Five people stranded on an island, scavenging to find food and shelter, making power plays and alliances. It’s not another installment of “Survivor,” although future contestants may want to take notes. It’s “Stranded,” exec producer Robert Halmi Sr. and director Charles Beeson’s visually stunning and thoroughly entertaining update of “The Swiss Family Robinson.”
Deliberately paced and executed by an appealing cast, “Stranded” builds slowly but surely to a satisfying denouement. The story, adapted from the Johann David Wyss’ classic by Anton Diether, and written by Greg Dinner, Dominic Minghella and Chris Harrald, is more personal and grittier than previous incarnations, and Beeson keeps most of the action at character level as the Robinson family is forced to deal with the emotional baggage brought with them to the remote island.
Devout minister David Robinson (Liam Cunningham), believing that God is the only sovereign, is sentenced to 15 years in a penal colony for refusing to declare his allegiance to Great Britain. Instead of breaking up the family, David’s wife, Lara (Brana Bajic), decides that she and their four children will accompany him to Australia.
During their journey, the convict ship is hit by a terrible squall, and in the chaos young daughter Sarah (Bonnie Wright) becomes pinned by a plank while son Jacob (Charlie Lucas) is herded onto a lifeboat with the nefarious Mr. Blunt (Roger Allam). The lifeboat carrying Jacob, Blunt and his co-conspirators, Pickles (Frances McGee) and Roberts (Rupert Holliday-Evans), is saved by a passing trading ship, while the Robinson family members find themselves stranded on a remote island.
Blunt, sensing a financial opportunity, kills the captain and takes command of the ship and of Jacob’s future. Back on the island, the Robinsons struggle to survive, and to get along with each other.
Ernst (Neil Newbon) tries desperately to please his distant father, while Fritz (Jesse Spencer) grows resentful of dad’s uncompromising authority — a trait Fritz believes led to their current predicament. Lara maintains a calming influence, and soon the family learns of the island’s riches with the help of native Namatiti (Rided Lardpanna).
Part two picks up seven years later as Jacob (Andrew Lee Potts), now a teen, is completely immersed in pirate life under the tutelage of Blunt. Although unscrupulous, Blunt develops fatherly affection for the boy.
Meanwhile, the Robinsons have literally carved out a life for themselves on the island, domesticating animals, growing crops and living in an elaborate tree house under a grove of banana trees. David is content with the life he has made with his family, but Lara cannot forget about Jacob.
Although “Stranded” doesn’t necessarily offer an innovative take on an old story, Beeson and company inadvertently tap into the popularity of reality shows by keeping it character-driven; it puts fairly regular folks in extreme circumstances — only in this case, the Robinsons are far more appealing.
As the family patriarch, Cunningham provides a complex and not always flattering portrait of David. But as the mini progresses, viewers watch him come to a more peaceful relationship with God and his family. His parenting skills are greatly juxtaposed with those of Blunt, who commands by fear instead of love.
Bajic is engaging as Lara but a bit too fragile looking for someone who purportedly survives in the wild. Supporting cast, especially the young actors, could pass for the latest stars of the WB, except the whole lot, especially Lee Potts, displays a maturity of skill beyond that of the average TV teen.
Gary Williamson’s production design is impressive, although the elaborate Robinson tree house veers dangerously close to Disney World territory. Ryszard Lenczewski’s camera soaks in the riches of the Thai beaches, which, paired with the harmonies of Stanislas Syrewicz, offer a treat for the senses.