REVIEW / Picking up the fine threads of connection
George Eliot, who wasn't exactly clueless about how to pitch a serial narrative, decided to secure her readers' affections by hooking them into a tale of love and marriage - Dorothea's embarrassments with Sir James and her odd courtship by Casaubon proceed pretty much uninterrupted for the first 80 pages. Andrew Davies, who isn't exactly clueless about popular series either, has done a bit of shuffling for this first episode, giving precedence to Lydgate and plaiting in some of the other narrative lines.
The result is a panoramic vision which zooms in now and then on the personal rather than a domestic vision which slowly expands along the filaments of association and bloodline and gossip - what Eliot calls the 'fine threads of connection' - until an entire society is created. In the novel you start with a person, Dorothea, and end with a town, Middlemarch. Here you began with the town - a teeming piece of prop display with hens a-clucking, urchins a-larking, yokels a-gurning, market men a-hagglin' and foin gennelmen a-trottin' by on glossy chestnut mares (personally I can take this sort of thing until the meticulously authenticated historic breed cows come home, though it's hard to believe the past was quite so noisy). The result is a production which hasn't quite begun to clutch as a narrative but which offers a lavish supply of incidental pleasures while you wait.
Not the least of which is Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea. One of the mysteries of the novel is quite how Eliot makes you like her central character. Imagine Dorothea triumphant and you have a Dickensian villainess, priggish and self-deceiving and capable of an odious piety. Eliot explains that she has physical charm but in the novel her beauty can't act on you directly to redress the balance, as it does for the men in the book. Eliot isn't above a certain waspishness either - 'She felt that she enjoyed (riding) in a pagan sensuous way, and always looked forward to renouncing it' she notes at one point, a wonderful line that can't really hope to survive into the television version, where Dorothea's sentiment looks merely petulant. In the end it is the heroine's distress that reconciles you to her rather than her own winning ways.
On screen it's possible to be a bit infatuated in advance of that moment and Aubrey certainly manages the trick, both severely beautiful and a bit of a bore, the sort of girl a simple young squire would like to have across a broad table - in his eyeline but out of earshot. The rest of the cast - a display cabinet of British character acting - also conveys more of the subtleties of the novel than you might have hoped for, perhaps because they have been cast to type and played slightly against it.
Michael Hordern as the aged Featherstone, upon whose will so many expectations ride, delivers his standard harrumphing old gentleman but adds a nice twist of manipulative pleasure to the conventional muttering. Patrick Malahide, in yet another cold-fish role, melts the glaze a little to let you see the scholar flustered, and Robert Hardy, as another bluff and blustering knight, is fonder and warmer than you might expect from past roles. It's a simple pleasure to watch them at work, and as a result Davies's slightly busy insistence on starting so many balls rolling all at once hasn't stalled the narrative before it has begun.
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'music
Review: Cilla, ITV TV
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Scottish independence: Ireland since 1919 is a lesson for Scotland in what a Yes vote means
- 2 Thailand deaths: Pair's bloodied bodies found naked on Koh Tao beach
- 3 Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
- 4 Kanye West stops concert after two fans don't stand up - doesn't realise one is in wheelchair and the other disabled
- 5 QS university world rankings: Imperial College London leapfrogs Oxford to join Cambridge as best British university
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'
Lego breaks out of the toy box and heads for the gallery
Cilla, ITV, review: Sheridan Smith embodies the young singer perfectly
Doctor Who, Listen, review: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode
Tyler, The Creator says having new U2 album automatically downloaded on his iPhone was 'like waking up with herpes'
Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
The political class is doing what Hitler couldn’t – destroying Britain
Scottish independence: Nationalist leader Jim Sillars threatens pro-union companies with 'day of reckoning' after independence
Scottish independence: Yes campaign feels the heat as Alex Salmond's NHS claims come under furious attack
Portuguese academic says British are 'filthy, violent and drunk'
£23m Birmingham cycle scheme is attacked by Tory councillor for not catering to the elderly