Following his Emmy-winning “The Lost Prince,” writer-director Stephen Poliakoff offers these two very loosely connected films that, the BBC contends, provide “unique perspective on the sweeping changes of the past two decades.” What emerges, rather, are two fairly obvious stories — one a riches-to-rags business fable, the other a romance about lovers united through loss and longing — with the slightly better of the two due next month. Given the high standards of BBC drama, neither is really worth the time investment despite the top-notch casts.
An attempt to do a modern “The Great Gatsby,” “Friends & Crocodiles” focuses on a wealthy but eccentric visionary, Paul (Damian Lewis of “Band of Brothers”), and his assistant-turned-colleague-turned eventual employer Lizzie (Jodhi May). She’s told at the outset by an oily writer (Robert Lindsay, the lone connection between the two movies) that playboy Paul “collects people,” which includes lavish spending and peculiar stunts — among them hiring ruffians to terrorize his guests at a posh party.
Lizzie eventually leaves Paul, but their paths keep intersecting as she scales the corporate ladder while his fortunes tumble. Essentially, it’s “Same Time, Next Year” without the sex, as the two undergo dramatic and not particularly convincing transformations in the intervals between when they meet.
Not very well hidden within, meanwhile, is Poliakoff’s polemic about greed and corruption in the 1980s and ’90s, but such stories have simply been dealt with previously, and better, in too many places.
That handicap is even more pertinent to “Gideon’s Daughter,” inasmuch as Bill Nighy very nearly reprises his brilliant performance in last year’s HBO movie “The Girl in the Cafe,” in which he played a listless bureaucrat who stumbles into a romance with a mysterious young woman.
Employing the same production team as “Friends & Crocodiles,” the story unfolds through flashback, as Lindsay’s character relates it in fairy-tale fashion to a stenographer assisting him with an upcoming book.
Here, Nighy is a PR guru, Gideon Warner, prepping for England’s millennium celebration when he finds himself drawn to a woman (Miranda Richardson) whose son died in an accident. Widowed, Gideon has a chilly relationship with his beautiful and talented daughter (Emily Blunt), who is graduating from college and plans to run off to Colombia on a world-saving quest.
Again, the subtext is hardly subtle, as Gideon — who fears losing his child — shakes up his staid existence by becoming entangled with a woman who has lost hers. It’s only Nighy’s unerring ability to convey inner turmoil, wrapped in a neatly pressed package, which elevates this material above its conventional moorings.
Foremost, these companion productions have the feel of Poliakoff working through pet peeves, from the media saturation of Princess Diana’s death to the vulgarity of the millennium festivities to the corporate shenanigans of the Enron era.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with getting that off his chest. For the most part, though, it’s not much fun to watch.