A poignant period romance set against a backdrop of unspoken longing and working-class angst, this exquisitely rendered version of Patrick Hamilton’s 1930s trilogy is one of those near-unique productions that the Brits deliver, telling a heart-wrenching story from three interlocking perspectives. Neatly constructed and graced by fine performances, Hamilton’s world is one replete with near misses, wrong turns and roads not taken — putting a magnifying glass on these familiar themes.
Set in and around a London pub, this two-parter (which concludes Feb. 12) features three distinct sections focusing on different characters: Bob (Bryan Dick), a young barman, who falls in love with a prostitute, Jenny (Zoe Tapper); and bartender Ella (Sally Hawkins), who secretly pines for Bob.
In part one, which is vaguely reminiscent of “The Blue Angel,” Bob begins courting Jenny, giving her ever-larger sums of his limited cash resources, hoping to lead her away from life as a streetwalker. After he’s stood up on multiple occasions, his nerves begin to fray, until he gambles on persuading her to go away on a trip with him.
The second installment then disarmingly flashes back to how Jenny became a whore, adding dimension to her part of the story, and engendering sympathy for what had been an unsympathetic character. Finally, the last part focuses on Ella, who, ignored by Bob, is taken off-guard when an older man of considerable means, Mr. Eccles (Phil Davis), begins to ardently pursue her.
Adapted by Kevin Elyot and directed by Simon Curtis, “Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky” brims with a sense of yearning that takes the very old quandary of not being able to control who one loves and puts an evergreen spin on it. Moreover, the production itself is as meticulous as the storytelling, from the drab palette used in capturing the Depression-era surroundings to the melancholy score.
Author Hamilton’s other works included “Gaslight” and “Rope,” but this smallish story lacks the clear hooks they possess. Credit the BBC, then, for bringing this mesmerizing little tale to the screen and doing so with such elegance.