Continuing my George Eliot theme, in the last few weeks I re-watched the most recent BBC production of The Mill on the Floss, starring Emily Watson as Maggie Tulliver. I know there is also an older (1978) mini-series, and I’d eventually like to see this too to compare the two, but that one is yet another of the productions only available in region 1, so not available here in the UK for rental.
I should really write these reviews right away while the film is fresh in my mind – impressions start to fade so quickly. But here are a few thoughts, anyway. The main problem with this production, as with other long novels compressed into single films, is that it is so short – the version on the UK DVD is 117 minutes – and so much has to be left out. I gather that the version shown on US TV was even shorter, at 90 minutes, and I think some of the unenthusiastic reviews on the web are based on this butchered version, complaining about a choppiness which to me isn’t a problem in the version I’ve seen. If you cut scenes out all over the place, it does tend to leave a choppy result!
To me, although inevitably a lot of the long and emotionally complex novel has to be left out of a single film, the drama stands up well in its own right. I also don’t think it feels unduly rushed, except perhaps for the dream-like ending sequence. The film seems to move at a reasonably smooth and sometimes even leisurely pace, with time to dwell on the beautiful Derbyshire landscapes and the sunshine which seems to bathe many of the scenes.
Often, shorter adaptations of classic novels tend to rush through the childhood sequences at the beginning – the most recent version of Jane Eyre definitely did this, with a very truncated version of Jane’s experience at Lowood School. Despite its limited time span, I felt that this film of The Mill on the Floss did devote quite a bit of time to Maggie and Tom’s childhood, establishing both the bond and the tensions between the brother and sister as they grow up at the mill in Derbyshire run by their domineering and increasingly embittered father, Edward – a wonderful performance by Bernard Hill. Cheryl Campbell is equally good as the children’s mother, Bessy, who constantly comes up against criticism from her sisters because they feel she has married beneath herself.
The children cast as the young Maggie and Tom both look very like the actors playing the characters as adults, but, more importantly, they are both good actors. Here’s a link to a little clip from the production at Youtube, which shows the key moment where Maggie cuts her hair, as a protest against the adults who are constantly criticising her for its lack of smoothness – and gets Tom to help her. I’d say both of them are equally convincing here. (I’m just updating this posting, in December 2009, to say that Lucy Borton, who plays the young Maggie, went on to appear in another couple of series and is now a professional singer – Lucy kindly visited my blog and posted a comment, below. The boy playing the young Tom, Jon Lee, went on to achieve fame a few years later as a member of pop group S Club 7 , and plays rock’n’roll legend Billy Fury in the movie Telstar.)
The scenes where Tom goes away to school, and Maggie visits him there, are well done. A third child actor, Stefan Weclawek, gives a poignant performance as the young Philip Wakem, the disabled boy they meet there who is the son of their father’s arch-enemy, Lawyer Wakem (Nicholas Gecks). There is a particularly striking scene where Philip sings to Maggie.
I thought the school scenes put across the irony, which is there in the book, that Edward Tulliver is dissatisfied with both his children because of their failure to fill the roles he sees for them – Maggie is “too clever for a wench”, while Tom is not academically bright enough to be the son he wants. A further irony is that Wakem would love to have a son like Tom who is physically strong, and contemptuously neglects the brilliant son he has got.
However, the main power of the film is in the adult drama, with Emily Watson in particular giving a powerful performance as the naturally rebellious Maggie, constantly struggling to repress her emotions and to be satisfied with the quiet, lonely life she is forced to lead, but never quite managing it. Her relationship with the adult Philip, played by James Frain, is very believable, as they meet for snatched conversations about religion and the books they are reading, with Philip urging her not to give up on life and not to give up wanting things.
There seems to be a lot of chemistry between these two, but I couldn’t feel the same about Maggie’s relationship with the man she falls disastrously in love with, her cousin Lucy’s fiance, Stephen Guest (James Weber-Brown). I know there are problems with the portrayal of Stephen in the novel, that he doesn’t seem a fully-realised character –so it is probably unfair to complain about the same problem cropping up in this adaptation. When reading the book, I’ve always found myself more convinced by Maggie’s love for Philip, the man she can talk to, than her love for Stephen, where all the communication seems to be through stolen glances. In this production, I found it equally unconvincing, and it doesn’t help that James Frain has the same kind of dark intensity as Rufus Sewell in Middlemarch, whereas, to me anyway, James Weber-Brown just doesn’t have the same kind of power as an actor. (This may of course just mean that I find Frain the more attractive of the two, which is undoubtedly true!) Maggie’s friendship with Lucy (Lucy Whybrow) is skated over quite quickly, I thought – maybe one of the areas which could have been explored more in a longer adaptation.
Ifan Meredith gives a fine performance as the stubborn adult Tom, and constantly lecturing and judging his sister. However, I think his performance is overshadowed by the tragic power of Bernard Hill as his father, facing ruin as demand for the mill slackens because of changing times – and focusing all his anger over the relentless pace of industrial change into his unreasoning hatred of Wakem, the man who eventually and inevitably becomes his boss. Watching how Edward Tulliver destroys himself, I was reminded of Hardy characters such as Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge – there’s the same kind of inexorable build-up to tragedy.
Although I think that most of this film flows well, I did feel things started to get rushed towards the ending, especially in the sequence where Maggie rows her boat out to save Tom (there are flashback scenes of her rowing as a girl) and they end up drowning together. This seems rather like a dream in the book, and the film got that flavour, but it all just seemed to happen so quickly, as John Scott’s music swelled to an emotional climax.
The film was directed by Graham Theakston, who has directed many other British TV productions, including costume dramas like Cadfael and a Sherlock Holmes film as well as contemporary dramas such as The Bill and The Politician’s Wife. It has a script by Hugh Stoddart, who I don’t know much about, although I see from the imdb that he adapted To The Lighthouse back in 1983, in a version starring Rosemary Harris and Kenneth Branagh. Yet another one to add to that ever-growing list of productions I’d love to see…