“I shall be better for having known you.”
The marvelous BBC mini-series Daniel Deronda is based on the George Eliot novel. Daniel Deronda is a weighty, problematic novel, and it is not considered to be Eliot’s best. The BBC adaptation is excellent, well-paced, and truly elegant. The Victorian, multi-plot novel is far better suited to the series format–there’s just too much plot to expect the story to squeeze into a standard 90-120 minute film. If someone tried to squash the novel Daniel Deronda into a film, it simply wouldn’t work as effectively.
The major theme of Daniel Deronda is the pursuit of the spiritual versus the pursuit of worldly gain, and this theme is worked through the characters, Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda. Gwendolen Harleth is the eldest daughter of a impoverished widow, and so the hopes of Gwendolen’s mother rest upon the chance–slim, though it is, that penniless Gwendolen will make a good marriage and provide for her younger sisters. Gwendolen’s mother and uncle promote Gwendolen in society with the idea that she will make a good match, and in fact they consider her a sort of investment. Gwendolen’s horse-riding, for example, is encouraged even though the family cannot afford it, but she is indulged as an ultimate pay-off is expected. As a result, Gwendolen becomes an accomplished horsewoman, excelling at many sports, and outshining all the other girls (including the rich ones). But as the product of indulgence, Gwendolen’s sense of self worth is grandiose, and her character suffers as a result–she isn’t a particularly good friend, and she isn’t a particularly nice person.
All of the hopes for an improvement in the Harleth family fortunes seem to bear fruit when Gwendolen catches the eye of the wealthy and arrogant Henleigh Grandcourt. It is with a sort of perverse intensity that Grandcourt drops his interest in a local heiress–Gwendolen is better looking and more accomplished than the heiress–and yet there is something not quite right in Grandcourt’s interest. Grandcourt seems to be on his best behaviour when first courting Gwendolen, but it is clear that he is a rather unpleasant fellow. No one likes or respects Grandcourt, but he does have money, prospects and position at his command. There is something quite dark about Grandcourt, and this sense of the unpleasant is not alleviated by the fact that he is always accompanied by his obsequious and equally unpleasant henchman, Lush. Grandcourt desires Gwendolen, but he does not love her. Gwendolen is attracted, at first, to the very unpleasantness of Grandcourt’s odd nature, and she prefers him to her other suitors because he isn’t as easy to manipulate. She sees him as a challenge and imagines that she will rein him in just as she has controlled other suitors.
Daniel Deronda–the main male character–is the very earnest and serious young man who is rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Lord Mallinger. Daniel is the antithesis of Grandcourt, and some rivalry exists between Grandcourt and Deronda as Grandcourt is Mallinger’s heir. Daniel meets Gwendolen when she still has the choice of pursuing material gain above all else. Gwendolen recognizes that Daniel is an unusually good and superior man, but at the time, she lacks a true appreciation of his character. Daniel rescues a young Jewish girl, Mirah Lapidoth, and it is through Daniel’s acquaintance with Mirah that the truth of Daniel’s past is revealed. Mirah is the antithesis of Gwendolen, for Mirah has experienced and endured terrible hardships. Whereas Gwendolen’s nature and character accept luxury at any price, Mirah refuses to sell herself for material gain. Mirah’s steadfast character and serious nature are in complete contrast to Gwendolen, and so the two main female characters serve as perfect foils for one another. There are several plot twists and turns–this is, after all, based on a Victorian novel, and as such, one must expect co-incidences and parallel storylines.
The BBC series is broken up into three sections, but the film flows very smoothly. The acting is all quite superb–although Barbara Hershey is a bit out-of-place in her role of Contessa Maria Alcharisi. The development of the characters is the very best part of both the book and the BBC series. Gwendolen Harleth isn’t exactly a shallow person, but due to the nature of her social position and the emphasis placed on the desirability of wealth above all else, she fails to gain any moral perspective about herself, her behaviour, or the choices she eventually makes. Adversity is the making of Gwendolen, and through suffering, she becomes a decent human being. If you enjoy BBC costume dramas, or if you are a fan of Victorian literature or George Eliot (one of my very favourite writers), no doubt you will enjoy this excellent adaptation. From director Tom Hooper and a screenplay from Andrew Davies.