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In 1952 ambitious industrialist Charles Freeman whisks naive young Mary off her feet and marries her. They move into the big house overlooking the town where Charles' engineering factory dominates the landscape and, in quick succession, three sons (Simon, James and Robert) and a daughter (Alice) are born. Exhausted by motherhood and disillusioned with marriage to a man whose greatest romantic passion is reserved for his factory, sensitive wayward Mary seeks solace in poetry and drink. The marriage stumbles, the children swing between the heady sunshine of joy and the pain of neglect. Within a few years the family is fractured by the tragedy of Mary's suicide and each of the siblings sets out to find their place in a world stained by events from their childhood. The oldest son, Simon, initially strives to please and imitate his father by going into the family business. James is trapped by his mother's favor! Written by
Plenty of visuals, ample emotion from the declining middle class
A 10 part adaptation is pretty rare these days, and this one certainly does justice to Tim Pears' book. The story of the Freeman family over 40 years is a sort of latter-day Forsyte saga, but a good deal rawer and less genteel; more like Thomas Manns' Buddenbrooks, perhaps. The film medium is exploited to the full and the literary origins well hidden. There is some wonderful photography, especially at night in and around the Freeman's ornate mansion. Seen mostly through the eyes of middle son James (Shaun Dingwall), whose solace is photography, the story is told in a very visual way, despite the occasional voice-over. Most of the acting is totally convincing, Robert Pugh's overbearing father, the doomed mother (Helen McCroy), screwed up kids each carrying psychic wounds despite the affluence and big Sunday dinners, and the servants, who play a crucial role in the family history.
Behind the family story is the historical background, particularly the social and economic changes in Britain since the Second World War. We go from the Macmillan Era ('you never had it so good') to the industrial conflict of the Thatcher years ('there is no such thing as society'), and we see the migrant influx and its effects and the decline (or at least loosening up) of the class system. But the family story is central here; a number of things contribute to the unhappiness but identifying them is not always easy. Simon (Tony Maudsley, brilliant), the oldest, being both gay and not suited for business is obviously going to have trouble with his father, who sees him in dynastic terms, and Simon, with artistic rather than practical abilities is not going to get on with him either. But it is not easy to explain Robert (Stuart Laing), the wildest and most destructive brother. He just seems bad from the beginning, and grows up worse. The daughters, for some reason, are less troubled.
Just why family relationships grow or wither is one of life's eternal mysteries, but it's certain they are not static, a point dynasts like Charles Freeman cannot grasp. They see families as extensions of themselves when in fact the members, like all of us, are water boatmen in the river of life. The emotions generated in this series ring very true, and remind us how little of our destiny we really control.
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