In its 13th anniversary season, PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre” will certainly help to dispel its lingering reputation as a series of stodgy costumers with this sex farce based on the Kingsley Amis novel “Take a Girl Like You.” Amis, who was begrudgingly labeled one of London’s “angry young men” in the late 1950s, offers a semi-autobiographical account of the pursuit of love and sex, not necessarily in that order, before the onset of the sexual revolution.
Screenwriter Andrew Davies, a “Masterpiece Theatre” veteran (“Moll Flanders,” “Middlemarch,” “Wives and Daughters”), takes this supposed anger and turns it into a mostly good-natured story of a comely young virgin, Jenny Bunn (Sienna Guillory), whose arrival in a sleepy little town upsets the natural order.
Although much more mature in tone and subject matter, “Take a Girl Like You” is somewhat reminiscent of 1995’s “A Circle of Friends,” also penned by Davis. Both films juggle the high-spirited pursuit of sex as well as the more serious consequences of affairs of the heart and body.
Here, under the direction of Nick Hurran, the pursuit of Jenny’s attention and her virtue has been turned into a charming endeavor. The most ferocious player is town Lothario and college professor Patrick Standish (Rupert Graves). Patrick is engaged in a series of affairs, the most reprehensible with the teenage daughter of his headmaster.
Despite drawing the interest of the polite but dull Graham (Ian Driver), as well as aristocrat Julian Ormerod (Hugh Bonneville), Jenny becomes enthralled with Patrick. As Patrick, Graves straddles the line of lecherous and attractive fairly well, although the film never really condemns Patrick for his horrid behavior. His feelings for Jenny, as he discovers, are genuine, but by then his actions are unforgivable. Guillory is simply radiant as Jenny, who is not just the object of desire but a woman struggling to find herself in a society whose previously defined roles are starting to lose focus.
The supporting cast is a fine collection of familiar faces, including Emma Chambers and Hugh Bonneville (“Notting Hill”), as well as Ian Driver and Kathy Kiera-Clark. Hurran does some nice work playing with shadows and lights, but gets carried away with other gimmicky camera work. With so much going on storywise, less is definitely more. Costume design by Andrea Galer plays a major role in Jenny’s appeal, and music by Rupert Gregson Williams provides the appropriate atmosphere.