There is a wide range of film versions of the classic Treasure Island tale, based on the kids book by Robert Louis Stevenson. You’ve got versions from the ’30s, the ’50s, and a ’90s version starring Christian Bale that’s too corny to even sit through the whole trailer. One end of the spectrum, you’ve got Tim Curry as Long John Silver playing opposite Kermit the Frog in the all-singing all-dancing Muppet Treasure Island, and on the other end, you’ve got the gritty, violent and bloody, made-for-adults TV movie Treasure Island (2012) starring Eddie Izzard as Long John Silver. Guess which one we’re discussing. (Hint: The one where the characters aren’t made of felt.)
Seriously, folks, this one ain’t for the kiddies. There’s blood and gore, violence and savagery, and Silver’s wife is an ex-whore (and Jim’s mother is almost forced into becoming one when the squire’s gentlemen mobsters confiscate her inn). But if you’ve blindfolded your children and stuffed their ears full of gum, it’s this grittiness that is the very thing that makes this version worth choosing over its predecessors. They abstain from cliches like “Jim, my boy!” and give you a very real sense that there really is no one on that boat that Jim can trust besides himself.
But the first thing you’ll notice, even before Flynt blows Silver’s leg off, is the brilliant casting. I couldn’t have come up with a better roster given my dream cast. First, there’s my favorite character, Dr. Livesey. Ultimately, he’s a coward and that’s why Jim can’t rely on him, but he’s a good person, clean-hearted, but broken by the death of his wife. He teaches us that many men are not who they think they are. The island forces him into murder, as well as a smidge of bravery, in the name of Jim’s rescue. Dr. Livesey is played by Daniel Mays, one of the most talented and under-appreciated actors in Britain. Mays makes good use of expressive eyes to show the dichotomy between what the doc is doing and what he wishes he had the guts to do. I will see any film with Danny Mays in it.
Philip Glenister plays the captain of the ship. Glenister is one of these actors who demands attention just by being in the room. His presence frequently outshines whoever else is on screen with him. What better person to play the unwavering, loyal, by-the-book captain? I suppose if Jim had to trust one person, it would be the captain, but it’s his by-the-bookedness that forces him to have Jim tied up for his disloyalty. Who doesn’t want to see Philip Glenister in a sword fight?
Then there’s first mate George Merry. Actor Shaun Parkes is cool, and what an excellent pirate he makes. Silver withstanding, George is my favorite pirate, but it is his lack of patience that begins his downward spiral out of Silver’s favor. Oh, and did I mention Donald Sutherland’s in this film? He’s only in the beginning and end, but his spirit haunts the script the whole way through, kind of like The Italian Job. Meanwhile, Moaning Myrtle herself Shirley Henderson has gotten beyond the Harry Potter stigma to play Mrs. Hawkins, Jim’s sympathetic mother and his only anchor for staying alive. Oh, yeah, Elijah Wood’s in there, too. I’m still trying to figure out why. What a bizarre subplot and an equally strange cheese-obsessed character.
Okay, let’s talk stars. In many a role has Eddie Izzard proven that his dramatic acting chops are at least as good as his world-famous standup comedy, but I don’t think we’ve seen him quite this transformed, and I’m not just talking about the shaved head, one leg, and face tattoo. He really is perfect for the part because we do gain some sympathy and trust in him in our weak moments, despite knowing for a fact that he’s a greedy bastard with every intention of murdering Jim Hawkins. (Danny Mays pulls off a similar role in Ashes to Ashes.) Though they blue-screened Izzard’s leg away, he insisted on raising his invisible foot in every scene to make his hobbling around as authentic as possible. Finally, our hero, Master Jim. Toby Regbo, I don’t know you from other projects, but hats off to your Jim Hawkins. Regbo shows youth on his face and wisdom in the gleam of his eyes. He can communicate volumes with just a look.
Can we talk about the beauty of this film for just a moment? The shallow lens effect puts only the smallest, most important bits on screen into focus, allowing the director to point you where to look without cropping everything else out. The handheld camera rocks with the ocean waves, rocks with emotion, rocks with drink. They take advantage of techniques like slo-mo to set gravity, quick zooms to get around the scene, aesthetically pleasing cutaway transitions, and pans to position us geographically. You just don’t see this sort of thing on television. What a treat!