Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “The 39 Steps” (or even the current stage spoof) will likely derive an extra kick from this handsome, fast-paced “Masterpiece Classic” adaptation, which returns to the original novel and its setting of eve-of-WWI conspirators. Rupert Penry-Jones cuts a dashing figure as Richard Hannay — the not-quite-everyman thrust into a plot involving German spy — in a production that deftly mixes action, intrigue and romance. For those who haven’t read the novel but saw the movie, the differences with Hitchcock’s loose translation are every bit as fascinating as the similarities.
As pure entertainment, “Steps” also stands quite firmly on its own, as writer Lizzie Mickery (“Messiah,” “The State Within”) and director James Hawes waste little time leaping into the action. A former soldier, Hannay is introduced as a bored libertine before his neighbor (Eddie Marsan) bursts into his apartment and admits to being a spy in possession of a book that has vital details about a German espionage ring.
Soon, the agent is dead, Hannay is being sought for the murder, and he’s off on a cross-country trek — as operatives try to kill him — to clear his name, crack the book’s enigmatic code and save merry old England. Moreover, he’s been given the name of a British secret service contact and told to “trust no one else.”
Hitchcock took considerable liberties in adapting the novel — even borrowing a scene for “North by Northwest” in which a small plane chases the protagonist through a field (included not that impressively here). The quarrelsome banter between Hannay and the woman he encounters in his travels — a suffragette (Lydia Leonard) who’s helpfully resourceful in getting out of scrapes — is amusing but can’t match the wry wit that made the 1935 film so memorable.
Still, Penry-Jones is perfectly cast as a fellow debonair enough to successfully fake his way through a public political speech — a man with “no real loyalties” who embraces a sense of patriotism along the way. The 1914 time frame also helpfully casts the traditional thriller elements and sexual politics against a slightly unorthodox backdrop, from Hannay’s blatant chauvinism to the fact that the cars don’t move very fast during the chase scenes.
Then again, that’s a pretty good metaphor for “Masterpiece Classic”: Sure, it may not be the sexiest thing around, but the franchise consistently demonstrates that slow and steady wins the race.