Review: Around the World in 80 Days
Piers Mucklejohn finds a lot to love in the exhilarating modern adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic novel and discusses the cultural criticism surrounding its production.
There is something about watching a dishevelled David Tennant frantically scramble about the stage or screen that never quite gets old – and Around the World in 80 Days (2021) has that in spades. A joint production by France Télévisions, the German broadcaster ZDF, and the Italian broadcaster RAI, the international roots of the series firmly support co-creator Ashley Pharoah’s vision of the eight-episode romp as a ‘love letter to the world.’
The premise of the series is identical to that of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel of the same name, as Phileas Fogg (played by David Tennant) must circumnavigate the globe in a mere eighty days in order to win a £20,000 wager. However, Fogg’s companions have been altered slightly by the show’s creators; Fogg’s valet, Passepartout, is played by black French actor Ibrahim Koma, whose race becomes a vehicle for social commentary which utilises nineteenth-century racial anxiety as a mirror for (often unsubtle) contemporary political criticism. Gone is the antagonistic Detective Fix, replaced nominally by Abigail Fix (Leonie Benesch), an intrepid journalist and daughter of the editor of The Daily Telegraph who accompanies the two men.
… any political motivations the screenwriters may have had are firmly trumped, whether intentionally or not, by the excitement of the central ensemble’s international hijinks
There was some concern – undoubtedly of varying sincerity – that the series would be a ‘woke’ whitewash of the original novel, concerned less with Fogg’s exciting escapades than scoring political points. The Spectator’s James Delingpole, for example, was greatly alarmed that Abigail Fix served no other purpose than ‘demonstrating how important strong, feisty, etc women are.’
However, far from a fictitious feminist plucked out of thin air to bash masculinity, Fix’s character is directly inspired by journalist Nellie Bly, who was motivated by Verne’s novel to attempt a circumnavigation herself in 1889, finishing it in 72 days and later writing a book about her journey. This understanding was rather embarrassingly absent from the criticisms of Delingpole and others, who similarly lambasted the presence of a black Passepartout, despite his role as a manservant presenting no historical conflict of interest. Indeed, given that the Foggs played by David Niven (1956) and Steve Coogan (2004) are accompanied by a Mexican and a Hong Konger, respectively, Koma’s Passepartout is remarkably faithful to the source material.
The racial and sexual politics of this modern adaptation are occasionally handled poorly – Fogg’s ability to miss obvious racism directed towards Passepartout in one episode strains credulity – but their addressal is ultimately a good thing, forcing the audience to confront uncomfortable truths not only of our history but also of our current world. In any case, any political motivations the screenwriters may have had are firmly trumped, whether intentionally or not, by the excitement of the central ensemble’s international hijinks, as the audience is thrown between the sandy Yemen desert, a bustling Hong Kong and the Wild West with a pace that risks inflicting intercontinental whiplash but is thankfully pulled off successfully.
The end result is a series that is fun to watch, if nothing else
The central ensemble’s development does get off to an admittedly sluggish start and at times their motivations really don’t make much sense. In one instance, Passepartout is apparently greatly surprised that the absence of a stolen necklace has been so quickly noticed, despite the fact that it was one of great value taken from the neck of its owner during her sleep. Fogg himself is somewhat unlikable towards the beginning and he comes across as a bit of a fool – a characterisation which some view as an act of woke revisionism (he is a white man, after all). However, this is in fact utilised as a springboard from which the character goes on to assume a considerable depth and complexity. By the end of the series, it is impossible not to root for Fogg’s success, as the financial motives of the wager are replaced entirely by personal, emotional and indeed romantic ones.
These initial shortcomings are largely eclipsed by the brilliant performances of all three central actors, however, and this is particularly the case for Tennant, whose Fogg exudes a paradoxically youthful seniority as his world-weariness and energetic determination constantly compete. When he is drugged in India, Tennant’s performance of a delirious Fogg is reminiscent of his Hamlet, as he theatrically prances around an imagined stage, accompanied by a brilliantly appropriate score provided by Christian Lundberg.
Importantly, the series’ soundtrack really embodies the whimsical nature of many of the episodes and the main theme – a collaboration between Lundberg and Hans Zimmer – encapsulates the essence of the series by incorporating the ticking of a watch and the ringing of Big Ben. The series is also often visually stunning, with due respect paid to each location visited – each with its own unique atmosphere supported by the show’s great acting, diverse and largely accurate wardrobe, and subtle visual effects.
The end result is a series that is fun to watch, if nothing else. The social commentary is of varying quality and effect – though it provides an emotional subplot towards the end of the series – and it is easy to imagine that the slow start might deter some viewers. However, ultimately, the series’ prime strength lies in its exhilarating, and at times fantastically absurd, exploits that the main cast get up to; even while the journey appears to be playing second fiddle to their localised, episodic exploits, the chime of a clock and an imposing graphic (“DAY 53”) brilliantly remind us that time is of the essence. And it is this, alongside the strong performances by all three leads, that is enough to make up for the show’s imperfections and make for an experience that is thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining.