Bonnie & Clyde, the two-part, four-hour TV movie premiering simultaneously tonight and Monday on Lifetime, A&E Network and History Channel, covers many of the same events chronicled in Arthur Penn’s 1967 Bonnie and Clyde feature film, which earned 10 Oscar nods (including two trophies) for its electrifying depiction of the violent dual careers of gangster-lovers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Penn’s film confirmed the superstar status of its two leads, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, and also included fascinating supporting performances from Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons, Gene Hackman and Michael J. Pollard. More than four decades after its initial release, Bonnie and Clyde has lost none of its power, and if you’ve never seen it, by all means seek it out.
This new cable production, which casts Holliday Grainger (The Borgias) and Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) in the title roles, runs about an hour longer (not counting commercials) than Penn’s film, yet its objective, as well as its overall impact, feels much more modest. While Penn and his team told the story with all its doomed romantic aura intact, Bonnie & Clyde seeks to strip away most of the hype surrounding this true-crime saga to look at the real characters at the heart of it.
That’s certainly a valid approach, even a sensible one, since it would be nuts to try competing with Penn’s masterpiece on its own terms. Unfortunately, this Bonnie & Clyde simply doesn’t bring much new to the party.
It doesn’t help that the teleplay by John Rice and Joe Batteer, is fairly workmanlike, moving from event A to event B and so on as it makes its way to the carnage we know is coming eventually. For those who don’t, this TV movie opens on May 23, 1934, as a macabre mini-parade of police cars and a tow-truck rolls into rural Gibsland, La., bearing the bullet-riddled “murder car” that holds the sheet-covered corpses of Clyde, 25, and Bonnie, 24. At this point, the film, narrated by Hirsch’s Clyde, flashes back to his Texas childhood, when a near-fatal fever at age 9 left him – his grandmother would swear – with the gift of second sight.
That dubious bit of trivia might be worth a mention in passing, yet Rice and Batteer seem determined to make it a dramatic hook for their script. The young Clyde, still a boy, has a dreamy vision of the seductive adult Bonnie walking slowly towards him across a field and, while he and his older brother, Buck, are fleeing the scene of a petty larceny, Clyde is shocked by a brief flash of the bloody future fate awaiting his sibling. Premonitions like these keep recurring through the TV movie, and they’re never less than jarring.
At 28 and 25 respectively, Hirsch and Grainger are closer to the ages of their characters than were Beatty (30) and Dunaway (26), but they have to work harder to register with us. That they eventually manage to turn in praiseworthy turns is kind of remarkable, given that, even with its additional running time, this Bonnie & Clyde doesn’t seem to have a clear, convincing notion of who its characters were and why they did what they did.
Oh, the broad strokes are there. This account wants us to buy into the notion that Clyde was an easily manipulated, somewhat dim boy who kept wanting to go straight and settle down (those pesky premonitions, remember?), but Bonnie was so obsessively driven to seek fame and attention that she bought into their own press-driven myth and kept pushing Clyde to bigger and bigger crimes.
That’s certainly a way to go, I guess, but it’s not a theory that is very well supported by the historical record and, frankly, it seems more like the premise of … well … a Lifetime Original Movie.
Academy Award winners Holly Hunter (as Bonnie’s mom) and William Hurt (as a Texas Ranger who comes out of retirement to pursue the duo) make the most of their limited screen time and Sarah Hyland, best known as ditsy Haley Dunphy on Modern Family, has some very affecting moments as Clyde’s sister-in-law, Blanche (the role that won Parsons her Oscar).
Don’t get me wrong, with two-time Oscar nominee Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies) at the helm, this made-for-cable Bonnie & Clyde isn’t terrible by any means. But it just feels a little irrelevant up against Penn’s absolutely essential feature film, which, by the way, is scheduled to be available later this week in a budget-priced two-DVD special edition set from Amazon.com.