Host: Russell Baker. Masterpiece Theatre” takes a dip with Alan Seymour’s adaptation of “The Cinder Path,” by British pop novelist Catherine Cookson, writer of 1993’s sudsy “The Black Velvet Gown.” Under Simon Langton’s uninspired direction, the travails of 1913 farmboy Charlie MacFell don’t take long toirk.
Son of the farm’s well-to-do tyrannical owner, tough-luck Charlie (Lloyd Owen) helps a farmhand get away with killing Charlie’s own father (Tom Bell). He learns that farmhand Ginger Slater (Antony Byrne), spotted the murder. Slater hates the whole farm-owning MacFell clan and now he’s got a good hold on Charlie. Not that Charlie doesn’t have plenty of other miseries. His dad commits him to marrying beautiful, loose Victoria Chapman (Catherine Zeta Jones) from the next farm over. All that land! Nellie (Maria Miles), Victoria’s younger, plain, daft sister, longs for Charlie. Charlie’s dour sister Betty (Victoria Scarborough), who lights no corner in which she sits, thinks she’s always getting the short end of the stick.
Warmed-over vixen Victoria keeps her own house in town while passive, pacifist husband Charlie, who avoids any conflict with a dazed look, is conscripted for service in the Great War. Slater turns up as his sergeant in basic training, and Charlie tells Nellie before heading for the trenches in France that he loves her. Maudlin story splatters around in wearying circles.
The plotting’s lightweight, the characters nail-polish deep. The Brits, more than any other filmmakers, have consistently found prime dramatic material in the First World War — until now. Battle scenes look rigged, the trenches stagey , the atmosphere phony. The country locales in northeast England are pastoral and attractive, and designer Ash Wilkinson’s interiors are authentic-looking.
Lloyd Owen as Charlie looks glum amidst the unhappy happenings, but Catherine Zeta Jones, the electric Eustacia Vye in Hallmarks’s “The Return of the Native,” almost makes the worn-out characterization work. Miles’ unstable Nellie certainly convinces, and Scarborough’s tightlipped Betty is a sure thing. Antony Byrne’s nasty Ginger is a strain, but Tom Bell’s brief MacFell Senior shows how to be mean.
Host Russell Baker praises the work of the 88-year-old Cookson, who’s still churning out bestsellers; viewers should take note. Barrington Pheloung has mustered up a supportive score for the disappointing entry, and tech credits are OK. Here’s suds in your eyes.