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.
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Planes go hybrid-electric in important step to greener flight
- 2 Christmas comes early to Hong Kong, as millions of bank notes spill out onto busy street
- 3 Antonio Martin shooting: Police and protesters clash over teenager's death just five miles from Ferguson, Missouri
- 4 Northern Lights above Britain: Stunning Aurora Borealis illuminates Northumberland sky on Christmas Eve
- 5 British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Christmas Day TV guide 2014: What to watch from Strictly Come Dancing to the story of Frozen
Felicity Jones on being Stephen Hawking's wife in The Theory of Everything: 'I didn't want her to be a saint'
Best underrated Christmas movies: From Trading Places to While You Were Sleeping
Game of Thrones season five: First preview clip shows a beardy Tyrion, a moody Cersei and a distressed Arya
The Interview is finally released after Sony hack and terror threats – but reviews of North Korea satire are mixed
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food