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Gaskell's final novel sparkles on screen

Sunday, April 01, 2001

By Betsy Kline, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Costume drama fans, take heart. Filmdom may have exhausted the shelf of Jane Austen novels, but fans of English literature will be delighted to make the acquaintance of Elizabeth Gaskell, whose finest and final novel, "Wives and Daughters," comes to "ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre" in four 90-minute Monday night installments, starting tomorrow and running through April 23.

TV Review
"Wives and Daughters"
When: 9 p.m. tomorrow and April 9, 16 and 23 on WQED/WQEX.
Starring: Justine Waddell, Francesca Annis, Michael Gambon.

Gaskell wrote perceptively of the delicate interplay between the social classes and character issues in mid-Victorian England in her many novels. However, she is probably best known for her biography of her friend Charlotte Bronte.

Through the innocent eyes of her spunky young heroine, Molly Gibson, Gaskell observed the emotional landscape of family relationships with wry intelligence and gentle, mocking humor. The plot of "Wives and Daughters" revolves around these familial bonds and the danger wrought by secrets and scandal.

Adapted to the screen by the team responsible for the exquisite A&E "Pride and Prejudice," screenwriter Andrew Davies and producer Sue Birtwistle, the miniseries faithfully reproduces the book, which was published in monthly serial form from August 1864 to January 1866. "Wives and Daughters" was just shy of completion when Gaskell died in 1865. Her editors satisfied readers with an outline of the author's intended conclusion; Davies tacks on a triumphant and decidedly feminist finale to this beautifully realized film version.

Tomorrow's episode opens at a garden party at the Towers, the grand residence of Lord and Lady Cumnor, for the common folk of Hollingford. Among the partygoers is a very sleepy 10-year-old Molly (Anna Maguire), daughter of the country doctor. Molly falls asleep under a tree and is inadvertently left behind when the carriages leave. The shy child gets her first glimpse of life among the aristocracy before her father comes to take her home.

Years pass and 17-year-old Molly (the radiant Justine Waddell) has grown into a lively, curious young woman, entirely devoted to her hard-working widower father (Bill Paterson]]]]]). But when one of Dr. Gibson's young medical proteges fancies himself in love with Molly, the good doctor sends the unsuspecting Molly packing to the protective custody of the neighboring family of Squire Hamley of Hamley Hall. Molly's natural sweetness endears her to the bumpkin squire (the perfectly crusty Michael Gambon) and his invalid wife (Penelope Wilton). But as much as the Hamleys love Molly, they are against their sons forming any attachment to the respectable yet poor Scottish doctor's daughter.

The elder son and heir Osborne Hamley (Tom Hollander) is expected to marry money, because the fortunes of Hamley Hall have slipped.

In short order, Molly becomes the family pet, privy to the family members' intimate feelings and secrets. She is in awe of Osborne's refined looks and poetic sensibilities, but it is the outdoorsy younger son Roger (Anthony Howell) with whom Molly falls quietly in love.

Molly's happy life is soon disrupted by her father's misguided attempt to "protect" his daughter by marrying a respectable widow, Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, the former governess at the Towers. Played by the deliciously devious Francesca Annis ("Reckless," "Lillie" and countless other BBC series), the new Mrs. Gibson is a pill. All sweetness on the surface, Mrs. Gibson is a mercenary and schemer whose social pretensions embarrass both Molly and her father.

The stirrings of romance begin in episode two, when the beautiful Cynthia Kirkpatrick (Keeley Hawes), Mrs. Gibson's daughter by her former marriage, joins the Gibson household after finishing her schooling in France. Willful and well aware of her power over men, Cynthia conquers all who meet her, including the adoring Molly. The stepsisters form a fast, affectionate bond and alliance against Mrs. Gibson's more outrageous maneuverings.

Davies builds on the dramatic tension between the squire and Osborne, whose mounting debts and failure at Cambridge gall his father and worry his mother to her deathbed. In episode two, Molly accidentally becomes privy to the reason for Osborne's secretive comings and goings. She also comes to the sad realization that Roger is falling under flirtatious Cynthia's spell.

Director Nicholas Renton keeps the pace perking. As much as the camera reveals the characters and the morally corseted society they inhabit, it also hints at the free-thinking future in the person of Roger Hamley, whose scientific pursuits echo the theories of Charles Darwin and suggest that the ethnocentric attitudes personified by Squire Hamley are doomed.

"Wives and Daughters" is no "Pride and Prejudice," but it is every bit as enjoyable. Gaskell doesn't have Jane Austen's stiletto-sharp wit, but her social eyeglass is just as sharply focused on human foibles, large and small.

This BBCAmerica/WGBH Boston co-production sparkles with fine performances. Waddell ("Great Expectations," "The Woman in White") is so sweet and refreshing that you want to eat her with a spoon.

Annis is all coy smiles and catty whispers as the duplicitous Mrs. Gibson. Gambon wrings the heart as the overbearing patriarch whose ancestral pride battles with his sincere love for his family. (Fans of "P and P" look closely. Several of that series' players appear in minor roles here.)

Hats off to "Masterpiece Theatre" once again for opening the frontispiece on a long neglected literary masterpiece.

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