Following her stunning screen debut in “Breaking the Waves,” Emily Watson renders another poignant performance in “The Mill on the Floss,” portraying a bright woman who’s ahead of her time and becomes the victim of family loyalty and rigid societal mores. Unfortunately, Watson’s graceful presence is contained in a modest, often tedious version of George Eliot’s novel, one suitable for the small screen and other ancillary venues, but lacking the exciting treatment and lush visuals of recent literary adaptations.
A story of a family swept away by the force of its strong feelings and passions, “The Mill on the Floss” concerns the feud between Edward Tulliver (Bernard Hill), a proudly moral man whose ancestors have owned the mill on the river Floss for 300 years, and Lawyer Wakem (Nicholas Gecks), a shrewd businessman who takes the mill away from him.
Though very different, Edward’s children, Maggie and Tom, are intimately bonded. The smart, painfully emotional Maggie adores her practical, stubborn brother to such an extent that she spends her life seeking his love and approval. When the story jumps ahead to find the siblings as mature individuals, Maggie (Watson) is seeing Philip Wakem (James Frain), the sensitive son of her father’s greatest enemy. Motivated by jealousy and by loyalty to their defeated father, Tom (Ifan Meredith) forbids Maggie to meet Philip again, and she yields to his authority.
A visit to her cousin Lucy Deane (Lucy Whybrow), who’s engaged to the handsome, charming Stephen Guest (James Weber-Brown), complicates family matters further: Stephen falls for Maggie and declares love at first sight. A boating expedition the two take scandalizes all concerned, and Tom kicks Maggie out of the house. Story’s ending momentarily reunites the siblings before facing their tragic fate.
Stripping down the literary source as much as possible, director Graham Theakston gives his film a sparse look and a somber tone, neglecting the rich context — and landscapes — against which the tragic yarn unfolds. His approach makes the film emotionally harsher, too matter-of-fact and more visually monotonous than it needed to be to involve the audience.
Cast in a role similar to the one she played in “Breaking the Waves,” Watson’s illustrates vividly the tale’s central dilemma: the choice between true love and family duty. With her luminous acting, Watson captures the tragedy of an unconventional, extremely bright woman who is harshly judged for her candid behavior. Frain excels as Philip, Maggie’s kindred soul and loyal friend. Good work also comes from Meredith, as the hard-working, dutiful brother who, unlike sister Maggie, evolves into an individual society approves of. Rest of the cast is decent, if not distinguished.
Tech credits are serviceable.