Middlemarch (1994)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Most costume dramas are either too short or tomes that are far too long making adapting them a challenge. Though this 90’s Andrew Davies adaptation suffers from other unfortunate elements, one of them is certainly its length. The story itself is interesting – following a half a dozen characters along the way and setting itself in the titular town with social politics rearing its ugly head – yet it seemed to linger in places that should have been cut.

Eager to learn and do something productive with her life is the beautiful Dorothea Brooke (Juliet Aubrey). Along with her plainer but more fanciful younger sister, Celia, the girls are under the protection of their uncle, the foolish and wealthy landowner, Arthur Brooke (Robert Hardy). Thinking he’d like to be in politics someday, he shamelessly neglects his tenants housing which inspires Dorothea to work on new designs to make their tenants more comfortable and less prone to the elements and the subsequent illnesses. Her attentions are soon captured by a guest of her uncles. An older gentleman named Edward Casubon (Patrick Malahide) who is a plain-spoken reverend but is ardently working on research to someday write his own book, sharing what knowledge he has accumulated over the years. Being a bookish girl herself, Dorothea is curious about the man. She has never seen herself in a young marriage full of love but rather one in which her husband can guide her and be a teacher rather than her equal. This upsets neighbor and would-be suitor Sir. Chettam (Julian Wadham).

Set apart from the wealthy estate owners is the town of Middlemarch. Into its residency walks the newly minted Dr. Lydgate (Douglas Hodge). Trained in Paris, Dr. Lydgate is soon the object of much conversation when the ladies learn his uncle is a baron. In particular the beautiful but spoiled Rosamond Vincy (Trevyn McDowell) sets her sights on him while her flighty brother (Jonathan Firth) continues to gamble away his money indebting himself to anyone who fronts him yet he finds himself on the brink of losing everything – including the heart of the woman he loves.
Half of the characters couldn’t even be taken into consideration while I was writing this considering the synopsis would have been twice as long even omitting those who are only in one or two episodes. Primarily the main protagonists are a group of younger society characters who become subject to gossip, scandal and victims of their own foolhardy amidst the ambitious politics of the era. Over the six-episode span, I found myself bored a time or two. The reasoning I suspect is twofold, the biggest of which was drawn out portions in the film that seem to lead to nothingness. Some period dramas are ten hours and never feel like they lag. We shut it off and wish there was more to it. Then there are those that are a mere six hours, but struggle with that time slot. Usually a classic adaptation needs each hour in order to tell the story properly; this one either didn’t fill its time well or didn’t need it to begin with. Either way, it’s one that would have benefited from a shortened length.

Making up for some of the disappointments is a cast that is half unknown faces and names, while the more experienced, familiar faces bring up fun topics of conversation as seasoned BBC watchers will enjoy trying to pick out what else they may have starred in, which ranges from Martin Chuzzlewit and Sense & Sensibility to the royal family in Bertie & Elizabeth and ITV’s latest jewel, The Paradise. Juliet Aubrey carries the movie well for a heroine whose attitude of being self-effecting nearly almost comes to the point of being “too good.” Her kind heart asks for nothing in return, yet she would like to give away all that she possesses. Everyone around her is also well cast though some people royally test nerves. Also throwing a wrench in the perfectly laid plans of more than one person is the character of Will Ladislaw played well by Rufus Sewall.  

Though it didn’t distract me to the point of taking away enjoyment, the evident dated filmmaking is painful. It may just be the DVD release and not every copy may suffer from shots in which the actors’ heads are partially cut off or the grainy picture that worsens in certain frames, but if not then this is seriously in need of a re-make. It’s one that needs to be updated either way since it’d be interesting to see how it would work on the screen today. Scripted by the talented Davies, there may be few flaws but what there are seemed significant. A handful of scenes linger too long on the actors reactions or conversations are repeated too often. Costuming isn’t as lavish as other better known productions. Settings are primarily limited to Middlemarch and its surrounding countryside though one visit to Rome shows some pretty grand architecture.  

The series isn’t one I’ve regretted having seen. George Eliot is not a favorite story-teller – or more specifically her works adapted (don't read the books) are far down the scale when there are Dickens, Gaskell and even Austen to be considered. Despite one ending that seemed selflessly happy, there is a sense of dread hanging over the ending meaning that we cannot shake the feeling that no one really gets the kind of ending one would wish for the people who displayed such selfless aptitudes. It’s more sobering than satisfying.  

(Concerning content; three people die, one is the result of foul play. Flirtations between married couples take place in bedrooms [a man “undresses” his wife once, no nudity]. Some tense moments occur in a marriage though there is no abuse. Suspicions arise that suggest an extra-marital affair, rumors that are false.)


  1. i think it is hard for you to speak to favourite authors since you don't read the books so much as watch the adaptations. for those familiar with eliot, her works on screen reflect her greater social statements. so, if you're not working on that level, i can see how the plot seemed meaningless for you. It was filmed around the same time as Martin Chuzzlewit ---the BBC came a long way in being able to make film-making with a standard the way we see it today.

    1. True, it is, Rachel. However, I always point out that I don't read the book and am judging it on the adaptation so that readers understand I am not "rating" it by the literary standards. Thanks for pointing that out (I have clarified more exactly what I was saying).

      I "got" all the social issues that came up yet was still annoyed that everything seemed so pointless. It just seems like with so much strife to go through, there should be more satisfaction for the viewers and the characters. Perhaps that is the happy-ever-ever part of me talking. ;D

      Yes, indeed, BBC has come a LONG way. Still enjoy those 90's adaptations but gosh, instead of David Copperfield or more Jane Austen, I wish that producers would consider something like this or Martin Chuzzlewit. :)

      Happy you stopped by, Rachel!!!

  2. Even though it sounds long I think I would enjoy this.
    Thanks for the review!!!

    1. Oh, yes! You probably would, Ella. Normally I don't mind long miniseries but this one could have benefitted from some cut scenes. Nevertheless, it's an interesting miniseries.

  3. thanks so much! I have looked up SO many how-to's... it just doesn't work! I don't know how to link them and all that. :) my email is julietspurplesky@gmail dot com. :)
    great review; this sounds interesting!

    1. No problem, Juliet! I've been a bit busier these last couple of days, but you will hear from me before the week is out (I promise). Until then, I must beg your patience. :)

      It was interesting - enjoy if you decide to see it. :)

  4. Thank you for commenting on my blog!
    Hope to see you around some more! =)

    P.S. I love Castle! (header;)

    1. My pleasure, Katherine. Thank you for visiting - stop in again anytime. :)

      Aw, thank you! I've always had fun designing headers and with Castle, what could go wrong!? :)

  5. I've watched this quite a long while ago, it was one of the first of my period drama collection which I bought on DVD (good memories!). I can't remember being bored, I really liked this, for all the different storylines running through each other and all the interesting characters.

    Though George Eliot for me is not as much a favourite as Austen or Dickens, I still enjoy reading her works and I've enjoyed Middlemarch most of all. It is often mentioned to be her best work and from the books I've read so far by her (4), I have to agree with that.

    1. Ironically, Birdienl, when watching this for the first time, I don't remember being "bored." Perhaps in re-watching it, I realized just how much I prefer Dickens or Gaskell (also re-watching Cranford). A lot of my "issue" is the dated filmmaking. When you experience the gorgeous costume dramas of today, it's hard to watch these painful productions. :)

      My favorite Eliot adaptation is Daniel Deronda. Love the cast and the happy ending. :)

    2. Oh yes, Daniel Deronda is indeed quite lovely! Hugh Dancy, a gorgeously costumed Romola Garai and indeed a happy ending. But the book Daniel Deronda I felt dragged a bit and had quite some long philosophical parts about the Jews. Middlemarch was written more smoothly, with constantly something happening.

    3. Yes, it sure is! I totally need to watch 'Deronda' again now I've seen this miniseries a second time. :)

      That's great to know about the book Daniel Deronda, Birdienl. I don't much care for books that cannot hold my interest. As far as interlocking stories, Middlemarch does seem the better script; there is so much going on. For me, the big thing is the dated production. I would LOVE to see this one re-made.


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