Alexandra Lange | Essays


We have been bingeing on BBC miniseries here. Once you get in to watching series on DVD, it is hard to be satisfied with stand-alone movies. You just want more, more characters, more plot, more things both familiar and new. Watching all seven seasons of The West Wing in a row (as we did earlier this spring) was the ultimate, though not as spine-tingling as the four seasons of The Wire. With The Wire, I really could not wait for it to be time for dinner and DVD. Since we seem to have run through all the excellent contemporary TV shows we are back to the BBC, and working our way down the Netflix suggested list. After The Way We Live Now (more on that tomorrow) we picked The Mayor of Casterbridge, with the always excellent and leathery Ciaran Hinds.

Now, I am no fan of Thomas Hardy to read, and this two-part series suffers from exactly the same problems as the novels: they are suffocatingly small-minded, with a tiny cast of characters moved around like pieces on a chessboard, the downward spiral of the plot so schematic as to be without suspense. After the first 15 minutes, I turned to Mark and said, “How are they going to turn this into three hours?” He said, “Bad things have to happen.” Which they promptly did. But not in a very interesting way.

She dies, he fights, a secret is revealed. People grow unhappier and unhappier. Now, the nineteenth-century novel is generally unsurprising in plot to the modern reader. There’s always an illegitimate child, a suppressed love, lovers torn apart by money. What allows Dickens to rise above is the number of characters, and the clearly delineated different voices, status, agendas. What allows Austen to rise above is the language and the humor. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, there is no humor and the various social classes are muddy. There are hints of snobbery, but the situation is unclear to the modern viewer, so the charges don’t resonate emotionally. Also, because the characters are merely pawns, they don’t have much personality. Jodhi May (who I always see stepping off the rock in The Last of the Mohicans, similar saintly daughter role) acts well here, but her part is to be dutiful and dumb. We will see how it turns out tonight, but I fear even the low thrill of the costume drama, to end with a pretty wedding in a country church, is going to be denied me.


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