What with a ton of real-life stuff going on–like replacing the family car–I haven’t had much time for posting lately. But I didn’t forget that the new Poldark began its second season. So, I’m starting up my commentary series, Venture Once More (so named in honor of the American title for Jeremy Poldark when it was first published in the USA). Disclaimer: I’m a lover of Winston Graham’s novels, first and foremost, which shapes my perception of both television incarnations. But you can expect references to all three in my blog entries, so I give you fair warning that there will be SPOILERS.
Overall, I had a decidedly mixed reaction to the two-hour season premiere, which covers Ross’s trial for inciting riot and allowing the hungry miners in his community to carry off the cargo from a shipwreck. The strengths are the same–glossy production values and some appealing performances from the leads–and so are the weaknesses (miscast actors and some head-scratching liberties with the original source material). I’m not automatically opposed to departures from book-canon–those tend to be part and parcel of any adaptation–but for me, those departures have to make sense. And if they don’t, well, I’m going to say as much.
- Better writing for some of the supporting characters. Francis Poldark is the main beneficiary of that. Graham writes a compelling redemptive arc for him in Jeremy Poldark, and the series follows suit and lets Francis “grow a pair,” stand up to Warleggan, confront his own failures, and contemplate ending his own life. It’s not quite the tour-de-force it is in the novel or the 1975 Poldark (cleverly nicknamed Oldark on another forum) in which Francis cycles through guilt, remorse, self-loathing, righteous anger, despair, and finally gallows humor when he fails even to kill himself properly (Clive Francis nails it, in my opinion), but it works well enough and Kyle Soller turns in a decent performance and manages to elicit considerable sympathy. I just wish the previous season hadn’t done such a hatchet job on the character in the first place. Francis was flawed enough without making him lose the family mine in a card game or turning him into a whipped puppy whose own father prefers Ross to him (and I admit to gagging a little on the line “Which of us does not secretly adore him?”) I also couldn’t connect to the Francis and Verity estrangement because Debbie Horsfield demonized the Trenwith men so much that I don’t see the affection between them.
- Promising new characters: So far, so good with the Penvenens. Gabrielle Wilde doesn’t have Judy Geeson’s light, ironic touch in the role, but she has potential, and she looks appropriately youthful and self-absorbed, with a hint of something more beneath the surface. I wish they hadn’t messed with her two suitors, though: Dwight and Unwin are supposed to form a contrast with each other, the former being young, earnest, and idealistic, while the latter is middle-aged, stuffy, and a bit dull. Making Unwin a young twit instead of a mature stick-in-the-mud undercuts that.
- Demelza’s grief: I like that the new series continues to emphasize her sadness and bereavement. The loss of a child is truly devastating, and the silent signs that Demelza is still remembering and mourning her daughter are very affecting. Eleanor Tomlinson continues to impress in the role. She’s softer and more squashable than Angharad Rees’s Demelza, but she’s managed to make the part her own.
- The pacing: It seemed to take forever for everyone to get to Bodmin for the trial! I couldn’t believe Demelza was only just leaving Nampara at the 45-minute mark of the first episode! And it made too much of what followed feel rushed and perfunctory, as though they were trying to jam too much into the remaining 15 minutes.
- Ross in denial: Head up arse is not a good look for our hero. I was annoyed by his refusal to consider the possibility of things not going well for him at the trial and not taking the time to shoulder his responsibilities and provide for his wife should the worst occur. It made him look immature and petulant.
- George: I remain a staunch non-fan of this version of Warleggan–“that upstart poodle,” as Ross describes him. Problem is, Graham’s George isn’t a poodle, he’s a pit-bull. A sleek, well-groomed, well-fed pit-bull, but a fighting breed and potential killer all the same. Jack Farthing, who looks like Hugh Grant’s baby brother, lacks presence in the part, and I’m not just referring to his physical size. Two actors I admire–Brian Blessed and Ian Holm–aren’t much taller than average (Holm is downright diminutive) but they have a way of pushing beyond their skin to give the impression of taking up more space than they actually occupy. Similarly, Ralph Bates was shorter than 6′ 3″ Robin Ellis, but he had broad shoulders, a thick neck, a stocky, muscular build, and like Blessed and Holm, enough heft to make himself appear larger. I never doubted that his George and Ellis’s Ross were in the same weight class. Farthing, by contrast, looks slight, even effete, and his studied languor is more suited to Regency romance than Georgian adventure (I hate the anachronistic costumes they put him in, which are about 10 to 20 years ahead of schedule). Graham’s George was driven, ruthless, fiercely ambitious, and more eager to crush Ross than befriend him (George never visits Ross in prison–he prefers to gloat behind the scenes and watch his paid witnesses bring down his enemy for him). He did plenty of sneering and snarling, but he never minced, drawled, or ponced about like Farthing’s. In fact, he’d have eaten Farthing’s George for a snack, picked his teeth with the bones, then looked around for more.
- Ross’s trial: Unbalanced as hell. In the book and Oldark, the trial is a tense, compelling courtroom drama in which both the prosecution and the defense make valid arguments and the verdict could go either way. Ross is allowed to counter the testimony of some of the lying witnesses, Dwight’s earnest account of Ross’s distressed state of mind the night of the wreck works in his friend’s favor, Demelza’s careful pre-trial networking on Ross’s behalf is not curtailed by George’s interference (though she can’t be sure whether she has left a favorable impression on Judge Lister until the trial is over), there is mounting suspense over which side Jud will ultimately choose, and he ends up compromising himself to the extent that his testimony is thrown out. By contrast, Horsfield goes out of her way to make things look as bad as possible for Ross, to the point of inventing a courtroom intrusion by Demelza’s obnoxious father to rail against his daughter’s husband. And Ross’s speech is in his own defense is, frankly, cringeworthy, as is the implication that he alone is responsible for his acquittal. Graham and the Oldark writer responsible for the Jeremy Poldark-related episodes were more even-handed in showing other characters’ heroism, and how delivering Ross from the worst consequences of his reckless actions was a group effort.
- Neither Newdark nor Oldark include the judge’s great speech after Ross’s acquittal, in which Lister informs the recent defendant that, in his view, the verdict owes more to mercy than to reason, and that he should be grateful for the jury’s clemency, go home to his “deserving wife” and thenceforth keep his nose clean! (Although we all know that he won’t.) But I appreciated Graham including the perspective that an honest, upright man might still disapprove of Ross’s actions, or at the very least, the lawless way he carried them out. It adds a measure of balance that Newdark tends to ignore.
- Tom Carne: Demelza’s formerly abusive, currently sanctimonious father disappears from the saga after two books. Personally, I don’t miss him, and his appearance at the trial is neither necessary nor logical. Carne is a miner hacking out a living in Illuggan, miles away from Bodmin. How could he afford to take time off from his job to travel all that distance just to spew venom about his son-in-law? Plus, the way he barges into the courtroom to shoot off his mouth seems to show that, unlike Jud, he was not paid by the Warleggans to give false testimony. There was plenty of drama in the original source material without introducing this clumsy, heavy-handed, unnecessary plot contrivance. Apropos of which…
- Elizabeth’s meddling: in the books, she neither intercedes with George on Ross’s behalf (a clueless move that doesn’t reflect well on her intelligence) nor goes to Bodmin for the trial. Where, I might add, she accomplishes nothing of use–except for being the improbable witness to Demelza’s pregnancy revelation. Again, no way. Demelza keeps her pregnancy secret from everyone until late in the book, and she would be far more likely to confide in Verity, rather than Elizabeth, if anyone. I also resent the time devoted to Elizabeth’s invented activities at the expense of Demelza’s canonical attempts to exert whatever influence she might have acquired in the county to help Ross. From the moment she knows her husband is in danger of his life, she goes into rescue mode–talking to their neighbors (and curing their livestock), and finding out everything she can about the case against him. It’s one of my favorite parts in the book, and I’m beyond irked that Newdark makes Demelza’s efforts in that regard so much less effective, especially since I think Tomlinson would be up to the task of playing a stronger Demelza.
So, in summation, I wish Newdark would trust its source material more and rely less on invented melodrama to gin up the excitement.
No new episode tonight–not in the US anyway–which gives me more time to catch up with the ones that have already aired. Until next time!