Masterpiece Theatre the Rector’s Wife

Host: Russell Baker.

Host: Russell Baker.

This contemporary story of a British village vicar’s wife who is inundated with duties and obligations has moments of dramatic strength undermined by seeping soapsuds under Giles Foster’s direction. Upper-lip message seems to be that if you want independence, beware of good people trying to do the right thing.

In this case, the wife is too remote for viewers to figure out until the final hour. For 2 1/2 hours Anna (Lindsay Duncan) struggles with life.

Husband Peter (Jonathan Coy) gets passed over for the new archdeacon spot assigned to newcomer Daniel Byrne (Ronald Pickup). Anna can’t cope with his resulting desolation, and she finds herself being boxed in by well-intentioned locals and sees no escape.

Anna wants daughter Flora (Lucy Dawson) to attend a private school, where she’ll be happier. To pay for the difference, Anna, not a tidy thinker, gets a job in a supermarket without telling husband Peter, who fusses a lot over the idea when he hears of it.

The archdeacon’s younger brother Daniel (Stephen Dillane), who knows stifled emotions when he sees them, starts hanging around Anna and she falls for him. In a burg where everyone’s always barging in on everyone else, she and Daniel lie down together among the buttercups in the open meadowland; they just don’t care.

The tale unwinds unmercifully, with Peter, continuously staring at ledgers, suffering bravely. He’s obviously having a breakdown, but no one really notices.

All the misery takes place before Witold Stock’s immaculate camerawork and within Cecilia Brereton’s rightfully cluttered production design. Prunella Scales puts everything in order in the third hour when, as Anna’s gin-sipping friend Marjorie, she grabs a lovely scene she shares with Duncan. It’s scripter Hugh Whitemore’s finest moment.

Duncan is graceful and attractive but, at times, seems to blank with weariness and confusion. She’s just not Ibsen’s Nora nor Emma Bovary. Coy is good as the rector, and Joyce Redman is a delight as Anna’s actress-mother, while Dillane properly insinuates his way into his lover role.

Russell Baker dryly continues his hosting duties for “Masterpiece Theatre,” but he’s also becoming a long-winded instructor, which isn’t necessary.

Masterpiece Theatre the Rector’s Wife

(Sun. (9), 9-9:30 p.m.; Sun. (16, 23), 9-10 p.m., PBS)

  • Production: Filmed in England by Talisman Films Ltd. for Channel 4. Exec producer, Alan Shallcross; producer, Alan Wright; director, Giles Foster; writer, Hugh Whitemore, based on a novel by Joanne Trollope.
  • Crew: Camera, Witold Stock; editor, Dick Allen; production designer, Cecilia Brereton; sound, Tony Dawe; music, Richard Hartley.
  • Cast: Cast: Lindsay Duncan, Jonathan Coy, Simon Fenton, Lucy Dawson, Joyce Redman, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Miles Anderson, Rynagh O'Grady, Frederick Treves , Prunella Scales, Pam Ferris, Jonathan Cecil, Judy Riley, Eliza Buckingham, Susan Gott, Tom Bradford, Gabrielle Lloyd, Geoffrey Chater, Madge Hindle, George Raistrick, Carol Macready, Muriel Pavlow, Jonty Stephens, Morgan Jones, Mary MacLeod, Orla Brady, Marie Louise McKenzie, Helen Fraser, Yvonne Manners, Adam Lewis, Madhav Sharma, Mary Roscoe, Isobel Raine, Angus Barnes, Melanie Ramsay, Colin Wakefield, Jo Kendall.