This adaptation of Winifred Holtby's Holderness-set novel opens with a dedication to the author, who had died tragically young: "To her memory, this pictorial impression of her book is respectfully and gratefully dedicated". Well, the scriptwriters' idea of respect and gratitude is not mine. Winifred was probably spinning like a peerie in her grave, and in danger of toppling the Rudston monolith!
If the 2011 BBC adaptation was over-condensed at 3 hours, this 85 minute film is a caricature. It's sentimental and politically neutered: the book is neither. This is an alternative-universe 'South Riding', primarily for hard-core Sarah/Robert shippers. *Spoilers ahoy, comparing the novel and TV versions.*
The actors work hard, despite the inadequate script. Edna Best is engaging enough, if too beautiful, as Sarah. Marie Lohr, as Emma Beddows, is middle-aged and glamorous, not elderly and matriarchal. Robert Carne (Ralph Richardson) has lost his moroseness and bulky, Mussolini-esque looks to become a more conventional 'romantic hero'. The displaced Clydeside Red, Joe Astell (John Clements), is now English, fairly posh, and surprisingly extrovert – even flirtatious – in comparison with his adorably earnest and awkward book incarnation. However, he is canonically both "pretty" (the otherwise faithful 1974 adaptation failed abysmally on this, casting-wise!) and consumptive, with a hacking cough (omitted in the 2011 version). He also has some witty lines. Although his heroic background (organising Black South African miners – based on Winifred's friend William Ballinger (1894-1974)) is ignored, he steals the film for any viewer with a hurt/comfort complex.
Sarah's shift of affections appears extremely abrupt. One scene, she and Joe are having a fun day out, with lots of flirting and humour; then, all it takes is the birth of the calf on her way home, and eyes meeting under a hideous chocolate-box portrait of Mrs Carne, for her to fixate on the squire. Tsk! Well, if *she* doesn't want Joe, I can think of worse ways to spend an evening than applying his chest-rub... (Ahem! 'Anderby Wold' joke!)
Nuance is sacrificed to melodrama in Muriel's storyline. The deliberate nods to 'Jane Eyre', handled with irony in the book, are played straight here. Ann Todd (renamed Madge, instead of Muriel) is a high camp cliché: riding a horse upstairs, and dramatically dying (yes, really!) at an opportune moment psychically linked to Robert. In the flashbacks, her costumes and hairstyles are extremely odd, considering they represent styles of the recent past. And I'm sure that even in an expensive psychiatric institution, marabou-trimmed satin nightwear was considered impractical for patients
The Holly family storyline is handled superficially. The cause of Annie's death is puzzling: she does not die in childbirth, as in the book; she appears to have a heart problem (borrowed from Robert, who is healthy in this adaptation?); but she dies just before a surgeon can operate (is this derived from Gertie, or has Annie has replaced Lily Sawdon as a cancer sufferer?). Lydia is underwritten and obsequious, far more attention being paid to Midge (Glynis Johns), whose maliciousness is reduced. Essentially, Lydia's role here is to demonstrate Sarah's benevolence, not as a character in her own right. Incidentally, the Hollys' home has an upstairs in this adaptation, being a double-decker bus or tram, not a railway carriage.
There are no real villains in the novel, but in the film, moralising censorship casts its shadow. Snaith is presented as an out-and-out crook, who has to be punished: in the book, he is a more ambiguous figure, damaged by childhood sexual abuse, working for his own advantage and yet *also* a genuine benefactor. Huggins appears to be a widower, so his liaison with Bessie can be treated more comically (although the blackmail and corruption are serious). Sarah and Robert's Manchester tryst is interrupted, not by an attack of angina, but by news about Muriel/Madge, before they get to the bedroom. Sarah later saves him from suicide by shotgun at the moment his wife keels over in Harrogate, thus removing all shadows of adultery and obstacles to the pairing. Part of the point in the novel is that he embodies the doomed, feudal past, so his survival is a bad plot-change.
The ending is literally flag-waving, saccharine National Government propaganda. Snaith's corrupt land deals are exposed, thanks to Sarah overhearing Bessie and Huggins. Robert steps in to save Joe's planned housing scheme and his career. Never mind 'Tullochgorum''s "Let Whig and Tory a' agree" – here Socialists, Liberals, High Tories et al. unite to sing 'Land of Hope and Glory' for the coronation. Midge and Lydia become best friends. Sarah sits between Robert and Joe. Given book-Sarah's racy past, I wouldn't put a ménage-à-trois past her, but it's implied here that she and Robert will pair off, while the far more adorable Joe remains her platonic best friend. He needed rescuing (politically) by Robert, therefore cannot be 'romantic hero' material. This nonsense reflects a popular stereotype of disabled or chronically ill characters as desexualised: men, especially, are portrayed as emasculated by illness, because it makes them fragile, vulnerable and dependent – stereotypically 'feminine' or 'childlike' qualities. By contrast, the novel's ending at the Silver Jubilee is bittersweet with mingled loss and triumph, hope and fear, with hints that Sarah may finally have come to her senses romantically, as she cherishes a heartbreaking letter in her handbag
(Usually, she methodically organises her mail into baskets, so this is suspicious!)
All told, the film is disappointing and dishonest. The Cinegram magazine claims that "Readers of the book will recall the story, which, although changed in places – there is a happy ending, for example – still conveys the burning sincerity of its author
This intense realism will come as a refreshing tonic to audiences over the world". No: this is a 'South Riding' with teeth drawn and claws blunted. As a "respectful" memorial to the author, a feminist and socialist, it is insulting.
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