Venture Once More—Commentary on Poldark, Ep. 6

RossDemelzaCards
Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em

Kind of startling to realize that there’s only one week to go before the finale of this new series air, thanks to PBS’s decision to run the last two episodes as a double header next Sunday. And on the whole, I’m glad that I watched. This new production has its merits, which I can appreciate despite the issues I’ve had with some of its casting and characterization choices. Every adaptation takes some liberties with its source material, after all. My personal beef tends to be with changes that either pervert the source material or fail to justify their existence (the kind that make me ask, “Why did they do that?”). Still, any Poldark-related project that leads people to discover and appreciate Winston Graham’s novels can be only a good thing.

Moving on to Episode 6, I’d call it a mixed bag. Like the curate’s egg, “parts of it were excellent”—or very good, at least—while others . . . oh, dear.

Poldark vs. Poldark: Demelza Lets Ross Have It
Poldark vs. Poldark: Demelza Lets Ross Have It

The Good

*Anything involving Demelza growing—as a woman, a wife, and a force of nature. Eleanor Tomlinson’s Demelza is softer, shyer, and a bit more vulnerable than her book-counterpart. I’ve worried about Ross riding roughshod over her, so I enjoyed her standing up to him at the Warleggan ball, after he left her alone to fend off all those amorous advances from rakes who thought she’d be easy pickings because of her origins. And I was glad that she was allowed to play an active role in Ross’s card game with Sanson, as she does in the book, rather than just look on in dismay and horror like Angharad Rees’s Demelza in the earlier series.

*Ross vs. Sanson. Effectively done, for the most part, with Ross appearing to become more drunk and incapable with every hand, only to drop the mask and expose Sanson’s cheating. I also enjoyed Robin Ellis’s return as Reverend Halse and his flashing a bit of Poldark temper, even while playing a character on the opposite end of the socio-political spectrum as Ross. Ellis still has remarkable screen presence, and—sorry, Mr. Turner—he will always be Ross to me. There was, however, one inexplicable omission in this whole sequence that merits inclusion in the WTF? section of this commentary.

*The prison sequences involving Jim Carter’s rescue were appropriately dark and grim. Some interesting/ironic detail was lacking, though. In the book, Jim was moved from Bodmin jail—the equivalent of county lock-up—to the much worse and more distant Launceston Prison because of the former was full of those newly arrested rioters. He also might have survived the fever, if it weren’t for a well-intentioned but foolish fellow inmate who bled him, which led to that gangrenous wound on his arm. I can see why they cut all this for simplicity’s sake, but I still regret the loss because it added more shadings to the situation.

*Ross’s drunken funk. In-canon and in-character. Sometimes I think the new series has been too keen on selling Ross as the brooding romantic hero and has ignored some of his darker, less admirable traits. But he can be a self-absorbed jerk at times, with a tendency to get lost—even wallow—in his own misery, bitterness, and moral outrage. Grief and anger over a friend/tenant, horribly dead before his time, is understandable, but it shouldn’t make you an asshole towards the ones you supposedly love, who still need your care and guidance. I appreciate that the episode didn’t soften or excuse Ross’s behavior. And Aidan Turner plays sodden-drunk almost too well.

*Verity’s advice to Ross—also from the book. It’s not clear in this series who is the elder, but in the books, Verity is two years senior to Francis and Ross, which gives her some influence over both, especially Ross. The incarnation of Verity has so often been depicted as dominated by the men in her family—particularly her selfish father—that it’s a welcome change to hear her give sound counsel to Ross about why he should attend the ball with his wife instead of brood at home with a bottle.

His Kingdom for a Box--or a Taller Wig!
His Kingdom for a Box–or a Taller Wig!

The Bad

*George finally showed his partiality for Elizabeth, but it was a case of too little, too late, as the series had failed to capitalize on previous meetings between the two. “Too little” is also an unfortunately accurate descriptor of George himself, because even Heida Reed’s Elizabeth looks like she could beat him up with one hand tied behind her. He looks and sounds like a schoolboy trying to put the moves on his teacher, instead of a powerfully ambitious social climber enchanted by a friend’s gracious, blue-blooded wife. Zero physical presence. Which is a pity because there are other characters in the Poldark universe whom Jack Farthing could play convincingly—like Ross’s foppish cousin, St. John Peter or Monk Adderley, a slimy London rake with designs on Demelza’s virtue. At a pinch, he could swap parts with Kyle Soller and make a believable Francis, who is described as compact and fair. As it is, I try to imagine all the pivotal encounters between Ross and George throughout the whole Poldark Saga with Farthing in the role, and just . . . no.

Simply Resistible
Simply Resistible

*Keren the Brazen Slut. Even in the books, she’s on the make and hot for Dwight, but enough of her perspective is given to explain her actions. She’s stuck all day in a poorly constructed, dimly lit house, with an uneducated husband who works long hours and has no ambition to move up, and the women in the community neither like nor trust her. Here, she’s just a cheap little tramp, who throws herself off a ladder on purpose to get Dwight’s attention (or so I’ve heard from viewers who saw the uncut version of the episode) and then starts scheming to get into his house and his pants as quickly as possible. (In the book, her accident and injury were genuine, and we also got to see her reaction to the inside of Dwight’s house, which has carpets, comfortable furnishings, and books. Not a palace, but much nicer than her own living arrangements.) Even more disconcerting, Keren’s cheapness looks way too modern: all slouch and sulk, with unkempt hair and overly rouged lips. And a ton of bad attitude. You half-expect her to be chomping on a wad of gum and drawling, “Yeah?” and “What’s it to yer?” when anyone addresses her. She stands out like a contemporary mall rat in what’s supposed to be 18th-century Cornwall.

*This Dwight’s inability to dodge or see through someone as cheap and obvious as Keren makes me doubt his intelligence. Especially since he’s been aged up to be Ross’s near contemporary, instead of being five or six years younger. That makes “the stupid” a bit less forgivable and isn’t likely to help him in the next phase of the story.

 

Ross Exposes Sanson: Too Far or Not Far Enough?
Too Far or Not Far Enough?

The WTF?

*St. Elizabeth of the Perpetually Martyred Expression. I believe I mentioned at the outset that I’m not opposed to a more nuanced, sympathetic depiction of the character. However, just as it’s not necessary to make Francis more of a failure than he is in the books, it’s not necessary to make Elizabeth so much more saintly and put-upon than she is in the same source material. I don’t know which was more irritating—the Cinderella scenario of Elizabeth remaking an old gown to spare Francis’s pride or Elizabeth entering the card room to rebuke Francis and Ross for being neglectful husbands. Both, especially the latter, are out of character. As the blue-blooded daughter of an ancient family, Elizabeth would have the position and presence to carry off a twice (or more) worn gown—and she’d know it. She would also consider it beneath her dignity to express public disapproval of her husband’s conduct. In the book, it’s Margaret—the former prostitute who married into the gentry—who alerts Ross to the men flocking around Demelza while he gambles with Sanson.

*Apropos of which, how could the series cut the dramatic climax to the card game? Because Ross does more than expose Sanson’s cheating. Once extra cards are found in Sanson’s hand and in his waistcoat pockets, Ross drags him out of the card room, down the terrace steps, and throws him in the river—which is mostly mud, but still makes a definite statement and causes great embarrassment for the Warleggans! That excision completely stuns me. Why pass up the chance to depict such a dramatic moment when it’s right there in the book? Why cut off the potential for a more exciting pay-off? It’s reminiscent of the way they watered down Demelza’s father crashing the christening, and every bit as disappointing. Viewers not familiar with the books may have been satisfied with what was shown, but as a book reader, I maintain, “we wuz robbed!” and I hope future big moments don’t fizzle out like this.

Until next time!

Venture Once More–Commentary on Poldark, Eps. 4 and 5

Back from my travels with a double edition of Poldark meta! Having rewatched Episode 4 on a TV screen with less exaggerated proportions, I can honestly say that I like this episode best of the ones that have aired so far. Not that there weren’t several WTF? moments, but by and large, the positives outweighed the negatives.

The Poldark Women Trip the Light Fantastic
The Poldark Women Trip the Light Fantastic

 The Good

*The Honeymoon Period: What a difference regular conjugal relations makes, especially for Ross who seemed downright jovial at times! I thought he was all set to have his way with his new bride right there on the kitchen table when he came home (I was relieved for Demelza’s sake that he took her off to bed first). Aidan Turner does have an appealing smile, and it was nice to see it so often during the Happy!Ross scenes. Demelza glows, of course—canonically, she’s always the more sanguine of the two and contentment becomes her.

*Demelza and Verity: The development of their friendship is true to the source material and well-portrayed by both actresses. I like the way they unbend in each other’s company, Demelza becoming more confident in her role as hostess, while Verity takes on the task of teaching her cousin’s wife the finer points of etiquette and deportment. I attribute Demelza’s improved posture by the episode’s end to Verity!

*The pilchard harvest/copper strike: Two feel-good moments, effectively presented in parallel. In both cases, Ross and his associates are Waiting For Something To Happen. I was a little sorry that that the pilchard harvest didn’t take place by moonlight, as it does in the books, but it was still attractively filmed, with women waiting patiently on the cliffs for sight of the fishing boats’ return, then the almost giddy excitement and relief over the catch coming in as the whole community rushes in to claim their share. The copper strike had “Christmas Miracle” stamped all over it, but one would have to be a total Scrooge to begrudge the miners’ good fortune.

*Christmas at Trenwith: One of my favorite sequences in the first novel, and almost everything I liked was retained. The oppressiveness of the Poldark family history that has Demelza overawed on her arrival is straight out of the book—unlike the unpleasant exchange between Francis and Elizabeth before dinner, although it’s plausible, given their deteriorating relationship at this point. The Trenegloses aren’t quite as uncouth as to crash Christmas dinner as they do here, but they do pay a call afterwards, with George Warleggan in tow. And Demelza being sick after dinner, owing to nerves and her pregnancy, then rallying to win over the whole company with her singing, was lovely—as was the rendition of the song itself. And the way Ross’s expression softens as he listens, and he finally begins to realize and appreciate what he’s found in Demelza (in spite of his lingering glance at Elizabeth’s nape earlier in the sequence). I did miss Demelza’s discovery of port, which also gives her the Dutch courage to face her social “betters” and which becomes an endearing quirk of her character.

FarthingWarleggan
A fancy, a feeling, or a Ferrars? Certainly not a Warleggan!

The Bad

*I will never get used to Ross’s tenants calling him by his first name.

*Charles and Ross: While familial affection does exist between them, they aren’t close, and Charles never entrusts Ross with the well-being of Francis or the rest of the Poldark family. Nor does he compare Francis unfavorably to Ross. Charles may have reservations about his son but he would never have voiced them to Ross, who is too much the son of Joshua, the reckless, rakish younger brother with whom the more conventional Charles never got along. (I very much regret that neither Poldark 75 nor Poldark 15 dramatized the Charles/Joshua scene at the start of Book One, because Joshua turns out to cast a very long shadow.) In fact, the whole Ross >>>>>>Francis angle feels very overplayed.

*For some inexplicable reason, the screenwriters passed up a golden opportunity to mount a very important gun on the wall—namely, George Warleggan’s attraction to Elizabeth. When he accompanies the Trenegloses on their Christmas visit to Trenwith, he has eyes only for her, especially during her musical performance. He very much covets his neighbor’s refined, gracious, blue-blooded wife, and that becomes a major complication in the ongoing saga. It was one of the best reasons I could imagine for introducing George early in the series, and they completely dropped the ball on it—much as they have on most of George’s other defining characteristics: his ambition, his ruthlessness, his barely concealed resentment of and burning desire for acceptance by the landed gentry. This George comes across as a sneering aristocrat (the resemblance to Hugh Grant in his “posh frock” days doesn’t help), not a driven but tightly controlled up-and-comer determined to buy and maneuver his way into power and social prestige.

 

Demelza's Approach to Theft (Not Ladylike But It Gets The Job Done)
Demelza’s Approach to Theft (Not Ladylike But It Gets The Job Done)

The WTF?

*Ross’s imprudent marriage causes gossip, but not social ostracism. And he doesn’t lose any backers for Wheal Leisure over it—not even Dr. Choake.

*Still no explanation as to why Nicholas Warleggan is absent, but the less important Cary Warleggan is retained.

*Ross has an annoying habit of making unilateral decisions without taking Demelza’s feelings or opinions into account—inviting Verity to stay, accepting the Christmas invitation to Trenwith. Or making much of an effort to talk her around to his POV. He also seems to expect her to adapt immediately to her changed status and criticizes her when she doesn’t, which seems neither fair nor kind. I know this version of Demelza is softer, more outwardly vulnerable, and more easily squashed than either the books’ or ’75 series incarnation. But I hope she does gain enough confidence to stand up to Ross eventually or he’ll steamroll right over her. One thing I loved about Rees’s Demelza is that she was never shy about giving Ross what-for when she disagreed with him.

*From Ross galloping along the Cliffs of Alienation, we now transition to Francis staring out over the Sea of Inadequacy. Brooding appears to run in the Poldark genes.

Episode 5

Sad to say, I found this installment anticlimactic, after the emotional payoffs of the previous episode. I suspect that is largely attributable to the transition from Ross Poldark to Demelza, which is a much darker novel. I hope there will be an improvement as the events of Book Two unfold. Still, there were some things to enjoy, even if there were more things to shake one’s head over, especially if—like me—you’re coming to the series primarily as a book reader.

PoldarkParents
Proud Parents

The Good

*Ross and Demelza’s happiness about becoming parents. I always liked Ross being perfectly happy with having a daughter as his firstborn instead of a son. It’s kind of a pity, though, that the comic elements of Demelza’s delivery weren’t dramatized: Ross dragging Choake away from his breakfast to minister to his laboring wife, Choake’s wig flying off in a gale, Ross bewildered by all the younger Martin children waiting in his kitchen while Jinny and Mrs. Zacky attend to Demelza—and safely deliver Julia before Choake even arrives.

*Verity’s expression when Ross agrees that maybe he does want to have Demelza and Elizabeth: a cross between “TMI, Cousin!” and “Men are pigs!” I’m not surprised she walked away from him after that. Of course, in this day and age, Ross probably could have both women…

*Demelza becoming subtler and learning how to keep secrets from Ross in what she sees as a good cause. It’s an occasional bone of contention between them later, but it’s true to her development as a character. Plus, it shows a growing autonomy.

*While I’m not a fan of the new series’ effort to soften Elizabeth, they are doing a good job in showing her all-consuming preoccupation with Geoffrey Charles. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that motherhood becomes her consolation for a less than satisfactory love life.

 

The Bell Tolls For Grambler
The Bell Tolls For Grambler

The Bad

*Is it really necessary to make Francis even more of a failure than he is in the novels? Having him lose Grambler in a card game is overkill—not to mention something of a cliché that I’ve repeatedly encountered in Regency romances. Grambler does close, but it’s mainly because it’s no longer yielding enough copper and the cost of unwatering the mine to seek out new lodes is prohibitive. In the ’75 series, Grambler’s closing is portrayed as a haunting flashback from Francis’s POV, as he stares into space, drink in hand and the clock ticking loudly in the background, reliving the moment when he had to shut down the family inheritance and put all his miners out of work. The only thing I liked about this version’s portrayal of the same event was Francis writing “Resurgam” on the wall. (In the book, he writes it on the side of the boiler.)

Richard Morant as Dwight Enys in Poldark (1975)
Richard Morant as Dwight Enys in Poldark (1975)

*Changing Dwight’s backstory wasn’t necessary, either. I suppose the screenwriters thought it would simplify things to have him and Ross already know each other from the war, but that seems to age Dwight and make some of his impending errors of judgment less youthful and more stupid. Dwight originally enters as a guest at Julia’s christening: a newcomer to the community, very recently qualified as a physician, earnest, idealistic, hard-working (this Dwight hasn’t even been shown practicing medicine yet—I thought they might have him deliver Demelza’s baby, but no), and full of zeal to try new medical ideas and approaches. Dwight is also the first friend Ross and Demelza make after their marriage, which may not seem significant but is, because he accepts Demelza straight off, without holding her origins against her. Finally, the actor playing Dwight in the new series is sadly bland, without a fraction of the charisma or screen presence of Richard Morant, who played the role in the ’75 version. That was one hot young doctor!

*Eliminating Julia’s double christening: In the book, Ross humors Demelza’s desire to keep the classes separate by holding two christening parties, making Tom Carne’s deliberate attendance on the wrong day all the more dramatic and potentially catastrophic. It also underscores Demelza’s ongoing insecurities about having married into the landed gentry and her fear about never finding acceptance among them. The new series’ choice to simplify that subplot made for rather tepid viewing instead of fireworks.

*Speaking of tepid viewing, the formation of the secret Carnmore Copper Company—which should have been more exciting and dramatic—seemed muted and furtive. And while Ross canonically plays his cards close to the vest with this scheme, Aidan Turner’s portrayal was almost too low-key and subdued. You had to wonder why his Ross was chosen to be the leader, when he appeared so hesitant about claiming any responsibility for the scheme in the first place.

*Keren and Mark Daniel: This isn’t one of my favorite storylines by a long shot, but at least in the book, the characters’ motivations are more fleshed-out. Keren is on the make, but she’s also a very young girl trying to escape the hardships of life as a traveling player, as well as the unwelcome advances of several men in the troupe. Mark is socially awkward, inexperienced with women, and dazzled by this girl who’s completely out of his sphere. At bottom, neither really knows or understands the other, and neither knows what he or she is getting into when they marry, which sows the seeds for future tragedy. None of that comes across in the new series so far—both characters appear one-dimensional (simple miner and calculating hussy) and likely to remain so, unfortunately.

A Bad Time For Courtship, Captain!
An Awkward Time For Courtship, Captain!

The WTF?

*Making Keren’s traveling theatre troupe more “high-brow” by having them perform a Shakespeare play (All’s Well That Ends Well, one of his more obscure works into the bargain) instead of a popular melodrama of the day. Also, did it really take Ross five acts to notice that his pregnant wife hadn’t returned from stretching her legs? Talk about oblivious…

* Francis’s snide comment about finding “a price for Mama” was slapworthy. Lady or not, Elizabeth should have thrown the teapot at his head for that remark. That said, there is a little too much emphasis on Saintly Elizabeth: the failure of that marriage is attributable to both parties, and I’ll be annoyed if the new series glosses that over.

*Still no indication that George secretly hankers after Elizabeth. I’m starting to suspect this drawling, foppish incarnation secretly hankers after Francis–or Ross!

*Blamey’s sense of timing—pouring out his heart to Verity while a riot rages around them—leaves a lot to be desired.

*The riot itself is set up much more clearly in the book. It begins as a protest against exorbitant corn prices being charged by a local merchant (the Warleggan cousin, Sanson, is also involved) and escalates when the hungry miners storm the warehouse to take the grain instead. Couldn’t we have had some of those details instead of repeated shots of various Poldarks standing on cliffs and staring at the sea?

*Ross has his Cliffs of Alienation, Francis has his Sea of Inadequacy, now Verity has her Storm Clouds of Heartache, and Demelza her Breaking Waves of Childbirth. This family’s relationship with Nature is nothing if not fraught—and picturesque!

Until next time!

 

 

 

Venture Once More—Commentary on Poldark, Ep. 3

images-7So here I am, once again galloping my armchair in silhouette across the TV Screen of Long-Winded Meta…

Kidding aside, though, I liked this episode of Poldark 2015 better than the previous one, though I still found it a mixed bag. Consequently, I’m breaking my commentary into three subcategories: The Good, The Bad, and The WTF?

 The Good

DemelzaRossKiss
Ross, Demelza, and That Green Dress

*They’re doing right, essentially, by the Ross and Demelza slow-burn romance: the way Demelza anticipates his needs/wants before he can utter them was sweet and funny (in a production that sometimes seems to lack humor); the softening of Ross’s expression as he watches Demelza dancing at Jim and Jinny’s wedding; the sensuality of the seduction scene with That Green Dress; Demelza’s blissed-out expression the morning after and the way her face falls when she returns to the house and sees Elizabeth there; and the way the two women size each other up and neither likes what she sees. Eleanor Tomlinson is gradually winning me over as Demelza—no mean feat as I love Angharad Rees’s utter fearlessness in the role. Tomlinson’s is a softer, more timid incarnation of the character, but there is room to grow in confidence and poise as Demelza matures.

*Wheal Leisure: the opening montage of the miners emerging from the morning mist to march towards their new place of employment was genuinely stirring (even if I did want to burst into a rousing chorus of “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go”—after all, the seven dwarves were miners too). And I tend to prefer Ross in work mode, since it reduces the amount of time he spends brooding over Elizabeth.

*Commendable fidelity to the books by having Charles collapsing at his grandson’s christening. That event has the guests murmuring uneasily over the possible bad omen, as well as marking the character’s decline. Elizabeth rejecting Francis’s attempt at lovemaking is also true to the books, though the episode didn’t quite convey one of Graham’s more brilliant revelations in that chapter: “There was no one to tell [Francis] that he was wrong in being jealous of Ross…another and more powerful rival had arisen. There was no one to warn him about Geoffrey Charles.”

*The Reverend Dr. Halse: Whether it’s the passage of 40 years or just superb make-up and costuming, Robin Ellis (the original Ross) managed to submerge himself completely in the character of this prissy, stuffy, hidebound magistrate. Even his voice was different, fluty and slightly querulous. I recognized him mainly by his profile and his pale, heavy-lidded eyes. I look forward to his next appearance in Episode 6, where he may have more dialogue.

*The visuals: Beautiful from start to finish. While I would prefer to see more attention to plot and character interaction, I can’t deny that there was plenty of “pretty,” whether your idea of “eye candy” is seascapes, blooming meadows, or a shirtless Aidan Turner.

 

The Bad

Jim&Jinny
The Carters’ Shotgun Wedding

*Jim & Jinny’s Story: Like Verity and Blamey’s romance last week, this felt rushed and truncated. The screenwriter seems to be trying to relate one subplot in its entirety per episode, when a smarter choice might have been to let multiple storylines play out over several episodes, which would also allow for better character development. Jim and Jinny are more significant characters in the book. They have been courting for some time when the story begins, they eventually get married (not a shotgun wedding, either) and have three small children by the time Jim—trying to provide for his young family—goes out poaching with an older, more disreputable man and gets captured and sentenced to two years in jail. In both the novels and Poldark 1975 we’re given time to get to know and care about this young couple, and to understand why Ross is so desperate to save Jim, who suffers from miner’s phthisis, from the almost certain death sentence he’d face in prison. This much younger Jim comes across less as a devoted family man than as a juvenile delinquent who knocked up his teenage girlfriend and robs convenience stores with his buddies on weekends. Consequently, I felt less sympathy than I think I was expected to feel.

*Francis is still a hot mess as a character. At this point the only consistent thing about him is his inconsistency. Twice he throws Ross and Elizabeth together—at last week’s ball, then this week’s christening—only to fly into a jealous snit when he sees them interact, usually right after George whispers something malicious in his ear. Make up your damn mind. Either you’re secure enough in your wife’s fidelity to let her converse with her old flame, or you don’t want them sharing airspace ever. Pick a position and stick with it. Depicting Francis as incompetent at the family business and unable to connect with the Grambler miners doesn’t help either. In the books, he wasn’t as knowledgeable or hands-on with the mining community as Ross, but he wasn’t a complete ignoramus either.

*George: This drawling, languid fop is nothing like the ambitious, driven parvenu whose ruthlessness conceals his self-consciousness, deep insecurity, and his secret passion for Elizabeth. In fact, I haven’t seen a single trace so far of George’s desire to possess Francis’s wife, which is one of his defining traits in the novels. There’s an even less explicable omission, which I’ll get to in the next category.

 

The WTF?

WarlegganMen
Ralph Bates and Nicholas Selby as George and Nicholas Warleggan (1975)

*Where in the world is Nicholas Warleggan? George’s powerful, grasping father is a huge influence on him, and plays a significant role in the books. Nicholas is, in fact, on the bench with Rev. Halse during Jim’s trial. So Ross’s attempt to get Jim off is doubly hard because he’s on hostile terms with two magistrates, having previously clashed with Nicholas over ownership of Wheal Leisure. Both Warleggans, father and son, are eager to take Ross down, though George becomes the more ruthless in pursuit of that goal. Nicholas’s absence and his replacement by Cary Warleggan—a comparatively minor character—is one of the most mystifying changes in the new series.

* I don’t care how well Ross gets on with his tenants/miners, they wouldn’t be calling him by his Christian name! He’d still be “master,” “sir,” or most often, “Captain”—not because of his military rank but because he’s a mine captain.

*The fashions—especially the men’s—are all over the place, and it’s become increasingly jarring as the series progresses. These are the 1780s—the era of tricornes, periwigs, queues, full-skirted jackets, embroidered waistcoats, and knee breeches. Yet Francis and George look like refugees from Jane Austenland, with their Brutus crops, high-crowned top hats, and tail coats—styles that won’t become the rage until the 1810s.

*A certain earthiness is missing from the period as well. It’s hard to describe, but the Georgians were more open, more outspoken, even lusty about their passions and appetites. The cool restraint that marked Regency society was still a good thirty years away. By contrast, this was an era in which Francis and his Great-Aunt Agatha could engage in a swearing contest—with the latter emerging as the winner! But this Francis is too mealy-mouthed and this Agatha too restrained for me even to picture such an occurrence.

*Elizabeth has “an inquiring mind” and an “unladylike” interest in mining? Since when?

Grumblings aside, though, I’m still committed to watching the whole series, which has the potential to become more interesting now that Ross and Demelza have tied the knot.

Until next time!

Venture Once More–Commentary on Poldark, Ep. 2

images-7Getting my thoughts down on the new episode while they’re still fresh.

The story as a whole is gaining some decent momentum, with Ross taking a more active interest in reviving the family mine–a welcome change from last week’s incessant moping over Elizabeth. While there’s still a fair amount of that, Ross throwing himself wholeheartedly into a new project is as welcome as a breath of Cornish sea air.

CS77815024
Ross and Demelza make an excursion into town

Aidan Turner continues to grow into the part. He’s a younger, more soft-spoken Ross, more inclined to wear his heart on his sleeve, and lacking some of Robin Ellis’s crispness and authority. Nonetheless, he has a good rapport with the miners, and he’s a bit gentler with Demelza than he is in either the books or Poldark 1975. No harm there, as this slightly more cowed, feral, fragile Demelza responds well to gentleness.

RossElizaDance
Ross, Elizabeth, and their apocryphal dance

I could wish this Ross was less of a susceptible sap where Elizabeth is concerned. Some of this is unavoidable: Elizabeth is always a bit of an Achilles heel for Ross, but nowhere in the books is there a scene where they trade longing or flirtatious looks while dancing, or where he believes that Elizabeth is all set to leave Francis for him and is mortified to discover he’s misread the whole situation (the 1970s series is a different kettle of fish, and I’m no more fond of that plot twist than Graham himself was). I did appreciate Turner’s Ross having a mini-epiphany about his futile Elizabeth fantasies and asking Demelza if he had the words “Half Wit” branded on his forehead. Being less deferential than she, I was tempted to respond, “No, only STAMPED!”

Rolled my eyes a little over the skinny-dipping scene, which has become almost a screen cliche since the 1995 miniseries of Pride & Prejudice. But only a little–because Ross does go swimming in the sea after his one-night stand with Margaret the prostitute. Demelza getting an eyeful, though, is pure series invention.

Demelza&Garrick3
Demelza, poised on the brink

Like Turner, Eleanor Tomlinson is growing on me as Demelza, despite being much taller and gawkier than Angharad Rees. The Cinderella parallels with her grubbing about in the ashes and sweeping the floor while Jud and Prudie (not as funny or as strangely likable as in the books) lord it over her were a touch obvious. But the scene in which she enters the library and Nampara and sees books, maps, curios, and the spinet was a nice little bit of character development that shows her discovering things she never dreamed she could aspire to. (Demelza eventually teaches herself to play the spinet and becomes an accomplished young woman.)

I was less impressed by the way the show is handling the supporting characters, which I am going to rant about at some length, so be warned. Since one major selling point of the new series has been that it adheres more closely to the books, I was taken aback by them having Basset commit suicide over his bankruptcy–which never happens. In fact, Basset–an occasional ally of Ross–has a significant role in later books, plus he remains financially solvent throughout. So, unless they’re going to bring on a younger Basset (the son and heir), this twist makes little sense beyond providing a moment of shock value and showing how bad the Warleggans are.

RalphBates
Ralph Bates as George Warleggan (Don’t mess with him!)

Apropos of which, George Warleggan is overdoing the Iago shtick of dripping malice and poison in everyone’s ears. While I like the idea of George being present early on–he doesn’t make his onscreen appearance until Episode 6 of the 1975 miniseries–he’s way too obvious in his villainy at this point. You half-expect him to leave a trail of slime wherever he goes. The antipathy between Ross and George has a slower build and burn in the books, plus George doesn’t overplay his hand regarding the Trenwith Poldarks. His open admiration for Elizabeth (contrary to the last episode’s insinuation, George actually wasn’t much of a rake) and his largesse towards Francis have both of them thinking George is their BFF, at least for a while. I also find this George too smooth, foppish, and physically slight–he’s supposed to have a more impressive, muscular physique that recalls his grandfather’s blacksmith origins. This fellow looks as though Turner’s Ross could snap him in half like a twig. So could Ralph Bates, who played George in Poldark 1975.

Verity, on the shelf
Verity, on the shelf

Finally, there was Verity’s doomed romance, which was at once too truncated and too heavy-handed. In the books, Verity and Blamey’s story plays out over several months as she gets to know him and come to terms with his ugly past before deciding to take a chance on a life with him. (There was no whitewashing of his history by claiming his wife struck him first and that she hit her head by accident: a drunken Blamey kicked her while she was pregnant, and she died of her injuries.) Having Verity meet, fall in love with, and be ready to elope with Blamey in one episode makes her look desperate and rather pathetic, instead of strong and mostly sensible.

For that matter, it wasn’t necessary to make all the men in Verity’s family ogres just to show us the oppression of women in 18th century England. Far from being an unpaid, unappreciated drudge ordered around by her selfish father, Verity is a much-loved daughter of the house, on whom everyone depends, because fair, fragile Elizabeth may not be capable of shouldering all the responsibilities of being mistress of Trenwith. Charles isn’t even opposed to Verity getting married, because he knows she hasn’t had many admirers, and he is sorry to deny her when her suitor’s ugly secret becomes known. And really, who wouldn’t have serious reservations about one’s daughter marrying a domestic abuser and ex-con? And for Verity, love and duty have as much to do with her ultimate decision to break with Blamey as opposition from her father and brother.

Clive Francis as Francis Poldark (1975)
Clive Francis as Francis Poldark (1975)

Regarding the latter: Francis is coming off even worse than Charles, condemning Blamey even as he himself knocks Verity to the floor when she tries to stop the duel. But then, pretty much everything is “off” about Francis’s characterization in this new series: he’s been given all the flaws and weaknesses, but none of the book version’s redeeming qualities. While Francis isn’t as dashing or as tough as Ross, neither is he a complete drip and weakling. He can be wry, witty, and even funny in a snarky way (snarkier than Ross, actually). He is also capable of regretting his misdeeds and working to atone for them (this is further down the road in the story, but worth mentioning all the same). None of those qualities are in evidence in Poldark 2015, sad to say. Clive Francis, who played the part in Poldark 1975, was far superior to Kyle Soller in conveying different aspects of the character, even in the first few episodes.

As for technical matters, I’m already over the stock footage of Ross galloping his horse in silhouette along the Cliffs of Alienation. Can’t he just be shown departing one place and arriving at his destination? And the recurring Celtic Theme of Romantic Frustration has gone past plaintive and all the way into whiny (and I say this as someone who likes Celtic music). By its third or fourth iteration in the episode, I was ready to strangle the violin player with his (or her) own strings. I don’t object to a soundtrack or incidental music, but for heaven’s sake, mix it up a bit!

Until next time!

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.

NewPoldark
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!