Monday, May 16, 2011

Masterpiece Theatre: South Riding Review

This was a most unfortunate way to close out a season of Masterpiece Classic. I cannot guess what made them choose this 3-part series to air at all, let alone as the final installment of Classic, especially after a stellar year including the fantastic Downton Abbey, the highly praised Any Human Heart, and the brief, well-produced, albeit rushed, return of Upstairs/Downstairs.

The miniseries South Riding is based on the novel of the same name, written by "writer and reformer" Winifred Holtby in 1936. The legendary Andrew Davies (if you've seen an Austen or Dickens adaptation in the past 30 years, he's the one who adapted it) wrote the screenplay, thus proving that even he can't do much if he's not given a good story to work with.

The main character of South Riding is Sarah Burton, an idealistic, fierce, enthusiastic new headmistress for the local girl's high school in traditional South Riding. One imagines the single, career-oriented Ms. Burton is almost entirely modeled on the author, who was given only a couple years to live in her mid-30s and thus poured all her energies and principles into this, her final work. Even the setting is based on her youth in East Riding.

Neither character nor author ever got married, with only an unhappy relationship to their names, and both seem powerfully motivated by feminist principles, as well as the injustice of the British class system in the early 1900s.

At the beginning of the story, regardless of how one feels about Ms. Burton's vocal set of beliefs, one thinks she may be a rich character, presented as fearless but doubtless overcompensating for hidden vulnerabilities. In the end, this is not to be. Several things happen to her, and she accomplishes a couple educational transformations as well (which is her initial purpose in coming to South Riding as headmistress) but in the end she is exactly the same character. She has not changed at all, has not revealed something deeper about herself except showing us what she looks like crying, and has not actually told us who she is besides a collection of characteristics.

This is sadly the case for the whole production. There is no Truth to find here, no message about the human condition attempting to be imparted. The only heavy-handed point of view they continuously beat the viewer with is that the poor are miserable but noble, in need of help, and the rich are cruel, corrupt, and only willing to provide such help if it benefits them financially. This is not a message that BBC needed to commission a serial story to put across, nor did Holtby, a prolific journalist, have to force personages into a plot to reveal her displeasure with the status quo. This is an angry, disenchanted editorial disguised as a love story.

As for the story itself, there is nothing original. Peter Morrissey (God knows why he did this) is Robert Carne, a financially-in-trouble respected man of the town, with completely opposite political views to Ms. Burton, so naturally they develop an attraction that goes unconsummated until it's too late, Holtby seemingly having written herself into a corner and discovered that infinitely useful writer's aid of random, sudden death. Carne's personal history reads like a blatant rip-off of Jane Eyre: lonely, sad, acerbic man lives in large house of former glory with his eccentric young daughter. A young teacher enters the picture and shakes things up, revitalizing his soured heart. Soon it is learned his previous wife is not dead, but locked up, being a sufferer of violent and profound psychiatric illnesses.

Come on now. Try just a BIT harder.

Along with Morrissey, I don't know why Penelope Wilton was in this. She is always great, and was no less solid here as the only female alderman on the city council, and both Ms. Burton's ally and Mr. Carne's lifelong friend, but the story just wasn't worth her time. Other characters, and there were several, are not even worth mentioning; despite their numerous plots they proved in the end to be completely pointless to the story and only written to confirm the message that the rich get richer through deceit, and the poor need help. Anna Maxwell Martin, who played the lead role, was neither enchanting nor endearing. Her facial expressions and crumbling stoicism was at times either confusing or much too obvious as an actor's idea of what a human reaction should look like. She certainly attacked the role with enthusiasm, and I'd be interested to see Martin's other work, but she was not successful in making us care for Sarah Burton.

If you want good British drama, don't watch South Riding. But don't be discouraged, they still make fantastic shows across the pond. Go find Downton Abbey now, and then you can thank me in the comments section.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this well thought out review. I was disappointed in the story. It was so poorly done that I entirely missed the (now obvious) parallels to Jane Eyre.