Most costume dramas are either too short or tomes that are far too long making adapting them a challenge. Though this 90’s Andrew Davies adaptation suffers from other unfortunate elements, one of them is certainly its length. The story itself is interesting – following a half a dozen characters along the way and setting itself in the titular town with social politics rearing its ugly head – yet it seemed to linger in places that should have been cut.
Eager to learn and do something productive with her life is the beautiful Dorothea Brooke (Juliet Aubrey). Along with her plainer but more fanciful younger sister, Celia, the girls are under the protection of their uncle, the foolish and wealthy landowner, Arthur Brooke (Robert Hardy). Thinking he’d like to be in politics someday, he shamelessly neglects his tenants housing which inspires Dorothea to work on new designs to make their tenants more comfortable and less prone to the elements and the subsequent illnesses. Her attentions are soon captured by a guest of her uncles. An older gentleman named Edward Casubon (Patrick Malahide) who is a plain-spoken reverend but is ardently working on research to someday write his own book, sharing what knowledge he has accumulated over the years. Being a bookish girl herself, Dorothea is curious about the man. She has never seen herself in a young marriage full of love but rather one in which her husband can guide her and be a teacher rather than her equal. This upsets neighbor and would-be suitor Sir. Chettam (Julian Wadham).
Set apart from the wealthy estate owners is the town of Middlemarch. Into its residency walks the newly minted Dr. Lydgate (Douglas Hodge). Trained in Paris, Dr. Lydgate is soon the object of much conversation when the ladies learn his uncle is a baron. In particular the beautiful but spoiled Rosamond Vincy (Trevyn McDowell) sets her sights on him while her flighty brother (Jonathan Firth) continues to gamble away his money indebting himself to anyone who fronts him yet he finds himself on the brink of losing everything – including the heart of the woman he loves.
Making up for some of the disappointments is a cast that is half unknown faces and names, while the more experienced, familiar faces bring up fun topics of conversation as seasoned BBC watchers will enjoy trying to pick out what else they may have starred in, which ranges from Martin Chuzzlewit and Sense & Sensibility to the royal family in Bertie & Elizabeth and ITV’s latest jewel, The Paradise. Juliet Aubrey carries the movie well for a heroine whose attitude of being self-effecting nearly almost comes to the point of being “too good.” Her kind heart asks for nothing in return, yet she would like to give away all that she possesses. Everyone around her is also well cast though some people royally test nerves. Also throwing a wrench in the perfectly laid plans of more than one person is the character of Will Ladislaw played well by Rufus Sewall.
Though it didn’t distract me to the point of taking away enjoyment, the evident dated filmmaking is painful. It may just be the DVD release and not every copy may suffer from shots in which the actors’ heads are partially cut off or the grainy picture that worsens in certain frames, but if not then this is seriously in need of a re-make. It’s one that needs to be updated either way since it’d be interesting to see how it would work on the screen today. Scripted by the talented Davies, there may be few flaws but what there are seemed significant. A handful of scenes linger too long on the actors reactions or conversations are repeated too often. Costuming isn’t as lavish as other better known productions. Settings are primarily limited to Middlemarch and its surrounding countryside though one visit to Rome shows some pretty grand architecture.
The series isn’t one I’ve regretted having seen. George Eliot is not a favorite story-teller – or more specifically her works adapted (don't read the books) are far down the scale when there are Dickens, Gaskell and even Austen to be considered. Despite one ending that seemed selflessly happy, there is a sense of dread hanging over the ending meaning that we cannot shake the feeling that no one really gets the kind of ending one would wish for the people who displayed such selfless aptitudes. It’s more sobering than satisfying.
(Concerning content; three people die, one is the result of foul play. Flirtations between married couples take place in bedrooms [a man “undresses” his wife once, no nudity]. Some tense moments occur in a marriage though there is no abuse. Suspicions arise that suggest an extra-marital affair, rumors that are false.)