Filmed in England and Italy by BBC-TV, in association with WGBH, Boston. Executive producers, Michael Wearing (for BBC), Rebecca Eaton (for WGBH); producer, Louis Marks; associate producer, Alison Gee; director, Anthony Page; writer, Andrew Davies, based on the novel by George Eliot; After some wobbly recent outings, Brit pubcaster BBC reclaims the classic-drama high ground with this elegant adaptation of the 1871 George Eliot novel. Feature-length opener of the six-part costumer — the Beeb’s most expensive to date — bodes well for producer Louis Marks’ high-risk gamble with $ 9 million of the corporation’s (and WGBH Boston’s) coin, thanks to a trim, quality adaptation by Andrew Davies (“To Play the King”), tasty production values and fine down-the-line casting of veterans and newer names. The English-lit crowd should lap this one up.
Eager to show it can still come up with the traditional goods, the BBC banged the big drum for this one prior to airing. Sign of the times, Auntie has even raised her skirts, offering a cornucopia of support material, including a “Middlemarch” resource pack and a 32-page viewer’s guide. The weekly series, however, is airing on its smaller-scale channel, BBC2, rather than the mass-audience BBC1.
Title refers to the fictional Midlands community, a kind of Anytown, U.K., on the cusp of major change in the year 1829. The railroad is coming, and new social and scientific ideas are in the air. A young doctor, Tertius Lydgate (Douglas Hodge), arrives with big ambitions, including finding cures for typhoid and cholera, and immediately comes up against local politicking between stuffed-shirt local banker Bulstrode (Peter Jeffrey) and the free-thinking Rev. Farebrother (Simon Chandler).
On the landed gentry side, Dorothea (Juliet Aubrey), daughter of old-fashioned buffoon Arthur Brooke (Robert Hardy), is an idealistic, relentless self-improver. Her misguided marriage to middle-aged intellectual bore Rev. Casaubon (Patrick Malahide) starts to hit the reefs during their Italian honeymoon in the opener.
Large cast includes Dorothea’s younger (but emotionally smarter) sister, Celia (Caroline Harker), in the sights of a smoothie aristocrat neighbor (Julian Wadham); Casaubon’s tortured-artist cousin, Will (Rufus Sewell), who has the hots for Dorothea; mayor’s daughter Rosamund Vincey (Trevyn McDowell), who’s drawn a bead on Lydgate; Rosamund’s spendthrift brother, Fred (Jonathan Firth), smitten with a tough-minded servant girl (Rachel Power); and his dotty, aging uncle (Michael Hordern), who’s sitting on a pile of loot.
Davies’ intelligent script does a fine job of paring down Eliot’s prose to fast-moving essentials without losing the flavor of the original or slipping in any knowing modern winks. By the end of the opener, the chess board has been clearly laid out with enough tensions and incipient relationships to fuel a whole series of “Dallas.”
Performances are on the nail throughout, with special praise for newcomer Aubrey in the tricky central role of plain-Jane Dorothea, and Hodge (“Capital City”) as the young, ambitious outsider. Between them, the pair strikingly embody Eliot’s central theme of forward thinkers battling conservative values in a dull, complacent community.
Production values are tasty, with the country town of Stamford, Lincolnshire, convincingly re-dressed as Middlemarch. Veteran composer Stanley Myers (in one of his last jobs prior to his recent untimely death) supplies a robust, pastoral score, developed by Christopher Gunning in subsequent episodes.