Saturday, May 14, 2011

South Riding, Part Two

South Riding continued last Sunday with Part Two of its three-part run on Masterpiece Classic, where events for all characters took a decidedly darker turn. Here's the episode summary from the PBS website:

With the inspiration of Joe Astell, the razing of the squalid Shacks and development of modern new housing is brought to a vote, in spite of Robert Carne's disapproval. But it comes too late for the Holly family, and the gifted student Lydia, thriving under Sarah's mentorship, must give up her talents and dreams.

For his part, Robert is unable to imagine a future for South Riding precisely because he is a prisoner of the past, as the secret agony of his guilt is revealed. Guilt also torments the lusty Methodist minister Alfred Huggins — guilt and a pair of blackmailers. He plays directly into the hands of Councilor Anthony Snaith, whose gentle prods toward investment in an area of land called the Wastes send Huggins head-first into a risky scheme. Financial woes compound Robert's troubles, and he ventures to Manchester in the hopes of heading off the bank from repossessing his ancestral home. Sarah, on her way to visit her sister, has too stopped in Manchester for the night, and their chance meeting leads to events for which neither is prepared, and an all-too-temporary respite from the messy collisions of life's complexities.
I finally got the chance to watch this episode Thursday night. I have to say, South Riding is not turning out to be quite the type of program I was expecting (i.e. a straightforward romance), based on the previews and episode information I'd managed to read online. It is much, MUCH grittier and darker than I was anticipating. I don't mind "gritty" and "dark" when it is done well (preferably shot through with rays of light) - and that is where this miniseries falters just a bit. One cannot, I think, help but get the feeling that the filmmakers are trying to do way too much in way too little time. While I applaud it for "aiming high," character-wise South Riding is suffering in my view from a lack of time for character development.

One problematic character is Midge Carne (Katharine McGolpin). It was clear from the first moment she's introduced that she is a wildy unbalanced child - the question is, how and to what degree? Father Robert (David Morrissey) is clearly incapable of helping her as she needs, since he carries around such guilt about her mother (more on that in a second) and stress about his nearly-bankrupt estate. Based on Midge's introduction in Part One, and then her subsequent appearances, I have to think she's been very ill-served by the script and pace of the show. One moment she's hysterical, the next she's eerily calm and by all appearances functional, even capable of tormenting an ill-equipped schoolteacher. There is no middle ground, but maybe that is accurate for her type of mental issues, I don't know. The way her inner "switch" flips back and forth just doesn't quite add up to me, at least how it's been presented thus far. Ultimately Midge strikes me as a tragic, ticking time bomb. Even her fascination with Sarah (Anna Maxwell Martin) feels dangerous - she seems to have the type of personality that needs to obsess, and that obsession(s) leads to wildly imbalanced emotional responses.

I haven't been overly fond of the show's decision to have Robert played in flashback by another actor, in this case Daniel West, while Muriel is portrayed by the same actress (Lydia Wilson) in both flashback and "present day" scenes. Personally I don't think David Morrissey looks so "old" that a younger version is required, but given the revelations about Robert's past in this episode I have a theory. It is revealed that upon his return home from the front in WWI, Robert found his wife flirting with three men in their home. Enraged and frustrated (which is understandable), he proceeds to rape her (UGH!), the act resulting in the pair's only daughter. This scene was not for the faint of heart - while it isn't explicit nudity-wise, it's a horrifying, emotionally charged scene, compounded by the revelation that Muriel is very cognizant of the fact that she's not "supposed" to have children (or has been advised against it in the past, that is not specified), and takes precautions to prevent pregnancy - precautions that Robert, in his jealous rage, doesn't care to make sure are in place. So my theory is that the filmmakers cast West in the role in some attempt to make the older Robert more sympathetic. I have a hard, hard time with this. Any way you slice it, rape is a heinous crime - and in films or books, even when the perpetrator expresses guilt/remorse after the fact, I have a hard time "forgiving" them - because with that act, a switch irrevocably flips in my perception of the character in question. Thoughts?

Robert has a lot on his plate, I get that. In addition to the after-effects of being gassed during the war (hence the amyl nitrate, which was apparently used as - a highly addictive? - treatment for cyanide poisoning), he's in danger of losing his anscestral home to repossession by the bank. On top of all this, there's the crippling guilt he carries that his actions - the rape - resulted in the pregnancy that completely tipped Muriel over the edge into full-blown insanity. David Morrissey is an excellent choice for playing the "post-attack" Robert, I will give the casting director that. As I mentioned in my review of Part One, Morrissey proves quite adept at playing the tortured soul. While I am disappointed that the storyline went the direction it did regarding Robert and Muriel's past, I can't think of an actor better than suited than Morrissey to play the repentant/tortured Robert, who feels so guilty and overwhelmed by life that he's on the verge of a mental breakdown himself. I just wish that this miniseries had more time to develop the consequences of the weighty issues South Riding's characters are (trying to) cope with. If as a viewer I'm supposed to somehow "look past" Robert's actions, I really need more of his backstory - perhaps that backstory is provided in Winifred Holtby's novel. Just thinking out loud here...

Anna Maxwell Martin continues to shine as Sarah, making her mark on the school and generally becoming a favorite of students. However, her character suffers in this installment of the series for lack of time to really delve into what makes Sarah "tick," if you will. In Part One, the filmmakers gave us a hint of the romantic tragedy in Sarah's past - losing her fiance in the war - and she shares a meaningful exchange with Joe Astell (Douglas Henshall), South Riding's most vocal crusader for social change. That conversation marked a spark of real connection between Sarah a Joe, a connection that I admittedly favor over Sarah's insistence to pursue a relationship with Robert. Yes, she and Robert shared that whole tremendously exciting (to be read with sarcasm) interlude in the barn with the cow giving birth, but beyond that I don't feel like I've been allowed to see why she is so invested in Robert.

Prior to the failed Robert/Sarah hook-up in Manchester (spectacularly blown up by either a PTSD attack or guilt), Sarah and Rober do share two rather nice scenes. The first occurs after Midge's goading leads the harried teacher Miss Sigglesthwaite to snap, striking her with a ruler across the face. Sarah is, of course, equal parts horrified by the act and perhaps a bit concerned how her failure to see that one of her teachers was on the brink of a nervous breakdown impacted the child of her most vocal critic. But since Robert knows a thing or two about mental strain, he's quite forgiving - Morrissey plays Robert brilliantly, with a balance of bone-tiredness and kindness. The second scene occurs in Manchester when Sarah and Robert meet for dinner - and oh, I am such a sucker for romantic dancing in film. SUCH. A. SUCKER. Sarah's dressed to the "nines" as they say and Robert is quite dashing in a tux - the whole scene is a prime example of how well this film recreates the fashion, romance, and atmosphere of the 1930s - a favorite moment.

My favorite storyline is turning out to be Lydia's (Charlie Clark), the scholarship student at Sarah's school who makes her home in "the Shacks," South Riding's slums community. Under Sarah's watchful tutelage, Lydia is thriving at school, but her future is put at risk when her family endures a shocking tragedy with the untimely death of her mother (Jennifer Hennessy), who bleeds to death - a tragic consequence of trying to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Her father (Shaun Dooley) applies for hardship aide to the village council, and since Lydia's education is an "option," not a life-or-death necessity, the family's application is rejected, leaving Lydia no other choice than to assume her mother's role as care-taker to her younger siblings. The scene where the once-jovial Mr. Holly humbles himself before the council asking for aid and his summarily rejected just broke my heart - despite the family's hardships, Lydia's father was anxious to do anything necessary to further his daughter's dreams of a future beyond the squalid Shacks - and the blow to their efforts shakes father and daughter to the core. Lydia had quickly become Sarah's star pupil, and I loved their scenes together - but I thought it was interesting that Sarah came across as so - clueless, for lack of a better term, in regards to the harsh reality of Lydia's family situation. That's one of the things that I think fuels Lydia's anger toward Sarah at the end of the episode - coming to her with essentially platitudes instead of concrete aid must've felt like rubbing salt into an open wound.

I could touch on the whole blackmail plot involving Huggins (John Henshaw) and Bessy (Janine Mellor), as well as the land deal with shady developer Anthony Snaith (Peter Firth), but to be honest with you those story threads just weren't all that interesting to me. They felt extremely tangential to the Sarah/Robert and Lydia storylines, which were infinitely more absorbing. I have to admit to being quite disappointed by the lack of scenes involving Joe in this episode - I wonder if he receives additional screentime in the DVD cut of this miniseries? One can only hope, because Douglas Henshall is too fabulous to waste IMO. As is Penelope Wilton as councilwoman Mrs. Beddows!

If you've watched South Riding thus far, I'd love to hear your thoughts! While I thoroughly love the world of this miniseries - the clothing and period detail are superbly handled - I'm a little less enchanted with the pacing and character development in this hour of South Riding - major actions, especially between Sarah and Robert, seem to be developing without the backstory or plausibility that I'd like. The "great" Andrew Davies can only do so much with a script that only allows for three hours. *sigh* Anyways, please share your take on Part Two if you watched it Sunday, as I'd love to discuss!


Kaye Dacus said...

My question is this . . . If Robert had gone to Manchester on a job interview--or just to look for openings, don't remember which he said--why did he take a tuxedo with him???

And if he's as close to losing his ancestral home as he is, where did the money come from for a fancy dinner and a lot of drinks? (And on a tuxedo rental if the tux wasn't his.)

Unknown said...

@Kaye - LOL! Leave it to you to come up with EVEN more questions and issues for me with this ep! ;)

Kristin said...

I agree with you on pretty much everything. And I also love romantic dancing in movies. :)


Charity said...

I'm not enjoying it, I'm afraid -- the reverend sleeping with a local girl was the first straw, the rape was the second straw, and them winding up together would be the third, because any way you slice it, it's still going to be adultery. Not impressed with the Contemporary Collection.

Unknown said...

@Kristin - I guess its the musicals lover in us, huh? :)

@Charity - I don't think you need to worry about them winding up together. But I do understand where you're coming from...this is definitely Masterpiece going darker. *sigh*

I'm ready for PBS to announce the Mystery schedule!

Heidenkind said...

Yeah, the rape scene... that was pretty horrific, and I hope to GOD Sarah and he don't get together. I've never been so happy to see a guy almost have a heart attack, I swear.

I missed the 3rd ep because I was moving, you'll have to fill me in. :)

Unknown said...

@heidenkind - Hope your move went well! :) And YAY we got our wish regarding Sarah and Robert (see my latest post). :)

Lara said...

Love SR's Anna Maxwell Martin. Lots about her roles @

Unknown said...

@Lara - Thanks for the link! I just visited the FB page and was thrilled to read news that PBS will broadcast TBC's second season.