Adam Bede (1991)

“A man has other feelings than what he owes his mother.”

Adam Bede is a fine example of the British pastoral novel, and while it is not considered one of George Eliot’s best novels (Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda), this BBC television production is excellent entertainment. The story, set in rural 19th century England, is a simple one: young Adam Bede (Iain Glen) loves Hetty Sorrell (Patsy Kensit) who lives with her aunt and uncle, the Poysers on a farm. The Poysers hope for a match between Adam and Hetty, and Adam is encouraged to think that Hetty might accept him as a husband. However, Hetty, who is shallow and vain, sets her sights on wealthy, upper class Arthur Donnithorne (James Wilby).

While social expectations and class divisions both play large roles here, Hetty seems almost oblivious to class differences. When she sets her sights on Donnithorne, she genuinely believes that he’ll marry her, and it doesn’t occur to her that class might be an issue. On one hand she imagines that she can become Donnithorne’s wife, but at another point, she tells the Poysers she wants to serve as a maid somewhere. This latter decision horrifies Mr. Poyser, who’s fiercely independent. He sees that Hetty’s entry into the servant class would be a step down. But Hetty’s seeming-obliviousness to class distinctions (her ambitions towards Donnithorne, and her desire to ‘escape’ as a maid) are extensions of her vanity. She believes that her looks will overcome class barriers, and of course, like many girls who have thought the same thing, Hetty discovers the hard way that her beauty really doesn’t mean a great deal.

Based on a true story related to George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) by her aunt, a Methodist preacher, the film plots Hetty’s actions and their disastrous consequences. While this is obviously not a high budget production, the sets and the settings are incredibly authentic, resulting in an excellent, well-acted tale of tragedy, betrayal, and lost love. One scene grants a private glimpse into Hetty’s secret thoughts as she preens and poses, practicing flirtatious looks in a mirror, and this subtle scene, weaved into the everyday life at the Poysers, reveals Hetty’s character and the path to tragedy. Dinah Morris (Susannah Harker), Hetty’s cousin, is a serious, kind, and deeply spiritual character who intuitively predicts Hetty’s future troubles, but is powerless to intervene in the tragedy that unfolds. Directed by Giles Foster.

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