It’s been more than 20 years since Merchant-Ivory took a memorable whack at E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, and now PBS’ “Masterpiece” returns for another with screenwriter adaptation king Andrew Davies. For the most part, it’s a rich, romantic, finely cast production about repressed early-20th century England, albeit with a significant and ill-considered flourish: a tacked-on coda “imagining the poignant aftermath” to the story, as PBS puts it, which feels wholly gratuitous.
Beginning in Florence, prim Lucy Honeychurch (Elaine Cassidy) is touring Europe with her fastidious chaperone Charlotte (the wonderfully wide-eyed Sophie Thompson) when the lusty Italian setting begins to ooze through those tight Victorian pores. So after witnessing a local crime of passion, she falls impulsively into the arms of George (Rafe Spall), the working-class son of a socialist (played by his real-life father, Timothy Spall), much to Charlotte’s horror.
Fearing a scandal, the chaperone whisks Lucy away to Rome, where she hastily agrees to marry the wealthy but lifeless Cecil (Laurence Fox). Tellingly, he asks for permission to kiss her, then does so with the clamminess of a carp. So when George and his father arrive back in England, Lucy is again drawn to him, though also terribly conflicted by the class expectations weighing down on her.
Cassidy gives an exceptionally natural performance as Lucy, engaging in the age-old and very Jane Austen-ish internal battle between heart and head. Director Nicholas Renton also makes the most of the lush settings shooting in Florence and London, though the digitally obscured behinds of skinny-dipping males (no, seriously, rewind it and check) suggest that PBS has taken indecency fears to almost-comical extremes.
The main gripe involves the ending. Forster did revisit the book 50 years after its initial publication, but Davies’ amended approach still comes across as unnecessary, obviously seeking to highlight how Victorian innocence gave way to the harsh reality of WWI.
Not that there’s anything wrong with daring to challenge conventions, but given that Forster’s frothy cocktail is an acknowledged classic worthy of the “Masterpiece” designation, the producers would have been better off serving this one straight, with no chaser.