Handsome, high-quality production that it is, viewers still had better know their post-World War I Paris peace confab and the participants to understand what's going on. With Ralph Fiennes as adventurer T.E. Lawrence and Siddig el Fadil as his fellow Damascus liberator the Emir Feisal, producers Colin Vaines and Uberto Pasolini present a commendable if confusing telefilm about Lawrence's battle for Arab rights against France's demands.

Handsome, high-quality production that it is, viewers still had better know their post-World War I Paris peace confab and the participants to understand what’s going on. With Ralph Fiennes as adventurer T.E. Lawrence and Siddig el Fadil as his fellow Damascus liberator the Emir Feisal, producers Colin Vaines and Uberto Pasolini present a commendable if confusing telefilm about Lawrence’s battle for Arab rights against France’s demands.

Part of the confusion stems from lack of recognition of the principals. Right off the bat, an actor slightly impersonates Lowell Thomas showing a film about Lawrence as the Welshman watches unnoticed in the audience. Vidpic folds into Lawrence and Feisal working toward Paris, where Lawrence is a Foreign Office rep but Feisal can’t even get into town.

Lawrence works it out, and the two men, both trying to stave off France’s colonial aggression in Syria, start making their contacts: Clemenceau (Arnold Diamond), an ungiving Lord Dyson (Nicholas Jones), Lloyd George (Bernard Lloyd) and, running the War Cabinet confab, Lord Curzon (Denis Quilley). Churchill’s there, and Meinertzhagen, but their roles in the drama and in historical perspective are mostly in connection with Lawrence’s pro-Arab aims.

Writer Tim Rose Price, director Christopher Menaul and Fiennes give Lawrence his much-touted mysticism and a becoming modesty, even though he swaggers into huge gatherings, shows off his knowledge of French in a spontaneous document translation and purposefully appears in Arab regalia.

Price adds several intensely personal passages–Lawrence, finding a French diplomat’s lovely wife (Polly Walker) in his bed, explains that he cannot “respond” to her; Lawrence, home for the death of his father, observes his mother ironing his clothes in her grief; the friendship between him and Feisal becomes endangered when he claims in Feisal’s hearing that he can get him to do anything.

One of the more vigorous characters at the Quai d’Orsay for the 1919 conference is Lawrence’s good friend Gertrude Bell, archaeologist, writer and historian whom feminists have long neglected. Played by Gillian Barge, Bell’s presence isn’t explained, her position simply accepted.

Which is true of too many of the characters and purposes. People move among the handsome sets, making monumental decisions and creating situations. It’s a history lesson without the book, portraits too often without IDs.

Fiennes, playing Lawrence with an inner smile, is physically too large to be the diminutive adventurer, but it doesn’t matter: He presents a tempered, deliberate Lawrence, credible and winning. At one point, the script plays with destiny as Lawrence races a bike into near-danger; prophetic actions go well with the character.

Fadil’s Feisal, civilized young man bluffing the French and English, has dignity, fierceness and brains. His dreams of Syria are his cause; French pride thanks to France’s war losses and colonization policy will kill his dreams.

Director Menaul moves his TV movie at a feature pace. Tight closeups capture reactions; tracking shots seem to measure the grandeur of places and deeds (and of the interiors set up at Sands Studios). Witold Stok’s camerawork–the richness, the composition, the insight–traces the story with taste and imagination.

Claudie Gastine’s costumes are appropriate, and the production’s designs are of high quality all the way through. Tech credits are superb.

Great Performances a Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia

(Wed. (6), 9-11 p.m., PBS)

Production

Filmed at Sands Studios, Rotherhithe, London, by Enigma TV Prods. for Anglia Films in association with Sands Films and WNET, N.Y. Exec producers, David Puttman, Brenda Reid; exec producers for WNET, Kimberly Myers, Marion Lear Swaybill; producers, Colin Vaines, Uberto Pasolini; director, Christopher Menaul; writer, Tim Rose Price; concept, Clive Irving.

Crew

Camera, Witold Stok; editor, David Rees; sound, Godfrey Kirby; music, Michel Sanvoisin.

Cast

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Siddig el Fadil, Denis Quilley, Nicholas Jones, Roger Hammond, Peter Copley, Paul Freeman, Polly Walker, Gillian Barge, Jim Carter, Michael Cochrane, Robert Arden, Arnold Diamond, Bernard Lloyd, Keith Edwards, Ray Edwards, Ian Targett, Jack Ellis, Adam Hendersopn, George Innes, Kerry Shale , John Moreno, Clive Llewellyn, Tariq Alibai, Nicholas Tennant, Mark Spalding, Patrick Pearson, Merelina Kendall, Ann Rich, Caroline Fellus, Michael Fleming, Terry Coates, Charles Rogers, Alain Debray.

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