Perhaps it’s inevitable that Americans should be a little smug about the cinema, along with its uglier stepchild, television—a stepchild that becomes less ugly with each passing year, while its august parent ossifies in the lumpen morass that accounts for too much of today’s popular culture. We did not invent the cinema—a dubious honor reserved to the French—but we were responsible for its mass promotion, beyond the wildest imaginings of the medium’s most vainglorious impresarios.
Television seems peculiarly American; in its inspiration, and not just its invention. Who else would think to contrive so vulgar and ingenious a method of monetizing film round the clock? Now that American television programming’s ubiquity is entrenched overseas, we are too apt to forget that a foreign audience, though they may share our enthusiasm for serialized theatrics, may not—could not—help but perceive our stories differently.
Masterpiece Theatre’s “Poldark,” an adaptation of the acclaimed novels by Winston Graham and shameless reboot of an earlier television series, inverts the expected feedback loop. A British production centered about a slice of history usually recounted an American perspective, it challenges an American audience’s suppositions about both the historical event known as the American Revolution and that event’s aftermath. It also raises questions—perhaps fanciful—as to the actual sympathies of some on the British side.
The eponymous character is himself almost binational in flavor; a scruffy composite of Frances Marion and Robin of Locksley. Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) only returns to his native Cornwall two years after sustaining injury on a Virginia battlefield. He’s supposed to have been rendered slightly lame, but the alleged gimp causes no serious impediment to any of the activities he undertakes with game vigor during the course of an eight–part season.
The pseudo–ailment serves mainly to mask his cultivated boorishness at house parties when declining to dance with some newly brought–out heiress. Perhaps the producers felt that to actually saddle their dashing, dégagé hero with so pedestrian an affliction would be to place too great a strain upon his manhood. They opt in favor of The Scar: a violent rake down his left cheek, got in the opening battle scene; deep-cut, yet suspiciously clean once healed.
No dueling scar could make for a more raffish souvenir. And it is one of the show’s ironies that, although its hero macerates in the aura of the Enlightenment, he is invariably viewed with the roseate gaze of the succeeding century. The gentry he holds in contempt may breathe the shallow air of the Rococo; Ross inhales deeply the fresher gusts of a coming Romantic age.
He’s a Byronic hero mercifully minus the Beau Brummell affectations; the effete, artistic pretense. The show’s credit sequence captures his likeness well, when it closes with the protagonist staring into a watery horizon, his back turned to the camera, his boat cloak billowing, in a shameless parody of Caspar David Friedrich.
The series’s pilot isn’t the sprightliest affair, over–reliant as it is upon type characters and hoary dialogue. Ross’s homecoming might have been cribbed from the Brontës—or even Dickens. The latter especially looms over the entire show, in its grim appreciation of 18th-century feudalism and still grimmer assessment of an upper class content to play out its dwindling fortunes on sport and frippery while the serfs starve.
Elsewhere there are echoes of Stevenson. Our hero returns to his wind–swept manor house, Nampara, in the dead of night (cue the theremins). It’s a scene lifted out of “Kidnapped.” (Come to think of it, Ross might also be construed as a cross–pollination of David Balfour and Alan Breck.) We rest easy when the protagonist finds only his disgruntled servants at home, and not a murderous uncle.
Ross’s uncle Charles, though well–stuffed, is a milder sort of antagonist than Ebenezer—one who prefers Ross to his own pathetic male issue, Frances (Kyle Soller), yet feels sufficient obligation to nagging primogeniture to wish his nephew gone off to London, where a comparison between cousins will be less pronounced, and where there is little possibility of Ross’s abequitating with Frances’s alluring cipher of a bride, Elizabeth (Heida Reed)—the very woman whose memory sustained Ross on the field of battle.
And for a time you wonder if the ex–lovers really might rekindle the flame. Until market day, when Ross encounters the filthy, neglected androgyn Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson).
* * *
His family makes much of Ross’s improvident youth; a youth wild enough to have landed him afoul of the law, whose wrath he escapes only by quasi–abannition to the colonies in an officer’s uniform. He comes home to England still feral, but softened; more considerate of the lives of those around him—if not with those of his fellow aristocrats.
Which is to his credit, considering that his own subsistence, founded upon an inheritance more illth than wealth, remains precarious throughout the season. He’s ambitious; but his ambition is always to raise the fortunes of his tenants, along with his own. And it is this innate kindness that first draws him to Demelza, whom he indentures as a kitchen maid. He barely recognizes her femininity, much less her native beauty.
Despite her patron’s being a taskmaster, the girl seems grateful merely for a home in which she won’t be kicked about like her beloved dog. She’s made to wash her red mane upon arrival at the manor; she bucks at the chill of pump-water. Later, when he discovers she hasn’t so much as a coat to fend off the wind, he provides her with a crimson cloak; she unfurls it giddily, a peacock surprised by the discovery of its own tail. Soon she appears in a proper dress.
Thus commences a slow, Sabrina-like transmutation that is among the show’s most endearing and ennobling thematic strains. It’s plain to us, though not to Ross, that once her transformation has been set in motion, this most puissant of warriors doesn’t stand a chance. If the man is made of flint, the woman cuts like a knife. They come together earlier than expected, at the conclusion of the third episode. The embers of their nascent romance smolder for the remainder of the season, alternately fanned and dampened, with the narrative riding the winds of the bellows.
You first observe their spark in a beautiful scene, one of the series’s most bucolic. Ross and Demelza attend the wedding of two of his tenants. An outdoor celebration radiates the cool vitality of spring. Demelza dances unabashedly along with the peasants, and we get a sense of the ingenuousness that lures Ross out from among his people, with their petty feuds, and in among these simpler lives; lives of those who give thanks for even the smallest relief from the worry and hopelessness that is their own sad inheritance.
—And there is Demelza, sticking out in the most artless way, at home with these kind–but–ungentle folk, yet ever so slightly apart. Ross stares at her from over his drink. It’s not a lecherous stare. It’s more the stare of the boy who realizes that the girl for whom he’d felt only filial regard is now grown up before his eyes, capable of inspiring more than just amity. This is the series’s strength: an ability to suggest a less precipitous, starry-eyed path to durable romance.
Ross and Demelza may unite in the brash manner characteristic to both their temperaments. But theirs is a protracted courtship, where marriage is only a beginning. The rest of the season is the story of a girl who must carve for herself an existence among gentler people; and of a man born to the gentle, who must learn gentleness by force of effort. They do not declare their love at the outset, however keenly she may feel hers. Rather, they must accommodate the social chasm that separates them, each in their own way.
It helps that he’s an uncondescending teacher. Brusque, and occasionally—though never deliberately—cruel; but intuitive of those social niceties that are within her reach, and of those that would only serve to suffocate her. He’s wise enough to prize her wildness, even if it is not an affect he would have thought appropriate in a bride. And it is a confession of immense poignancy when at last he admits—to himself as much as his wife—how very right she has been for him, and he for her.
His fancy for Elizabeth—a pseudo–heroine with about as much personality as a dried floral arrangement—is unmasked as inanity. Even after she manages mid–season to find some of the gumption her husband lacks. What if she’s staid and uninspiring? She’s too intelligent to be forever yoked to such an inveterate boob. When her husband gambles away their fortune, it is she, not he, who shows not the slightest hesitation at rolling up her sleeves and dirtying her bejewelled hands.
And perhaps she has Demelza’s hardscrabble example to thank for this unwonted effusion of pluck. The two cousins’ wives enjoy a gracious, if uneasy, acquaintanceship; both of them knowing full well that they are enamored of the same man; both of them comprehending the social absurdity of his opting for the one in the wake of the other. It isn’t until late in the season that they arrive, separately, at the same understanding: the man they both love does not—will not—love them both.
Frances sets always in opposition against his cousin, not so much as a villain—he’s too feeble to be consistently obstructive—but as a contrast. Still, what might have been telling when colored in grayscale becomes cloying when depicted, as it is here, in black and white. If Ross isn’t entirely decent—and is thus credible—his cousin is comically devoid of anything outside the barest outline of decorum. Frances is the worst kind of tyrant—the congenitally impotent, self-loathing kind.
We’re supposed to feel sorry for him—the boy-man, brought up by a father who refuses to imagine any noble quality in his noble seed. But pity soon becomes intolerable. He’s a man who, unlike Ross, inherits more than he needs, and has not even the strength to maintain his wealth, much less expand upon it.
Ross, though hardly indolent, only comes really alive when faced with substantial opposition. Which is why he makes for such a winsome hero. Whereas most men seem content merely to surmount those difficulties that make themselves inevitable, Ross searches always for some new mountain to scale. Or, as it happens, to excavate.
* * *
Mining intertwines inextricably with his family’s and Cornwall’s fortunes, for woe and for weal. The show’s intriguing sub–plot follows Ross’s brave attempt to revive a defunct mine, Wheal Leisure (its name belying the sweat expended in its renovation), while providing labor for his tenants, who are understandably smitten with the only gentleman who shows the slightest concern for their impoverished existence.
The post-war economic atmosphere is shaky even for Ross’s class. It’ll take some cajoling to bankroll his scheme, especially if he’s to stay one step ahead of his nemesis, George Warleggan (Jack Farthing), an amoral bourgeois moneylender who resents the snubs of an aristocracy that can never forget his family’s meaner beginnings, even while clamoring for his money. Ross, George both envies and despises. He can’t conceive as to why a man born to the manner should care so little for its maintenance.
George wouldn’t mind friendship, so long as he’s the one to define its scope. Ross, by nature impolitic, throws George’s every oleaginous gesture back in his face. Avarice becomes insult when it imperils the welfare of those unworldly, defenseless men Ross counts among his friends. But George, having escaped the rabble, cannot countenance Ross’s inclination to live alongside it.
—Any more than Frances can see why his cousin should degrade himself with marriage to a servant girl. Society will not admit her—or you, Frances observes. How will you manage? “A life of peace and seclusion?” Ross wonders, twinkle-eyed: “I shall try to bear it as best I can.” This is the sort of thing I like most in Aidan Turner’s performance. He may not be a great dramatic talent; he’s at least a charming one. Humor is his forte; and it’s a shame the writers don’t find more occasion to deploy it.
Turner’s wry, Cheshire Cat delivery ensures that the wittier lines land with aplomb. He fairly purrs his way through the show’s lighter material. It’s in the stentorian moments he can seem forced, though this is also the fault of dialogue that too often traffics in the over–earnest. Demelza is spared a similar ignominy, if only by virtue of her idiomatic diction, with its odd, folksy aphorisms and frank eschewing of tony rhetoric.
If the writers generally avoid Horatian grandeur, they can still sometimes founder in pomposity. As in an overwrought courtroom scene, where Ross stands witness for one of his tenants, a youth accused of poaching. Ross argues just a bit too eloquently. That he is, by nature, verbally adept is plausible. Here he comes off as far too facile for a man of no obvious scholarly inclination. Turner throws himself into the proceedings with brio; but the writing is artificially clever, and the end effect is saccharine.
As if in apology for this overheated performance, he afterward berates himself for having been too conscious of his own social standing! (You wonder what it would be to see him really rain invective down upon his adversaries.)
* * *
Turner makes for a charismatic hero, but it’s Tomlinson who supplies the show’s electricity. She’s equal parts sweet and saucy; and it’s the sweetness that lingers. Ross is justifiably softened by her childlike aberglaube. Yet she’s capable of Boadicea–like fierceness, with flaming tresses to match. And this prevents her seeming too demure, doe–eyed and wasp–waisted though she may be. She’s a terrific, unfalsified beauty.
Ross shortchanges her, in his typically careless way, when the village prostitute inquires, with undisguised jealousy, after his new bride: “Is she beautiful?” He seems amused by the question. “In a way,” is his off–hand reply.
—It’s rare to find an actor who manages the impression of complete transfiguration. Tomlinson generates just this sort of wonder. She concludes the season a far country mile from where she began it; clearly the same woman, but one who has adapted in the most skillful way to her unasked–for role as mistress of Nampara.
She’s aided in no small part by Ross’s devoted, longsuffering cousin Verity (Ruby Bentall)—as true a person as her name implies. Bentall takes a type—the wallflower with the heart of gold—and amplifies it with such surprising grace as to make the wallflower seem quite the most interesting person in the room. At 25, she’s already far past an age then considered marriageable. Still she supports her ungracious family with a dog’s unalloyed loyalty. Until she sees a chance for her own happiness—with a sea–captain of questionable reputation.
So questionable, that her brother, Frances, in an apoplexy of hot–headed dudgeon, challenges the sea–dog to a duel. They march outside then and there, each eager to discharge his honor into the other’s affronted breast. (Apparently it’s pistols at dawn, except when dusk will do just as well.) Ross nurses his cousin’s wound, but nothing can assuage Frances’s pride. Lovers’ quarrels are kind of theme for this series; developed on multiple fronts, prompting ideological and even violent fissures, both within the Poldark family and the surrounding community.
It’s difficult to avoid the impression that the whole show could have easily been improved upon—its popularity expanded—had the writers been more alert, less comfortable in their cliché scenarios. But if the writing is sometimes shallow, the narrative trajectory is also oddly confined. The story’s development isn’t so much frenetic as it is fragmentary. Several relationships cry out for more rigorous exploration. The writers establish an appealing sympathy between Ross and his cousin Verity, while seeming uninterested in the elaboration of their friendship. Similarly, Ross is shown as a proud father upon the birth of his first child, yet seems to take little interest in her upbringing. The series feels constricted, as though the addition of even two more episodes would have allowed for a more luxuriant unraveling of plot.
Still, the production is stylish in most respects. Its musical score simmers much of the time, adequate to the demands of the moment; it rarely bubbles over. Several Cornish folk songs are interpolated to great effect. Demelza’s impromptu performance of one of these, at a Poldark Christmas party, is a high–water mark for the season, and a significant mile–marker in her evolving romance with Ross. When she sings another, at the opening of the final episode, it has the unnerving effect of foreshadowing through its very innocence the ominous developments that bring down the curtain on the first season.
It’s always impressive when a costume designer threads the eye of the needle, maintaining some basic fidelity to the peculiar tastes of a bygone era, while ingeniously, even imperceptibly adapting them to suit the far more relaxed predilections of our own. Tomlinson’s wardrobe, though unflashy, is a tremendous success in this respect, with certain of her frocks seeming quite natural enough to be worn today. (It helps that she’s ramrod–thin, and hence, a clotheshorse.) And I appreciate especially the sly efforts of the show’s costume designer to intimate that, though Verity may not be a beauty in the classic sense, she possesses a surfeit of class. Her wardrobe, if understated and—on occasion—matronly, was well–nigh unerring in its subtly conspicuous good taste. The men don’t fare so badly either. Frances appears stuffy in his stovepipe hats—as he should. But Turner looks as if he sleeps in his tricorn, so easy does in sit atop his curly mop.
Though the narrative, once got off the ground, is rarely less than engaging, it’s the imagery that abacinates. If such a conservative series as “Poldark” can be in any sense pathbreaking, it’s in its uncommon appreciation of the power of landscape. I can’t recall another television show in which the countryside and the sea play so quietly integral a role. And If the Poldarks’ lives are compelling, the life of Cornwall is more compelling still. The more so for its hardness. This isn’t the cozy, gothic Cornwall of Daphne du Maurier (even if the Charles Poldarks’ ancestral estate, Trenwith, could easily pass for an embryonic Manderly). This is a landscape—and seascape—far more barren. No hearth fire could fully arrest its chill; or hearthside company, its loneliness. Perhaps that is the show’s greatest satisfaction: to see its hero and heroine attempt—with strange success—to fill its bleak emptiness with the heat of their own personality and ambition.
The season’s finale is as potent as its pilot was inert; its resonance the more remarkable for an absence of the sorts of cheap reversals and shock upendings that too often marr a season’s close. By this time, the plot has achieved a frightening ineluctability, so that it seems sadly right that the story should pause with its most humane character standing isolated and alone, abandoned by the most cruelly human machinations, with only the sea for solace.