An impoverished woman who has been forced to choose between a privileged life with her wealthy aunt and her journalist lover, befriends an American heiress. When she discovers the heiress is attracted to her own lover and is dying, she sees a chance to have both the privileged life she cannot give up and the lover she cannot live without.
Helena Bonham Carter,
An American girl inherits a fortune and falls into a misguided relationship with a gentleman confidence artist whose true nature, including a barbed and covetous disposition, turns her life into a nightmare.
Masterpiece Theatre productions of the 1970s get a lot of kidding, most of it no doubt deserved, these days. But this one gets high marks from me for taking on a novel that's extraordinarily difficult to film (how to build a nearly six-hour drama around a series of events that hardly add up to a story?) and getting it amazingly right.
Jack Pulman, the BBC's longtime great books adapter, does a sturdy job creating credible scenes out of sparse dialog, too much dialog (in other cases), and sometimes yards and yards of descriptive prose that burrows into the characters' minds in ways that would seem impossible to make clear on film.
The result is wordy, with an intrusive narrator, but I can't imagine how else it could be done. As a tale, the novel stands on James' ability to convey the slowly evolving, almost imperceptible changes in the characters' attitudes towards each other. The fact that it took 6 hours to spool out with much of James' intentions intact makes me wonder about the Merchant Ivory version we're about to be graced with: how could they possibly squeeze it all into less than 2 hours without making the whole thing seem like a trivial, almost implausible love affair of little intrinsic interest (although very well dressed!)? This version makes it all seem predestined, almost uncanny, full of wider meaning.
Direction serves the script well, given obvious limitations in production values. One real flaw: acting is perhaps too low key, even from a couple of distinguished veterans as Barry Morse and Daniel Massey. The female leads are passable, and Gayle Hunnicutt as Charlotte has some vivid, passionate moments, but overall their performances come off as less than fully fleshed out. Could be the director's fault: subtle doesn't necessarily mean dampened-down. Best - fortunately - is Cyril Cusack as the narrator, Bob Assingham. Without his witty delivery, the narrative-driven script would feel leaden.
Kudos for a fine adaptation that had me running back to the book.
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