The Prisoner

cast: James Caviezel, Ian McKellen, Haley Atwell, Ruth Wilson, and Jamie-Campbell Bower

director: Nick Hurran

276 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
ITV Global DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
review by Andrew Darlington

The Prisoner
He opens his eyes into a vertiginously-tilted Mars-scape. He has arrived. The 17 episodes that made up The Prisoner (1967) were very much a Patrick McGoohan vanity project; a uniquely enigmatic and tantalisingly original product of his single-minded perseverance, and of its strange time. It can never be replicated. Like the remake of The Italian Job movie, the best way to enjoy The Prisoner mini-series is not to compare and contrast with the original. Better to approach it in its own right without preconceptions. Because it is not and never can be the same.

Only the distinguishing characteristics remain. The Village, Number Six, Number Two, the bouncing white spheres called ‘Rovers’. And the Village map sequence is identical. The one in which Six goes into the Village shop, to find that the only

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maps he can buy extend no further than the Village itself. The iconic Penny-Farthing is also glimpsed suspended from the ceiling in the ‘Club More’. And yes, at the close of episode one he gets to defiantly assert “I am not a Number. I am a Free Man,” just like Patrick McGoohan before him.

Unlike Heroes and Lost; which overstayed their welcome and lost their unique spark in ongoing plot convulsions; this remake is sharp and concise: just six 45-minute parts. Brevity is good, but maybe there’s even an argument here for a little more. The original series was filmed in Portmeirion, but it was not set in Portmeirion. In fact it was never certain where the Village was supposed to be. In one episode, Many Happy Returns, Number Six parachutes back into what seems to be an island located off Morocco, south-west of Portugal and Spain.

In the final escape, it seems within A20 motoring distance of London. This time the Village is a bigger, more populous place. It’s filmed in Swakopmund, in Namibia, an equally surreal location made up of identical pastel ‘A’-frame houses, surrounded by endless dunes of desert. But it’s not Swakopmund either. And, in its final revelation, his ‘home from home’ is not a place at all, but a Matrix-style construction, a non-place, a dream-dimension, a place that can only be found in the great unknown. “Almost like a world on its own,” or “the very consciousness of the universe,” according to Two.

There are shimmering white towers beyond the edge of the world, ghostly twin-towers. In episode two there is an ocean, which devours his Village ‘brother’ just as it devoured his real-life memory-brother, but once found it can never be found again. Snatches of Brian Wilson’s Smile heighten the soundtrack, “is it hot as hell in here, or is it me?”; Cabin Essence, Heroes & Villains, and Hang Onto Your Ego, songs that the Beach-Boy genius’ drug-addled state could never quite bring to completion, until decades later.

There are changes of tone, too. James Caviezel is a more darkly intense, less flip Number Six than McGoohan (Caviezel knew suffering, he’d already played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s gore-fest The Passion Of The Christ!). He’s subjected to chemical reprogramming at ‘the Clinic’, which disturbingly disrupts his continuity, messes up his perception of what is and what is not real, and induces a nightmarish non-linear Kafkaesque quality. He’s told that there is no other place than the Village, that this is the only place in the world. “There is no out. There’s only in.”

So how does he have knowledge of science and literature that can never have originated here? He reels off a litany of names, “Isaac Newton, Galileo, Plato, Socrates, Karl Marx, Groucho Marx, Bob Dylan, David Beckham. And who invented the telephone..?” We all know the answer. He’s told he’s always been here, he has a scar on his arm from a childhood fall, and he locates a buried relic of his childhood (a tin-box containing his eight-year-old letter to himself) that only he could have known was there. He knew where to find it, where it was buried in the shallow sand.

Yet he has fragmented memories of another life, another place. He’s not alone in having such buried recall. Number 93 had drawn his dreams of Big Ben. He directs Six to 554 who is a waitress in the café. She draws the Statue of Liberty. Then the café blows up, silencing her forever. Six has what Number Two calls ‘delusions’ of Brooklyn, but “there is no New York. There is only the Village.” In the second episode the Village conspires to convince him he has a brother. In episode five he has a brooding body-double, an evil other self (in the original Schizoid Man episode he’s called Number 12, here he’s 6×2). In episode three, Six becomes an undercover teacher, for the Village is a surveillance society. Like it said in the original series, “A still tongue makes a happy life.”

In episode four there’s an attempt to hook him into the Village dating service – through the Modern Love bureau, using blink-match gene-symmetry technology, on the theory that personal relationship considerations will then predominate over his rebellious nature. The original The Prisoner was statist; he was trying to extricate himself from a government department. This is corporatist, the Village, “a place where broken people can fix themselves,” has been privatised. He has quit working for Summakor as a data-analyst, part of the Village selection-process. In memory-flashes he spray-paints ‘resign’ on his office window.

On the day he resigned he meets Lucy in New York – she is also the blind girl 415 to whom he’s date-matched in the Village. She tells him “you think you resigned. Maybe you did. But it’s not over. They still control you.” And they do. He is told that he’s a bus-driver. And unexpectedly he’s able to drive a bus. The bus is called ‘Escape’.

In the original series there was a shifting rota of Number Twos, including Leo McKern, Peter Wyngarde and George Baker. This time there is only Ian McKellen as a blithely sinister Two, convincingly persuasive, yet menacing. “No-one is without guilt,” he lectures blithely, “you just have to work out what it is they’re guilty of.” He brings both gravitas, and a mischievous twinkle. He plays with a hand-grenade. He has his opera, while the village has ‘Wonkers’, the endless TV village soap. Six spouts the plot of the ‘Wonkers’ at a talking therapy session to baffle his therapist.

Two has a wife in permanent drugged sleep, her dreams generating the collective subconscious in which they all dwell. Whenever her dreaming fails, pot-holes open up in and around the Village. The holes are bottomless. To Two, they represent ‘ambience anomalies’. Two also has a son, a petulant rebel who can’t quite work out his cause. Maybe he’s gay. He has illicit meetings in the ‘Club More’ with 909. Finally, he hangs himself.

Eventually, it is Two who escapes, by means of his hand-grenade. And Six who stays, by returning to Summakor. The oddly dislocated narrative, the random meanderings retain something of the intended strangeness of the original, and provides a satisfying ambiguity; a kind of magical realism, in direct contrast to the tightly plot-driven focus of much current TV-drama. The 17 episodes that made up The Prisoner in 1967 were a uniquely enigmatic and tantalisingly original product that can never be replicated. In many ways this mini-series is another unique and intriguing oddity. Be seeing you…