Tuesday, November 26, 2019

"ADAM BEDE" (1991) Review





"ADAM BEDE" (1991) Review

Recently, I had come across an old BBC production that I have not seen in years. The production was a television movie based upon author George Eliot's first novel, "Adam Bede".

This adaptation of Eliot's 1859 novel told the story of four young people from the rural English community of Hayslope around the end of the 18th century. This "love rectangle" revolved around a local carpenter named Adam Bede; a beautiful, yet self-absorbed milkmaid named Hetty Sorrel; the local squire's charming grandson and heir, Captain Arthur Donnithorne; and Hetty's cousin Dinah Morris, a beautiful Methodist lay preacher who is also attracted to Adam. How did this "rectangle" come about? Although highly regarded by the Hayslope community as an intelligent and talented carpenter, Adam has a weakness . . . namely his passionate and unrequited love for the beautiful Hetty. Unfortunately for Adam, Hetty was deeply in love, lust or simply dazzled by the handsome and charming Arthur. Did Arthur love Hetty? I honestly do not know.

As I had stated earlier, "Adam Bede" was George Eliot's first novel. Eliot's earlier skill as a writer is very apparent in this television adaptation. Do not get me wrong. I rather enjoyed "ADAM BEDE" very much. But it did not strike me as . . . fascinating or complex as other George Eliot adaptations I have seen. If one must be honest, the whole "servant girl get seduced by rich young man" scenario is not particularly new. I suspect that it was not new when Eliot wrote this novel back in the 1850s. I believe that Eliot had used this trope again when she wrote "Silas Marner", which was published two years after this first novel. Both stories featured "fallen women" and both portrayed the latter in a slightly unsympathetic light. Mind you, Eliot did a good job in conveying Hetty's struggles between the discovery of her pregnancy and the verdict during her trial. But I could not help but suspect a slight taint of Victorian morality in Eliot's portrayal of Hetty. I believe screenwriter Maggie Wadey tried her best to overcome that rigid morality, but thanks to the narrative, I do not think she had fully succeeded. Especially when one considers how "ADAM BEDE" ended.

If I have a real problem with "ADAM BEDE", it is the ending. If the production had been a two-part movie, perhaps . . . You know what? I suspect that stretching out the running time would not have solved what I believe was the narrative's main problem. I believe changing the ending would have helped. One problem proved to be Hetty's fate. After being found guilty of infanticide, Hetty was sentenced to execution. Her sentence was commuted to penal transportation to Australia at the last moment, thanks to Arthur Donnithorne. Ye-ee-ea-ah . . . I found this scenario a bit improbable. It seemed as if Eliot had tacked on this last minute fate for Hetty to avoid a truly tragic ending. Another problem I had with the ending proved to be the main protagonist's relationship with the Dinah Morris character. The movie featured a brief scene in which Adam Bede regarded Dinah as an attractive woman. Despite this, he spent most of the production harboring a passionate, almost possessive love for Hetty Sorrel. Once Hetty was sent away for transportation, Adam became romantically interested in Dinah. Rather fast. Too fast, if you want my opinion. I realize that he was urged to consider Dinah as a romantic partner by others, but . . . yeah, I thought the final romance between the pair happened too fast.

However, "ADAM BEDE" had its virtues. One, the production did an excellent job in conveying the mores and traditions of a rural town in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century. I found it amazing how the town's middle and lower classes were judged a bit more harshly than the upper-class residents. I noticed that although Adam is not regarded as morally questionable, many others tend to judge him based upon his moral compass . . . a lot. I also noticed that many seemed to regard Arthur's morals with a wary eye, they seem willing to give him a pass. I doubt they would have been that generous with Adam. But that is always the case, is it not . . . at least for those who are not part of an elite social group.

If middle and lower-class men had it bad, women of all classes had it worse. Dinah Morris is portrayed as a decent and pious woman. Yet, there seemed to be a slight air of disapproval directed toward Dinah, due to her role as a Methodist lay preacher. But no one is judged more harshly than Hetty Sorrel. Even by Eliot. Audiences are expected to harshly judge Hetty for her desire for a life "above her station". But I will give credit to both Eliot and screenwriter Maggie Wadey for injecting a great deal more of ambiguity and sympathy toward Hetty . . . especially after she became pregnant.

I also have to commend the movie's performances. There was not a bad one in the bunch. Susannah Harker made a very serene Dinah Morris, even I did not find the character particularly interesting. James Wilby had a more interesting character to portray, namely the shallow and sensual Arthur Donnithorne. However, I do not think Wadey's screenplay really gave the actor much of a chance to explore Arthur's ambiguity, aside from one or two scenes. "ADAM BEDE" also featured excellent performances from Jean Marsh, Paul Brooke, Robert Stephens, Freddie Jones, Michael Percival and Alan Cox.

Julia McKenzie struck me as particularly memorable as Mrs. Poyser, the aunt of both Dinah and Hetty. Although Eliot had written her as a comic figure, the actress managed to inject a good deal of pathos and emotion into the character, thanks to the screenplay. Patsy Kensit was superb as the flighty, yet hard-luck Hetty Sorrel, who proved to be the most interesting character in this tale. Kensit managed to skillfully rise the character's one-dimensional portrayal in the movie's first half and embrace the ambiguous quagmire that poor Hetty ended up in the second half. Superficially, Adam Bede did not seem as ambiguous as Hetty. Superficially. But underneath the stalwart and industrious carpenter existed a proud and emotional man, whose world centered around a woman who did not love him. And man did the producers select the right man to portray young Adam - namely Iain Glen. I have been aware of the actor for several decades. And I have noticed that whether he was playing a hero, a villain, anti-hero - you name it - Glen has always managed to convey the emotional depths behind his characters on a level that very few actors have managed to achieve . . . whether through his voice or expressions. Or perhaps both. And he utilized the same level of skill in his portrayal of the emotional and lovelorn Adam. No wonder I have been a fan of his for years.

Overall, I would never regard "ADAM BEDE" as one of my favorite George Eliot adaptations. The problem is that the movie reflected too much of the novel's narrative flaws. But not all was lost with Maggie Wadey's adaptation. I still managed to enjoy the movie, thanks to its intriguing plot and first-rate cast led by Iain Glen. In the end, I believe it had more virtues and flaws.

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