Venture Once More–Commentary on Poldark, Ep. 1

The New Poldark: Return of a Renegade
The New Poldark: Return of a Renegade

This past week shaped up to be much busier than expected, what with reviewing audiobook files for Awakened, preparing for a relative’s birthday celebration this weekend, and keeping my left forefinger clean and bandaged to prevent a systemic infection. Exactly a week ago, I developed a mysterious abscess under my fingernail that required medical attention–I’ll spare readers the grisly details, save to say that they were no fun at all–and a course of antibiotics. Treatment successful–much to my relief. It’s nice to be able to type with ten fingers again!

Consequently, it’s only now that I’ve had enough time to write up some of my Poldark-related thoughts, although a lengthy post on Winston Graham’s novels and their influence on me ran last Tuesday over at the Casablanca Authors blog. Inevitably, my perspective is that of a reader first, though my fondness of the original 1975 series has shaped my opinions as well. Comparisons are inevitable, but in the interests of fairness, I am endeavoring to keep an open mind and give the new series every chance to win me over.

And certainly there is much to admire about it, starting with higher production values that allow for more lavish sets and location shoots. Not all the scenery in Poldark 2015 is purely Cornish–a distinction from Poldark 1975, in which cast and crew spent several weeks in Cornwall, shooting outdoor footage–but the effect is lovely, overall. (Still, I would have preferred more conversations and character interactions, and fewer shots of Ross galloping his horse along the Cliffs of Alienation or Elizabeth gazing out of windows while the Celtic theme of Romantic Longing wailed in the background.)

Demelza and Her Best Friend
Demelza and Her Best Friend

I can also commend the new Poldark‘s decision to adhere more closely to the books. Poldark 1975 was a faithful adaptation, for the most part, but significant liberties were taken at the very beginning and the very end of the series, which apparently incensed Winston Graham. So far, Poldark 2015 sticks more firmly to the plot of the first novel, and wisely introduces the major characters of Demelza Carne (the heroine) and George Warleggan (the hero’s nemesis) much sooner. Demelza’s entrance–as a ragged urchin trying to defend her beloved dog and only friend, Garrick–is particularly welcome.

Angharad Rees as Demelza
Angharad Rees as Demelza

While I loved the fire and spirit of Angharad Rees’s Demelza in Poldark 1975, the writing for the first few episodes conceived of the character as a saucy sex-kitten (the scriptwriters were apparently influenced by Tom Jones), which, frankly, grated at times. Fortunately, later episodes portrayed Demelza more believably as a young woman struggling to find her place in a new social order, which is also truer to Graham’s idea of the character. I have noticed that Eleanor Tomlinson, the new Demelza, has the same coloring as Rees, instead of being dark like the character is in the novels.

Robin Ellis as the first Ross Poldark
Robin Ellis as the first Ross Poldark

Any discussion of casting would have to include Aidan Turner as the hero, Ross Poldark. Robin Ellis, the originator of the role, inhabited the part so completely that the hypercritical Graham was won over, telling Ellis in an inscribed copy of Ross Poldark, “I have never seen you put a foot wrong.” It’s too early to tell whether Turner will nail the character as thoroughly, but he has potential. Certainly, he’s got the brooding, melancholy thing down pat, though he doesn’t convey the same aura of danger that Ellis did. Graham continually describes Ross as “unquiet”–and I always had the sense that an angry Ross was a powder keg that could all too easily be set off by the wrong word or action. Turner doesn’t have that combustible quality…yet. It’ll be interesting to see if he acquires it in the upcoming episdoes.

New--And Unrecognizable--Elizabeth
Heida Reed, as an unrecognizable Elizabeth

So far, my main quibbles are with the supporting characters, who presently lack the individuality they show in the novels and in the 1975 series. I’m reserving most of my judgments until I see more of them–with one exception. The new Elizabeth is a complete misfire for me. While I’m in favor of a more nuanced portrayal of this oft-maligned character, I think turning her into this nice, sweet girl who was pressured by her mother into marrying Ross’s cousin Francis strips her of her ambiguities and complexities. And on a purely physical level, I can’t accept her as a brunette either! In fact, she looks more like the books’ version of Demelza!

Jill Townsend as Elizabeth Chynoweth
Jill Townsend as Elizabeth Chynoweth

Graham’s Elizabeth–a cool, elegant blonde–is a much greyer figure: a well-intentioned but deeply conventional young lady who cares for Ross but who also yearns for comfort, security, and a settled existence that Ross may not be able to give her. She regrets having to hurt him but she insists that theirs was a “boy and girl attachment” and that she loves Francis as a grown woman. She is also very much a product of her time: refined, gracious, even a touch bloodless. She would never run merrily along the cliffs, her curls blowing in the wind, or ride ventre-a-terre across the moors to insist that Ross not leave Cornwall. Graham’s Elizabeth would, in fact, dearly love to leave Cornwall herself, and experience the pleasures of London, which would include having her considerable beauty admired by a wider circle of acquaintances. I suspect the changes are intended to increase Elizabeth’s likeability and thus explain Ross’s ongoing obsession with her, even as the more appealing Demelza becomes increasingly entrenched in his life. Unfortunately, in attempting to make Elizabeth more sympathetic, the new series has also made her simpler–and much less interesting.

Nice guyliner, Ross!

And one more decisive thumbs-down on Ross’s famous scar. I realize that Poldark 2015 might have wanted to avoid replicating the diagonal slash across Robin Ellis’s cheek and to create a distinctive look for Aidan Turner. But given how more advanced and sophisticated make-up has become in the last 40 years, couldn’t they have come up with something that didn’t look like New Ross’s mascara was running?

Until next time!

7 thoughts on “Venture Once More–Commentary on Poldark, Ep. 1

  1. I disliked the manner in which the Elizabeth Poldark character was portrayed in the 1975 series. I don’t blame actress Jill Townsend. She had to work with the material given to her. And she proved to be an excellent actress. But I disliked how the 1975 series seemed hell bent upon portraying Elizabeth as a borderline villainess. And I hated how the series changed the ending of the “Warleggan” novel. It reeked of misogyny.

  2. Neither series completely nails Graham’s Elizabeth, though the 1977 Poldark might have come the closest. I appreciated that Townsend’s Elizabeth was allowed to have flaws, though, and that she seemed more a product of her time and her position: refined, conventional, a touch bloodless, and a better mother than a wife. The new series’ writers seem to be trying to erase or gloss over Elizabeth’s less sympathetic traits by making Francis a bigger loser than he needs to be. Graham made it pretty clear that both of them tanked their marriage.

    I don’t know which was more bizarre–the liberties taken with the very start or the very end of Poldark 1975. It will be interesting to see how the material is handled in the reboot.

  3. appreciated that Townsend’s Elizabeth was allowed to have flaws, though, and that she seemed more a product of her time and her position: refined, conventional, a touch bloodless, and a better mother than a wife.

    Townsend’s Elizabeth has never struck me as bloodless. Never. I still remember Episode 4 of the 1975 series in which the character contemplated leaving Francis for Ross (which never happened in the novel, by the way). Elizabeth was far from bloodless and revealed just how emotional and passionate she truly was. However, Elizabeth was always a character who usually kept her feelings to herself. In other words, she is introverted . . . a very reserved woman. And in today’s society, the majority of introverted female characters are not that admired. Why, I do not know. Now that I think about it, not even the literary Elizabeth has ever struck me as cold. Reserved, yes. But being reserved is not the same as being cold. I should know, for I’m reserved myself.

    So far, Reed’s Elizabeth has yet to really express the emotional aspect of the character like Townsend did in that fourth episode of the 75 series. But there have been some close moments . . . especially in the 2015 series’ fourth episode, when her character finally reacted to the news of Ross and Demelza’s marriage. I don’t know why so many fans demand that her character be some cold, bloodless woman. Does it make them feel more secure that she could be viewed as unworthy of Ross? I don’t know. And I don’t know why so many fans demand that she be the villain of this so-called love triangle.

    1. I’m working from book-canon mainly. Graham describes the Chynoweths as gentry who have lost much of their vigor, possibly through generations of inbreeding. And Elizabeth, beautiful though she is, shows a frailty that suggests “the fine pure blood flowing a bit thin.” She lacks Demelza’s vitality and raw, earthy vigor. Ross compares the two women to earthenware and porcelain. Since Horsfield & Co. have made such a big deal about wanting to be faithful to the books, it baffles me that they are erasing Graham’s shades of grey in favor of more simplistic black-and-white.

      As for villainy, I agree that there’s no need for Elizabeth to be a villain–just as there’s no need for her to be a saint. Fallible human beings–whatever their moral orientation– are perfectly capable of messing up their lives on their own.

  4. I forgot to add that the 1975 Francis was something of a jerk. In fact, I found him rather cold in the series’ first four episodes – especially in his behavior toward Elizabeth.

    1. Yes, Francis is a jerk–in both book and tv canon. But the 2015 series still makes him more incompetent and pathetic than he needs to be–losing the mine at cards (which doesn’t happen in the books), looking like a kicked puppy every time his father berated him, and not knowing how to communicate with his own workers. I prefer 1975 Francis because he at least had an edge to him. He wasn’t especially likable, but he wasn’t completely whipped either.

  5. I have never said that I expected complete fidelity to the source material–and have stated as much repeatedly, both in my posts and my responses to commenters. However, Horsfield and Company have continually claimed to love the books and to want to do a more faithful adaptation of them. Which is why some of their changes strike me as bizarre as anything done in the 1975 version. To me, dramatic departures from canon have to make sense in order to work and too many of the ones Horsfield has made up to this point do not. I don’t like every change the 1975 version made either, but on balance, I feel they got more things right than wrong. The jury is out as far as the reboot is concerned, because not enough of the story has been told.

    We are just going to have to agree–politely–to disagree, because neither of us is going to convert the other and it’s time to move on. Different opinions and open discussion are fine–I welcome those. But I have no hesitation about shutting down a conversation when I think someone’s tone is becoming inflammatory, belligerent, or rude. Or when I suspect I’m being baited by sock puppets. If that’s not the case here, then I apologize in advance, but just as a warning, I have zero tolerance for commenters who come by under multiple screen names to attack me repeatedly on the same subject. One person has already tried that and is no longer welcome here. My house, my rules.

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