“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

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“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

As a rule, I have never been an ardent fan of Charles Dickens’ novels. I suppose my aversion to his writing stemmed from being forced to read his 1838 tale, “Oliver Twist”, while in my early teens. That was the last time I had read a Dickens novel, but several film and television adaptations of his work awaited me for many years down the road. And I did not warm up to them. 

After years of avoiding Dickens’ novels or adaptations of his work, I finally decided to put my aversion of his writing aside and set my mind on watching “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, Sandy Welch’s 1998 adaptation of his last completed novel, published in 1864-65. Needless to say, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” proved to be a complicated tale. It featured at least three subplots – major and minor – and they all stemmed from the alleged death of the heir to a fortune created by his father, a former collector from London’s rubbish.

“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” began with a solicitor named Mortimer Lightwood, who narrates the circumstances on the death of his late client and the details of the latter’s will to his aunt and a group of listeners at a London society party. According to Lightwood, Mr. Harmon made his fortune from London’s rubbish. The terms of his will stipulated that his fortune should go to his estranged son John, who is returning to Britain after years spent abroad. John can inherit his father’s money on the condition that he marry a woman he has never met, Miss Bella Wilfer. However, Lightwood receives news that John Harmon’s body has been found in the Thames River. He and his close friend Eugene Wrayburn head toward the river to identify the body. And it was this sequence that led to the following subplots:

*Mr. Harmon’s employees, Nicodemus and Henrietta Boffin inherit the Harmon fortune and take Bella Wilfer as a ward to compensate for her loss, following John Harmon’s “death”.

*John Harmon fakes his death and assumes the identity of John Rokesmith, the Boffins’ social secretary, in order to ascertain Bella Wilfer’s character.

*The man who found Harmon’s “body” is a waterman and scavenger named Gaffer Hexam. He is later accused of murdering “Harmon”.

*While accompanying his friend, Mortimer Lightwood, to identify Harmon’s body, Eugene Wrayburn meets and falls in love with Hexam’s daughter, Lizzie.

*Charley Hexam, Lizzie’s younger brother, has a headmaster named Bradley Headstone, who becomes romantically and violently obsessed with Lizzie.

*A ballad-seller with a wooden leg named Silas Wegg is hired by the Boffins to read for them. When he finds Harmon’s will in the dust, he schemes with a taxidermist named Mr. Venus to blackmail the newly rich couple.

*Mr. and Mrs. Lammle are a society couple who married each other for money and discovered that neither had any. They eventually set their sights on the Boffins to swindle.

I have seen many movies and read many novels in which disparate subplots eventually form into one main narrative. A major example of this is the 2002 novel and its 2008 adaptation, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”. But I cannot recall any form of fiction in which a particular narrative divides into a series of subplots in which one barely have anything in common with another. And I must say that I found this narrative device not only original, but rather disconcerting.

The problem I mainly have with “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” is that I only enjoyed one major subplot – which dealt with Eugene Wrayburn, Lizzie Hexam and Bradley Headstone. I cannot deny that I found it very interesting and very tense, despite David Morrissey’s occasional moments of histronics, when expressing Headstone’s feelings for both Wrayburn and Lizzie; and actress Keeley Hawes’ inability to express Lizzie’s true feelings for Wrayburn until the last episode. And I suspect that director Julian Farino may have been at fault, instead of Hawes. Paul McGann’s portrayal of the ambiguous Wrayburn struck me as the best performance not only in this particular subplot, but also in the entire miniseries.

Inheriting John Harmon’s fortune attracted a good deal of greedy fortune hunters to the Boffins. Unfortunately, Silas Wegg’s attempts to blackmail them ended on a whimper. It did not help that he spent at least two to three episodes (out of four) complaining about his lot in life and plotting with Mr. Venus. I was even less impressed with the poor and newly married Mr. and Mrs. Lammle’s attempts to swindle money from the Boffins. In fact, I am still in the dark over how their attempt failed.

The subplot featuring John Harmon/Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer could have amounted to something. I found Harmon’s gradual love for Bella very interesting to watch, thanks to Steven Mackintosh’s subtle performance. And Anna Friel did a great job in developing Bella Wilfur from a materialistic and ambitious young woman, to one for whom love and morality meant more to her than material wealth. But the problem I have with this subplot? Bella did not learn the truth about John until some time after their wedding. Even worse, he had to resort to deception to find out whether Bella was worthy of his hand. I realize that when they first met, she was not exactly a pleasant woman. But he conducted their courtship, while deceiving her. Even worse, Bella forgave John a bit too easily, once she learned the truth.

Aside from the excellent performances; including those from Peter Vaughn and Pam Ferris as the Boffins, Kenneth Cranham as Silas Wegg, Margaret Tyzack as the imperious Tippins, and Dominic Mafham as Mortimer Lightwood; “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” has two other virtues that I found impressive. The four-part miniseries’ visual style struck me as colorful and at the same time, epic. And I believe one has to thank David Odd for his excellent. And Mike O’Neil’s Victorian costumes truly blew me away. Not only did I find them beautiful, but a near accurate reflection of Britain in the 1860s.

One might believe that I dislike “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”. Trust me, I liked it. But I did not love it. I suspect that Sandy Welch and director Julian Farino did the best they could in translating Dickens’ tale to the screen. Perhaps they more than did their best and that was the trouble. The 1864-65 novel is not considered among the novelist’ best. “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” has yet to improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a novelist. Perhaps a second viewing might do the job.

“MIDDLEMARCH” (1994) Review

 

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“MIDDLEMARCH” (1994) Review

Many years have passed since I first saw “MIDDLEMARCH”, the 1994 BBC adaptation of George Eliot’s 1871 novel. Many years. I recalled enjoying it . . . somewhat. But it had failed to leave any kind of impression upon me. Let me revise that. At least two performances left an impression upon me. But after watching the miniseries for the second time, after so many years, I now realize I should have paid closer attention to the production. 

Directed by Anthony Page and adapted for television by Andrew Davies, “MIDDLEMARCH” told the story about a fictitious Midlands town during the years 1830–32. Its multiple plots explored themes that included the status of women and class status, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education. There seemed to be at least four major story arcs in the saga. Actually, I would say there are two major story arcs and two minor ones. The first of the minor story arcs focused on Fred Vincy, the only son of Middlemarch’s mayor, who has a tendency to be spendthrift and irresponsible. Fred is encouraged by his ambitious parents to find a secure life and advance his class standing by becoming a clergyman. But Fred knows that Mary Garth, the woman he loves, will not marry him if he does become one. And there is Mr. Nicholas Bulstrode, Middlemarch’s prosperous banker, who is married to Fred’s aunt. Mr. Bulstrode is a pious Methodist who is unpopular with Middlemarch’s citizens, due to his attempts to impose his beliefs in society. However, he also has a sordid past which he is desperate to hide.

However, two story arcs dominated “MIDDLEMARCH”. One of them centered around Dorothea Brooke, the older niece of a wealthy landowner with ambitions to run for political office, and her determination to find some kind of ideal meaning in her life. She becomes somewhat romantically involved with a scholarly clergyman and fellow landowner named the Reverend Edward Casaubon in the hopes of assisting him in his current research. Dorothea eventually finds disappointment in her marriage, as Reverend Casaubon proves to be a selfish and pedantic man who is more interested in his research than anyone else – including his wife. The second arc told the story about a proud, ambitious and talented medical doctor of high birth and a small income named Tertius Lydgate. He arrives at Middlemarch at the beginning of the story in the hopes of making great advancements in medicine through his research and the charity hospital in Middlemarch. Like Dorothea, he ends up in an unhappy marriage with a beautiful, young social climber named Rosamond Vincy, who is more concerned about their social position and the advantages of marrying a man from a higher class than her own. Dr. Lydgage’s proud nature and professional connections to Mr. Bulstrode, makes him very unpopular with the locals.

After watching “MIDDLEMARCH”, it occurred to me it is one of the best miniseries that came from British television in the past twenty to thirty years. I also believe that it might be one of Andrew Davies’ best works. Mind you,“MIDDLEMARCH” is not perfect. It has its flaws . . . perhaps one or two of them . . . but flaws, nonetheless. While watching “MIDDLEMARCH”, I got the feeling that screenwriter Andrew Davies could not balance the story arcs featuring Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate with any real equilibrium. It seemed that most of his interest was focused upon Lydgate as the saga’s main character, instead of dividing that honor between Lydgate and Dorothea. While the miniseries revealed Dorothea’s unhappy marriage to Casaubon, Davies’ screenplay in the first three episodes, Davies did a first rate job in balancing both hers and Lydgate’s stories. But Lydgate seemed to dominate the second half of the miniseries – the last three episodes – as his story shoved Dorothea’s to the status of a minor plot arc. Mind you, I found the Lydgates’ marriage fascinating. But Davies failed to deliver any real . . . punch to Dorothea’s story arc and especially her relationship with her cousin-in-law, Will Ladislaw. If I have to be honest, Dorothea and Will’s relationship following Casaubon’s death struck me as rushed and a bit disappointing.

Thankfully, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Because “MIDDLEMARCH” still managed to be an outstanding miniseries. Davies did a more or less excellent job in weaving the production’s many storylines without any confusion whatsoever. In fact, I have to congratulate Davies for accomplishing this feat. And I have to congratulate director Anthony Page for keeping the production and its story in order with allowing the latter to unravel into a complete mess. More importantly, both Page and Davies adhered to George Eliot’s ambiguous portrayal of her cast of characters. Even her two most ideal characters – Dorothea and Lydgate – are plagued by their own personal flaws. Some of the characters were able to overcome their flaws for a “happily ever after” and some were not. The period between the Regency Era and the Victorian Age has rarely been explored in television or in motion pictures. But thanks to “MIDDLEMARCH”, I have learned about the political movements that led to the Great Reform Act of 1832. A good number of people might find Eliot’s saga somewhat depressing and wish she had ended her story with a more romantic vein in the style of Jane Austen . . . or allow Dorothea and Lydgate to happily achieve their altruistic goals. However . . . “MIDDLEMARCH” is not an Austen novel.

I am trying to think of a performance that seemed less than impressive. But I cannot think of one. I was very impressed by everyone’s performances. And the ones that really impressed me came from Juliet Aubrey’s spot-on performance as the ideal and naive Dorothea Brooke; Jonathan Firth, whose portrayal of the spendthrift Fred Vincy turned out to be one of his best career performances; Rufus Sewell, who first made a name for himself in his passionate portrayal of Casaubon’s poor cousin, Will Ladislaw; Peter Jeffrey’s complex performance as the ambiguous Nicholas Bulstrode; Julian Wadham as the decent Sir James Chattam, whose unrequited love for Dorothea led him to marry her sister Cecila and develop a deep dislike toward Will; and Rachel Power, who gave a strong, yet solid performance as Fred Vincy’s love, the no-nonsense Mary Garth.

However, four performances really impressed me. Both Douglas Hodge and Trevyn McDowell really dominated the miniseries as the ideal, yet slightly arrogant Tertius Lydgate and his shallow and social-climbing wife, Rosamond Vincy Lydgate. The pair superbly brought the Lydgates’ passionate, yet disastrous marriage to life . . . even more so than Davies’ writing or Page’s direction. And I have to give kudos to Patrick Malahide for portraying someone as complex and difficult Reverend Edward Casaubon. The latter could have easily been a one-note character lacking of any sympathy. But thanks to Malahide, audiences were allowed glimpses into an insecure personality filled with surprising sympathy. And Robert Hardy was a hilarious blast as Dorothea’s self-involved uncle, the politically ambitious Arthur Brooke. What I enjoyed about Hardy’s performance is that his Uncle Brooke seemed like such a friendly and sympathetic character. Yet, Hardy made it clear that this cheerful soul has a selfish streak a mile wide. And despite his willingness to use the current reform movement to seek political office, he is incapable of treating the tenants on his estate with any decency.

“MIDDLEMARCH” could not only boast a first-rate screenplay written by Andrew Davies, first rate direction by Anthony Page and a superb cast; it could also boast excellent production values. One of the crew members responsible for the miniseries’ production was Anushia Nieradzik, who created some beautiful costumes that clearly reflected the story’s period of the early 1830s. I was also impressed by Gerry Scott’s use of a Lincolnshire town called Stamford as a stand-in for 1830-32 Middlemarch. And Brian Tufano’s photography beautifully captured Scott’s work and the town itself.

Yes, “MIDDLEMARCH” has a few flaws. And the photography featured in the latest copy seems a bit faded. But I believe that it is, without a doubt, one of the finest British television productions from the last twenty to twenty-five years. After all of these years, I have a much higher regard for it than when I first saw it.