Lost Empires is a six-time BAFTA award-nominated 1986 Masterpiece Theatre mini-series with a new DVD release. Based on a novel by J.B. Priestly, Lost Empires begins just before World War I in England, and follows Richard Herncastle (Colin Firth, The King’s Speech) as he longs to see the world and become a famous painter. To accomplish this goal, he joins a group of travelling performers led by his vaguely sinister magician uncle Nick (John Castle, I, Claudius). Richard not only gets to see a great deal from back stage, but also meets a number of women who spark his interest. This doesn’t fully satisfy his desires, but it gives him an experience that he will never forget, and that will shape his life forever.
It comes as no surprise that Firth is excellent, given his pedigree, and the many well-respected roles he will go on to play after this one. Castle holds his own nicely, his character serving as quite the influence on the naive young Richard, and with an air of magic about him onstage and off. There are several great supporting players populating the cast, like Jim Carter (Downton Abbey, Cranford) and Pamela Stephenson (Ryan, Saturday Night Live).
Also in the series is the legendary Laurence Olivier (Spartacus, Hamlet, Sleuth) as an aging comedian well past his prime who just will not retire, despite a declining mental condition. Olivier’s character may have lost his edge, but the thespian sure has not. Fans of Olivier will want to see this, one of the last performances he ever gave. He’s not in as much of the show as one might like, but his presence certainly elevates the production, and he commands the screen whenever he is on it.
It’s a good thing there are such excellent actors involved, as the overall arc does tend to drag a bit in the middle. Clocking in at around eight hours, Lost Empires may be a fitting adaptation to the book, but could use a little bit of work on the pacing. However, with the mostly high quality of the series, it’s easy to forgive a little bit of slowness.
Lost Empires is sad because it is not only about what Richard finds, but what he doesn’t. It’s also about a great loss in the world, as the old gives way to the shiny and new, not always an improvement. Sometimes this cannot be controlled by individuals, something Richard will realize. There is a melancholy tone to the piece, which is moving in of itself. The story is told from an older perspective, with Richard looking back at the events in wistful retrospect, lending a weight to what has happened.
Sadly, Lost Empires has no special features. This three-disc set merely contains the seven episodes in 4:3 full screen, appropriate for an older show. But it would be nice to have heard what Firth thought about working with Olivier, or how the book was adapted into this television event. None of that is present, nor are any commentaries or deleted scenes. Whether this is because there was little material to draw from, or no funding or interest for new bits, is unclear.
Lost Empires is available now from Acorn Media, onsale at Amazon.com and local stores.