Clarissa (1991)

 “The only real dishonour is compromise and self-betrayal.”

Set in 18th century England, the magnificent BBC television series Clarissa follows the trials and tribulations of Clarissa Harlowe. Clarissa (Saskia Wickham) is a good daughter–virtuous, honest, and obedient. She’s also her grandfather’s favourite, and she inherits his estate after his death. Clarissa, trusting the wisdom and guidance of her parents, hands over her fortune to her father’s care. When the film begins, notorious rake Richard Lovelace (Sean Bean) is courting Clarissa’s sister Bella (Lynsey Baxter). Lovelace spies Clarissa with her “implacable virtue–like ice” for the first time, and he promptly drops Bella and begins pursing Clarissa. In spite of the fact that Clarissa doesn’t encourage Lovelace, Bella’s jealousy causes her to form an unholy alliance with her sullen brother, James (Jonathan Phillips). James and Bella both loathe Clarissa and plot her downfall.

clarissaUp until this point, the Harlowe family does not object to Lovelace dancing attendance on Bella. But when Lovelace shifts his attention to Clarissa, James and Bella push for Clarissa’s arranged marriage to a cretinous nobleman. Clarissa is horrified at the prospect and refuses to bend to her parents’ will. Kept a prisoner in her home until she agrees to marry, Clarissa finally turns to Lovelace for help ….

Richard Lovelace is one of the greatest creations in English literature, and this film adaptation brings alive this complicated character with all his wit, wile, and wickedness. To Lovelace, hunting and seducing innocent young women is sport. The more virtuous the woman, then the better the game. Lovelace seems to have met his challenge in Clarissa, and he’s forced to invent new tricks to seduce her. Quoting from The Rake’s Progress, Lovelace describes the moral and physical obstacles barring him from Clarissa to his friend, Jack (Sean Pertwee) as he plots her seduction. These meetings with Jack serve to illustrate Lovelace’s naked, evil intentions. The women Lovelace seduces and uses for sport are often permanently damaged, and he tragically miscalculates both Clarissa’s moral authority and her deep sensibilities. Possessing the nature of an angel doesn’t spare Clarissa from suffering cruel behaviour, mistreatment, and neglect from all who know her. While her virtue helps sustain her, it certainly doesn’t save her or prepare her for the misfortunes she faces in a cruel disinterested world.

In the wrong hands, a superficial film adaptation of the Samuel Richardson novel could easily be a disaster. Clarissa is–in many ways–an unsatisfying heroine. She takes little action and is usually acted upon as the plot twists and turns. A badly written script could create Clarissa as a hysterical ninny. In this production, however both Clarissa and Lovelace are highly nuanced characters. They are opposites in many ways–their moral views, for example. But at the same time, they also possess some similar character traits. She is the unbending embodiment of virtue and morality, and he is completely unrelentingly amoral. Lovelace’s ego will not allow him to accept anything less than willing surrender, and Clarissa’s ego toys with the idea that perhaps she can ‘save’ Lovelace. The film is a sumptuous treat for lovers of BBC period drama–it contains all the elements of a great romance (an heiress, an elopement, sword fights), but tosses aside all notions of such stuff and deals, instead with wicked machinations, pride, and the dark side of human nature. From director Robert Bierman.

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2 Comments

Filed under British television, Period Piece

2 responses to “Clarissa (1991)

  1. ayman99

    Very splendid resume of Clarissa’s life. Criticism of the film-story is utterly successful and convincing. I read the story and
    enjoyed its dramatic events. That was in 1965 when I was a postgraduate at Cairo University-English Department ( Faculty of Arts ). It came to my mind to read this summary so as to restore and refresh my memory of Richardson’s great novel.
    With best regards,
    Mohammad Shuqair ( Abu Ayman )
    Cairo-Egypt

  2. Caz

    If that was me I would have told him to ‘GET LOST’

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