After watching the Andrew Davies version of Middlemarch, I was keen to see his other major George Eliot adaptation, Daniel Deronda. Unfortunately, as with so many of the other films I keep writing about, it isn’t available on DVD in region 2 –though it used to be, and I’m using the sleeve of the deleted DVD as an illustration since I prefer it to the region 1 sleeve. So, once again, I had to buy on import.
Watching this not so long after Middlemarch, it struck me just how many similarities there are between the two dramas, and, of course, also between the two source novels. Both have a heroine and a hero who are not romantically destined for one another, but who become friends and whose stories sometimes counterpoint one another. Both also show the central characters constantly hemmed in and pressured by other people’s expectations.
In Daniel Deronda, Daniel and Gwendolen meet in the series’ opening scene, at the casino in Monte Carlo, and, looking at this beautiful young couple, you might well think they are going to end up together – but, in fact, their stories are about to fork off in very different directions, only occasionally intertwining.
This opening scene, which is a striking piece of filming, immediately establishes the two characters – Gwendolen’s recklessness, the way she is prepared to gamble and lose, and, by contrast, Daniel’s cautious nature and his yearning to watch over other people and prevent them from running into danger. He steps in to help Gwendolen, although she is a stranger, first at the casino and then by buying back her bracelet from the jeweller after she is driven to pawn it. He also rescues the other heroine, Jewish singer Mirah (Jodhi May) the first time he meets her – in her case, by plucking her from the river where she is trying to drown herself. And he supports both women all through the drama.
I think both Romola Garai (I’ve read that the actress was actually called after the heroine of George Eliot’s novel Romola) and Hugh Dancy are well cast in the lead roles. Garai gives Gwendolen the right blend of arrogance and vulnerability, while Dancy, as Deronda, continually holds back, watching others with a wistful expression but not stepping in and demanding anything for himself. However, my favourite performance might be May as Mirah – she just seems to play the part with such conviction. I’m looking forward to seeing her with Garai again in the BBC’s new version of Emma.
Although best-known as an Andrew Davies adaptation, this film also had a famous director, Tom Hooper, who went on to make award-winning US costume drama John Adams (another one I want to see!) as well as the recent UK movie The Damned United.
Daniel Deronda is an unusual novel in many ways, one of which is that it really takes a “bad girl” as heroine. Gwendolen deliberately trades on her beauty and marries for money rather than love, something which would be enough to damn her in the eyes of many. But Eliot makes all this only too understandable, showing how she is driven to accept Grandcourt in order to support her family, and how few options are actually open to her. She doesn’t have the talent to make it as a singer, or the patience to work as a governess.
I think the series dramatises her relationship with Grandcourt, played by Hugh Bonneville, brilliantly – Bonneville never hams it up, and doesn’t even raise his voice most of the time, but his cruelty to his wife and his determination to dominate her come across clearly, shown obliquely through scenes like his brutal teasing of his (female) pet dogs. The first time I saw this series, I remember mainly being focused on Daniel’s story. This time round, for some reason, I focused more on Gwendolen and how she has to keep on smiling sweetly as her life turns into a nightmare.
However, even though I spent more time thinking about Gwen, I was still moved by Dancy’s performance as Deronda, as he delves into his family history and discovers his Jewish heritage, through a series of coincidences which at times almost seem like a dream. The scenes of him wandering through the streets of the Jewish quarter, and finding it awakens distant memories, are possibly the most visually striking sections of the whole film.
I thought the importance of Daniel’s mystical Jewish friend Mordecai (Daniel Evans), brother of Mirah, is downplayed in the series compared to the book, but the scene where Daniel meets his long-lost birth mother, Contessa Maria Alcharisi (Barbara Hershey) was given its full weight, and really ties in with Gwen’s dilemma, in once again showing how few options there were for women at this time. The famous singer can only achieve her full potential in her career by giving up her child.
I know I haven’t really done this great mini-series justice, but will leave it at that, just adding that the fine cast also includes Edward Fox, giving a beautifully repressed performance as Daniel’s guardian Sir Hugo Mallinger, and Jamie Bamber as Daniel’s friend Hans Meyrick.
I’ll also add that there was an earlier BBC dramatisation of Daniel Deronda, made in 1970, with Robert Hardy as Grandcourt – I’d love to compare this one, as I was so impressed by Hardy’s performance in Middlemarch, but I don’t suppose there is much chance of it ever being repeated or released on DVD.