“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 DVD 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.

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