‘Archie’ Review: Jason Isaacs Plays Cary Grant in BritBox Series That Stumbles Into Biopic Traps

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Fittingly for a series in which everybody seems to be engaging in some form of Classic Hollywood cosplay, the Rosebud moment in BritBox’s Archie is delivered by an actor playing comedy icon Danny Kaye.

Affecting a stereotypical German therapist accent — accents on top of accents on top of accents is the Archie way — Kaye cautions young Dyan Cannon (Laura Aikman) that her relationship with the more seasoned Cary Grant (Jason Isaacs) is destined for complications with the warning, “Men who have difficult relationships with their mothers always carry it over to the women that they love.”

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There’s no reason for Kaye to make such an observation if he hasn’t been watching the two previous hours of Jeff Pope’s four-episode production. But for the series’ actual audience, his analysis will come across as both obvious and superficial — a bit like Archie itself.

Ultimately, it’s a bit more complicated than that. But only a bit. It isn’t just that Grant has issues with his mentally troubled mother (Kara Tointon in youth and Harriet Walter in maturity). What the Bringing Up Baby star actually yearns for is a family, much more than fame, but even that shocking revelation is somewhat spoiled by the presence of Cannon and Cannon and Grant’s daughter Jennifer Grant among the project’s executive producers. It’s an unfolding love story between a man and personal responsibility much more than it’s a general love story or a more focused love letter to either Cary Grant or to Hollywood itself. For all that the title suggests a glimpse at the real man behind the icon, Archie fails to get much deeper than “Cary Grant was often accused of only playing himself, but Cary Grant’s greatest performance was … wait for it … Cary Grant,” or something.

Of course, whatever Archie lacks in depth, it tries to make up for in cheeky industry references and one-note celebrity impressions, all flitting around Isaacs’ affectionately charismatic central performance.

Using Grant’s late-in-life one-man show as a flimsy and frequently forgotten structuring device — a la Raging Bull, but fundamentally pointless here — Archie begins by taking us back to wee Archie Leach’s (Dainton Anderson, followed by Oaklee Pendergast, followed by Calam Lynch) sad childhood in Bristol, with an unstable mother (Tointon) and a selfish father (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). Convinced his mother is dead, Archie joins a vaudeville troupe, comes to America and … etc. She’s not dead. But that’s a “twist” for later.

Because Archie is structuring devices within structuring devices, the series keeps going backward and forward around a discontented Cary Grant in 1961, when he spots Cannon on TV and decides he must woo her, only to learn that she wants marriage and a family, while he’s in the middle of his second divorce and is determined never to be a father. I have no problems at all with Cannon and Jennifer Grant executive producing a TV movie about Cary Grant in which, for the notoriously Oscar-free actor, they ended up being the real prize. Still, very few viewers are likely to watch four hours of this series and come away thinking that Pope and director Paul Andrew Williams successfully made the case that this May-December love story was the most compelling chapter in Cary Grant’s life. A better-focused series would have dispatched with the career retrospective laundry list and given Cannon and her daughter actual depth as characters, but that’s not what this is.

It’s such an erratic laundry list, as well. Though the costumes and production design are impeccable, even the cinematographer doesn’t always seem sure where Archie is situated in time and what would be the right photographic affectations — the shifts from gritty black-and-white to 8mm home movie to ’50s studio gloss feel more arbitrary than they should — to capture those periods.

Sometimes Archie is all about biographical minutiae — This is how he came up with his stage name! This is how he changed his accent! This was his favorite chocolate bar! — and then there are stretches of his actual career that aren’t so much as mentioned. Despite a scene on the set of North by Northwest and another on the set of Charade, this is not a “film lover’s delight” sort of show. Once your series is an impersonation conveyor belt, for example, how do you resist bringing in Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart for a Philadelphia Story scene?

I’m not saying that would have made things better, mind you, since almost none of the celebrity characters are actually well-cast (and none are well-written), with Lolly Jones’ Mae West, Ian McNeice’s Alfred Hitchcock and Christian Lees’ George Burns in the “Why bother?” camp. Niamh Cusack has an interestingly cruel interpretation of Hitchcock’s wife, Alma, who in this version resents Cary for divorcing her friend Betsy Drake — which would have more meaning if Drake had even a single second onscreen, given that she was Grant’s wife of the longest duration.

The series jumps forward and backward and sideways, so at various times Isaac is playing Grant in his 30s, mid-50s and 80s; as you’ll surely imagine, he looks unconvincing in youth, generally convincing in the middle and weighted down by latex in dotage, when he’s been made up to resemble either a wax replica of Cary Grant or Peter Sellers playing Cary Grant. That Isaacs is able to pinpoint and balance so many suave and eccentric elements to this character is entirely admirable. He nails the sense of Cary Grant more than any individual recognizable element; if not for occasional scenes in which people masquerade as underwritten versions of Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day and Grace Kelly, you wouldn’t always know you were watching a “Cary Grant” biopic at all.

Aikman offers one of the series’ only uncanny pieces of physical casting. Being somewhere in her 30s, Aikman isn’t quite the “child bride” that Cannon truly was, but she’s a plausible enough ray of light to justify Grant’s affections. Plus, with Cannon’s autobiography as the main credited source material, Dyan gets to be consistently witty and self-aware. It isn’t at all surprising that the series is on Dyan’s side in every interaction, even when she’s being a wet blanket about Grant’s regular use of LSD, which is acknowledged fully, if without any real enthusiasm (unlike the pointlessly coy treatment of Grant’s friendship-or-more with Randolph Scott).

As close as the series gets to a third lead, Walter is never less than watchable — she’s never less than watchable in anything — but when Elsie Leach represents only the third or fourth most memorable controlling mother she’s played on TV this year, it’s hard to get enthusiastic.

Finally, Archie fits into that familiar My Week With Marilyn category of biopics that attempt to filter an iconic personality through an outsider’s gaze, but get caught up in the gravity of that iconic personality and end up being less than satisfying as either direct or indirect portraiture. It gives you exactly enough good stuff to make you wish the rest of the series was better, or at least more insightful.

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