Amid a splendid year for PBS' Masterpiece, "South Riding" feels like a second-class addition to the 'hood.
Amid a splendid year for PBS’ Masterpiece, “South Riding” feels like a second-class addition to the ‘hood. Based on Winifred Holtby’s Depression-era novel and adapted by go-to scribe Andrew Davies (“Little Dorrit”), echoes of “Jane Eyre” haunt this story of longing and striving, but too many so-so subplots detract from the more compelling key characters, ably played by Anna Maxwell Martin and David Morrissey. Spread over three hourlong chapters, it’s a respectable but uninspired follow-up to the period between World War I and II just chronicled — to greater effect — in “Upstairs Downstairs.”
Actually, the movie peaks in its opening moments, when the liberated Sarah Burton (“Bleak House’s” Maxwell Martin) sashays into a drab job interview in a bright red dress. Applying for the job of headmistress at a girl’s high school, she talks about teaching the students to aim high — “It’s 1934,” she says pointedly to the stone-faced panel — and not to let their boys become “cannon fodder” in some future war.
This instantly puts her at odds with a grim local landowner on the school’s board, Robert Carne (Morrissey), but he’s overruled by the other members, and Sarah is hired.
What follows, however, never quite measures up to that promise, from Sarah’s efforts to help her cash-strapped students to Robert’s family secret that threatens his finances and forces him to send his daughter to the school.
Other plots — such as a preacher (John Henshaw) who keeps succumbing to temptations of the flesh, and politics involving the local council — at times feel like a distraction, inasmuch as they cut into the screen time involving the central duo, who are drawn to each other despite their differences.
Morrissey (“Viva Blackpool”) is a powerful presence, and there’s a real sense of pain and longing in the performances by him and Maxwell Martin. By that measure, whittling the story down and tightening its focus actually might have yielded addition through subtraction.
As is, “South Riding” (named for its fictional community in Yorkshire) is a handsome production, but not an especially memorable one — conjuring only a few moments worthy of the “Masterpiece” pedigree before riding into the sunset.
Martin Robert Carne - David Morrissey
Mrs. Beddows - Penelope Wilton
Joe Astell - Douglass Henshall
Alfred Huggins - John Henshaw
Anthony Snaith - Peter Firth
Lydia Holly - Charlie Clark
Midge - Katherine McGolpin
Muriel - Lydia Wilson