Masterpiece Theatre Review 1: Middlemarch (1994)

by drpoppy

It’s true. No one has been asking me for my reviews of Masterpiece Theatre productions. The world does not need this. But I wrote it anyway.

This is the first in what I intend as a series of posts about Masterpiece Theatre and BBC miniseries. I watch most airings of Masterpiece (though NOT Masterpiece Mystery, unless it’s Sherlock Holmes), as well as the BBC productions that air on PBS, and I generally can’t get enough of films and miniseries set in the nineteenth-century, despite the fact that I almost always find fault with them. It’s a sickness.

(Some of my favorites, in case you would like to see what my tastes are, include Bleak House (2005), The Forsyte Saga Series One (2003; the second series was good but not as good), and the 2009 BBC version of Emma, starring the utterly delightful Romola Garai. (I just imdb’d her to check the spelling of her name and saw that she just played Sugar in a BBC adaptation of The Crimson Petal and the White omigoshomigosh. I can’t imagine that miniseries could possibly be good, but she’ll be great in it nevertheless!)

I am going to review the productions that aired earlier this year in later posts, but I am going to start with an older miniseries that I only recently got around to watching, the 1994 adaptation of Middlemarch.

I was excited to watch the miniseries of Middlemarch. I love this novel and was looking forward to revisiting it. One thing I like about miniseries of books I enjoy is when they remind me of things I had forgotten or just didn’t notice the first time. It’s a little like re-reading the novel, but without the time commitment.

It seems, though, that I should really have taken the time to re-read Middlemarch instead of watching the miniseries. The show has a pretty high rating on Netflix, but when reading the reviews, I noticed most people hadn’t read the book, which in my opinion accounts for the high ratings. But at the same time it doesn’t, since I actually found the miniseries pretty boring; I kept minimizing it while it played (I watched on my computer) and checking my email, so I’m surprised anyone with less investment in the novel would sit through six hours of this miniseries.

Honestly, I thought most of the acting was shallow and there was very little of the interiority or intense emotion of the novel. I will say that two actors nailed their roles: Robert Hardy perfectly captured the bumbling-but-dangerous ineptitude of Mr. Brooke, and John Savident is so convincingly and thoroughly disgusting as Raffles that you actually feel bad for Bulstrode. But these are not the two characters you probably remember best from Middlemarch.

I hate to say this, but the actress who plays Dorothea, Juliet Aubrey, looked too old for the part. She also just didn’t look like Dorothea to me, though I can’t really say what I think Dorothea looks like. But I could have overlooked both of these things if it weren’t for Aubrey’s voice. I feel terrible criticizing someone’s voice (goodness knows I hate my own), but her voice was just wrong for Dorothea; she spoke the whole time in this wispy half-whisper, never with what sounded like a full-throated word, even when she was angry. Like many 19th century heroines (Eliot’s best achievement, Maggie Tulliver, springs to mind; Jane Eyre is another), Dorothea strikes me as a woman with a passion she struggles to contain. She is arguably more cerebral and less passionate than Maggie or Jane, but if we are to believe that she goes with her heart in the end, there must be something passionate about her, don’t you think? But that voice of Juliet Aubrey’s just made everything come out sounding weak and insincere.

I know a lot of people seem to like Rufus Sewell in the role of Will Ladislaw, one of the most beloved heroes of Victorian literature (I do not love him as much as many of my friends do, who count him as not just their favorite male Victorian character, but as their favorite character, period, of Victorian literature, but I will give him this: he might be the only male character in Victorian literature who doesn’t do anything despicable or misogynistic). However, I thought Sewell was weird in the role. I think he was trying to play smoldering intensity, but instead he came off as bored or not paying attention about 3/4 the time and overreacting the other 1/4, with very little of Ladislaw’s sense of humor. There was exactly zero chemistry between Aubrey and Sewell; if you didn’t just know that two attractive young people in a Victorian setting have to fall in love, you’d never have any idea whatsoever that the characters were remotely interested in each other. When Ladislaw makes his first declaration of love, it seems to come out of nowhere. As if to emphasize all this, they change the setting of Dorothea and Will’s kiss: instead of Eliot’s scene, where they kiss in the library while a storm rages outside, in the miniseries version, they kiss on a sunny day outdoors where she is daintily deadheading the daisies in front of the house. (Daisies!) While of course I understand that many feel Eliot’s scene is overdone, the miniseries version is every bit as passionless as their relationship has been portrayed all along, which is a shame — at least an outpouring of emotion at the end would have given the impression that a great deal had been held back along the way.

Is she going to kiss him or strangle him? This screencap makes the scene look more exciting than I thought it was.

There’s no need to go on. Lydgate comes across in the miniseries as having done nothing wrong (even though the novel shows how he is as much to blame for his bad marriage as Rosamond), whereas Rosamond is unfathomable; or, I guess more accurately, all the nuance of her character is lost, and she just comes across as childish and manipulative — which, of course, she is, but in Eliot’s deft hands we are better able to see her perspective. Mary’s eventual acceptance of Fred comes almost out of the blue; although we are told she loves him from the beginning, his transformation happens so suddenly that if you blink, you’ll miss it. Then to top it all off, a voiceover by Judy Dench as, presumably, George Eliot suddenly wraps things up at the end, even though there had been no voiceover before that.

All in all, though, the real problem is with adaptation as a project in general. Without Eliot’s descriptions of the characters’ motivations, the story doesn’t really hold up. There isn’t really that much plot to Middlemarch; what is so beautiful and compelling about the novel is the detail and depth Eliot gives to the psychology of each character, how she makes you understand each one even as she shows, in tragic detail, how they haven’t the slightest ability to fathom the thoughts or feelings of each other accurately, and how thoroughly they misunderstand each other, again and again. Is this something that can ever be conveyed on screen?