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21 July 2006

"Wives and Daughters" (1999)

Justine Waddell (Molly), Bill Paterson (Mr. Gibson), Francesca Annis (Claire), Keeley Hawes (Cynthia)

Directed by Nicholas Renton

Summary: The life of good girl Molly Gibson is turned around when her father, the town doctor, unexpectedly marries a selfish, self-absorbed former governess named Claire. Shortly thereafter, Claire's beautiful daughter Cynthia joins the household from France. Local brothers Osborne (Tom Hollander) and Roger (Anthony Howell) Hamley add romantic interest to the tale. However, the Hamleys come from old English stock and Squire Hamley (Michael Gambon) wants his sons to marry into wealthy old families. Before long, Molly falls for Roger, Roger falls for Cynthia, and the secrets multiply!

Adapted by the same screenwriter, Andrew Davies, who adapted the 1995 BBC production of "Pride & Prejudice" and last year's wonderful "Bleak House", "Wives and Daughters" exists in the tradition of those two mini-series masterpieces. Instead of rushing around and compacting scenes, Davies takes his time to pull the nuance from every scene and character from Elizabeth Gaskell's 1865 novel.

I credit Davies with giving each of his adaptations a certain unique voice. Austen, Dickens and Gaskell wrote in vastly differing styles, and the screenplays Davies created reflect those individual voices. As with any genre, the English drama mini-series is a product that has been repeated ad nauseam, but Davies' work stands apart as unique with every new project he tackles.

What is it about these BBC productions where the casting agents find the EXACT right person to carry the weight of the drama? Whereas American adaptations tend to take a personality (say, Reese Witherspoon in Vanity Fair) and force that known performer into an often-unsuitable role, these BBC minis cast the part with the role in mind first. The actresses are relative unknowns, but they inhabit the role in a way that bigger stars cannot, with subtlety and anonymity.

Justine Waddell's performance as Molly joins Jennifer Ehle's Elizabeth Bennett and Anna Martin Maxwell's Esther Summerson in a special realm of supremely relatable heroines. A look, a sigh, a pause - Waddell played a fragile, easily hurt Molly who managed to stand apart as the series' most steadfast character. Her silent, unrecognized pining for Roger was just heart-breaking.

That said, I could have done with a bit more kissing. The conclusion was particularly unsatisfying in that there was no finale embrace. A proposal, a scene some months later, and then Roger and Molly in Africa - but no resolved tension! Drat! Poor Molly had to suffer for more than two years, and she doesn't even get an on-screen smooch.

Francesca Annis, the former Lady Jessica, was memorably teeth-gnashing as Molly's step-mother; Keeley Hawes presented a strong combination of flighty and personable (and she looked great in a corset); Anthony Howell was a satisfying blend of brains, compassion and looks; and Iain Glen needs to stare smolderingly through every film ever made from now on. However, the real star of the show - Molly aside - was Michael Gambon as Squire Hamley. He was funny, touching, emotional, tragic, and resilient all at once, and his on-screen relationship with Osborne and Roger made the film as much about fathers and son as it was about wives and daughters.

Blogger Fiona Bun said...

Sigh, Iain... Iain... Ok, so there are two that make me all girly. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Iain. BTW, have you ever seen Mr. Iain do Hamlet? He's amazing.

19:19  
Blogger carrie_lofty said...

Only saw him in R & G Are Dead. Is there a proper version? He was LOVELY. I kept waiting for it to be a proper romance novel, where lovely, sweet, innocent Molly gets swept away by the notorious land agent. Sigh. Instead, she gets carted off to Africa by a goody-goody who won't even kiss her properly...

20:13  
Blogger Jenn said...

Great review... I too have lamented the lack of kissing.
ah well, at least Molly gets to wear breeches...

22:37  

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