundstage is narrow and well forward, but with such a historical, dialogue and drama driven story, clarity of dialogue is the primary requirement. That is a job done well here.
The full measure of Longitude is found in its strongly human story. John Harrison lives and breathes the "longitude problem" for year upon year, as decade stretches into decade. He yearns to be recognized as the savior of all sailors, to have confounded his enemies and have his life's work given the recognition it is due. In perhaps the most relevant facet for modern audiences, Harrison must struggle against a hostile and impersonal bureaucracy, whose members are actively interested in changing the rules of the game in mid-stream and thwarting the plans of this lower-class upstart. Faceless, nameless bureaucrats wield such power in modern government that we can identify with Harrison's dogged struggle and take pride in his successes.
Michael Gambon (Plunkett and Macleane, The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover) gives Harrison his driving fire, kept quite hot even as his body begins to fail upon the passage of time. With every glance, every movement, his Harrison is always thinking, always planning, seeking ways to overcome whatever obstacles thrown in his past, and relegating all personal concerns of comfort or family to lesser status. Matching him in the parallel story of Rupert Gould, Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers, Reversal of Fortune, Lolita) shows his acting muscle. Emotionally sensitive and as keenly balanced as any watch, Irons gives a finely crafted and sympathetic portrayal, full of gentlemanly style and stiff-upper-lip pathos. The only fault in the character is one of writing, not acting.
The rest of the cast is as well crafted as the whole of Longitude. Many faces familiar to those who watch English television and cinema will pop up here and there. This includes Jonathan Coy (the clerk Henry in "Rumpole of the Bailey"), Gemma Jones (Sense and Sensibility, Wilde), John Wood (Wargames, The Madness of King George, Richard III), Stephen Fry (Wilde, "Blackadder," "Jeeves and Wooster"), Ian McNeice ("Dune" Sci-Fi Channel mini-series, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain), Brian Cox (Rushmore, "Nuremberg," Sharpe's Rifles), and Daragh O'Malley (Sergeant Patrick Harper in the "Sharpe" series). Quite a list, and every one a fine actor.
Extra content is darned near non-existent. I know A&E can do decent extra content, given their fair to good results with the Monty Python sets and the Horatio Hornblower box set. Here, there is naught but an adequate 22 minute featurette. It is about par for the course, more or less A&E promotional material, but interesting enough all the same. Sadly, that's it. No production notes, trailers for other A&E titles, historical background, animated menus, nothing! For shame, A&E!
Otherwise, my only fault with the otherwise fine story is with the Rupert Gould half of the twin plotlines. I truly appreciate the emotional depth of the character, thanks to Jeremy Irons' strong performance, but it just never quite connects with the audience as well as Harrison's struggles. Not only does Harrison drive both plotlines, as the creator of the clocks that Gould obsesses over, but his story tells a simpler tale of a self-educated genius struggling against a hostile bureaucracy for a prize that is rightfully his. Gould is a very troubled man, though aside from pointing to his wartime service, we never learn what fuels his inner turmoil, nor why he finds the mechanical regularity of clocks so soothing. When you add our lack of knowledge to his less than commendable behavior as a detached husband and father, this is a character that does not connect well with the audience. In turn, that makes the Gould story less engaging, and at times merely a distraction from the valiant struggles of Harrison and son.
If you are a fan of old-fashioned sea stories, like Horatio Hornblower, or are simply intrigued by a well-crafted historical drama about an original subject, then Longitude is for you. The subject matter and relaxed pacing will surely bore or frustrate those seeking action/adventure and more typical Hollywood fare. The list price ($39.95) is not for the faint-hearted, and this is the sort of disc set that may not get watched too many times, so shop with care and know your audience. On the other hand, I strongly recommend anyone interested to give it at least a rental.
The Board of Longitude finds that this set is both a useful and practicable solution to my need for entertainment. Thank you, Mister Harrison! We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 198 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated