“The truth is so uncivil.”
He Knew He Was Right is a BBC miniseries based on the Anthony Trollope novel. From director Tom Vaughan and with an excellent script from veteran scriptwriter Andrew Davies, this is entertaining, top-notch drama. With that said however, He Knew He Was Right, as one of Trollope’s dramatic novels, is not light fare, and with its subject matter, this is a dour tale with little of the humour that is often associated with Trollope.
In typical Victorian multi-plot fashion, He Knew He Was Right contains many tangled sub-plots which all revolve on the subject of love. Love is so rarely convenient, and it cannot be manufactured, but it can be abused. In this story most of the characters fall in love with the ‘wrong’ people, and the ideal marriage–approved and envied by all is poisoned by irrational jealousy and madness.
The main focus on the story is the relationship between husband and wife, Louis and Emily Trevelyan. When the film begins Louis (Oliver Dimsdale) meets and proposes to the spirited Emily Rowley (Laura Fraser) who lives in the Mandarin Islands with her father, the British governor. Sir Rowley (Geoffrey Palmer) is delighted when wealthy Louis agrees to take Emily back to his London mansion along with her younger sister, Nora (Christina Cole).
At first all goes well for Louis and his young bride. Indeed Louis’s best friend, journalist Hugh Stanbury (Stephen Campbell Moore) envies the Trevelyans their evident domestic bliss. But the Trevelyans’ happiness is marred by Louis’s growing irrational jealousy of the relationship between Emily and her father’s oldest friend, the dapper, vain Colonel Osborne (Bill Nighy). At first, this all seems to be some simple misunderstanding, with Louis and Emily both obstinately refusing to give up their side of the argument. But when the couple agrees to separate, it soon becomes glaringly apparent that this is more than a disagreement. Meanwhile, Emily’s family urges her to submit to Louis’s demands and to return submissively to her husband. Emily, who is the victim in the situation, is subject to censure, scandal and gossip from all and sundry. Judged to be in the wrong, no one, apart from Emily, really grasps how unreasonable and irrational Louis has become.
While the main focus of the story is Emily and Louis, other characters appear in delicious sub-plots. Dorothy, the younger sister of Hugh Stanbury, (Caroline Martin) goes to live with her elderly, wealthy cantankerous spinster aunt (Anna Massey). Aunt Stanbury plots to marry off Dorothy to slimy curate Mr. Gibson (David Tennant), but the amiable Dorothy, proves to be a stubborn subject when it comes to love. Meanwhile, Mr. Gibson’s amorous adventures with the ladies backfire, and the homely French sisters–Camilla and Bella–bitter rivals in love–battle over the spoils of their unrequited passion. Most of the film’s humour comes from the character of Gibson, an ecclesiastical fortune hunter who receives his just desserts.
In another sub-plot, Nora catches the attention of the wealthy, titled and chivalrous Glascock (Raymond Coulthard), but she’s attached to the penniless scribbler” Stanbury–a man who’s “tearing down Tory traditions.” To the impoverished Rowleys, Glascock is the ideal match, while Stanbury is deemed undesirable.
He Knew He Was Right maintains typical BBC standards–impeccable acting, marvelous costumes, and a flawless script. But it is the wonderful characterizations that make this film such a delight. Miss Stanbury, for example, is an interfering, selfish old lady who imagines everyone is after her money, and yet she becomes much more human in her love for Dorothy. Another great,although minor character, is the private detective Mr. Bozzle (Ron Cook) who refers to himself in the third person, and while he’s a bit shady, he’s redeemed at the end mainly thanks to the constant disapproval of his harried wife (Patsy Palmer).
He Knew He Was Right carries a proto feminist message, and this makes the novel, written in 1869, amazing for its time. Emily is seen as the victim of her husband’s deranged behaviour, and since she is virtually viewed as property, as a woman she has no legal recourse against the outrages committed by her husband. Trollope makes it clear that this is a social problem that’s central to the story.