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Shot in a basic TV soap opera style, this adaptation of James' novel has some definite advantages over Jane Campion's misguided film version. For one thing, the BBC's 4-hour running time allows for more of the novel to make it onto the screen, without boredom ever rearing it's ugly head. Also, the character of Isabel emerges as something more than a feminist-style victim here, which is truer to James' intent. This Isabel is responsible for her mistakes and is willing to acknowledge it. And the characters of Ralph, Lord Warburton, and Gilbert have more depth.
Unfortunately, the direction is rather stilted in this version, and the performances are variable. Susannah Neve plays most all her scenes as Isabel in exactly the same forthright, unshaded way, which becomes very wearisome after a while. And her manner as an actress misses the character's vulnerability - it's hard to believe this Isabel could be bullied by anyone, including Gilbert Osmond. But she does command your attention when necessary.
Best are Edward Fox as Warburton, Beatrix Lehmann and Alan Gifford as her Aunt and Uncle, and the marvelous Kathleen Byron (remember her as the mad nun in "Black Narcissus"?) who easily steals every scene she's in as the Countess Gemini. Richard Chamberlain is charming and intelligent (though never moving) as Ralph, even though you never really believe he's all that sickly. James Maxwell does well enough by Osmond (and is a big improvement over the reptilian John Malkovich in the film).
Rachel Gurney as Madame Merle is very arch and obvious in a role Barbara Hershey later played so beautifully. At the bottom are Sarah Brackett, whose Henrietta Stackpole is worthy of a college play, and Ed Bishop who is a very wooden Caspar Goodwood.
If you're looking for a reasonable dramatic adaptation of James' dense novel, this will do well enough until something better comes along.
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