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TV Review: PBS's fine 'Deronda' explores love, altruism

Saturday, March 29, 2003

By Betsy Kline, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Hugh Dancy stars as the hero of "Masterpiece Theatre's" "Daniel Deronda."

"Daniel Deronda"

dot.gif WHEN: 9 p.m. tomorrow and Monday on WQED.

dot.gif STARRING: Hugh Dancy, Romola Garai, Hugh Bonneville and Jodhi May.


When "Masterpiece Theatre" host Russell Baker warns you that the leading lady of the evening is one of literature's most infuriating heroines, believe him. Gwendolen Harleth is a high-toned flirt and snob of the first order. Her dalliance with Henleigh Grandcourt, a cruel and insufferable moneybags, in part one of "Daniel Deronda" tilts the gag meter.

Cold and calculating, Gwendolen and Grandcourt engage in a bloodless dance of domination. Viewers sense the sadistic streak in him and marvel at her bottomless vanity, thinking her beauty can tame any man.

The heartlessness of it all almost puts you off the story, but hang in there for part two, where the true heart and soul of George Eliot's Victorian novel are allowed to throb and enlighten.

"Daniel Deronda" is ably translated by screenwriter Andrew Davies, whose previous "Masterpiece Theatre" credits include "Moll Flanders," "Wives and Daughters" and Trollope's delicious "The Way We Live Now."

The book, published in 1876, tells the story of Daniel Deronda, a modest young man who uses his wealth to help others less fortunate. He is partly motivated by his own uncertainty over his parentage, and partly by his good and steadfast heart.

In tomorrow's 90-minute epi-sode, Deronda (Hugh Dancy) meets the haughty Gwendolen (Romola Garai) at the gaming tables in Germany, where she is amusing herself by winning hearts and losing her late father's fortune. Deronda is smitten, but does not chase her.

In quick order, Gwendolen, her widowed mother and her brood of sisters are left destitute when her father's investments fail. Interested in men only as idle conquests and scornful of marriage in general, Gwendolen pouts and marries Grandcourt (Hugh Bonneville) because, she wails, she cannot face becoming a governess.

Meanwhile, Deronda thwarts the river suicide of Mirah Lapidoth (Jodhi May), a beautiful singer torn from her family as a child. Deronda's attempts to trace her mother and brother draw him into the hidden world of London's Jews, a vibrant community living far from the shadows of the Victorian elite.

In Monday's two-hour conclusion, the meat of Eliot's book emerges as Deronda delves into his own past. The themes of the crisscrossing of two cultures and the importance of living life for a purpose higher than one's own pleasure put Deronda and Mirah in sharp contrast with the monied match of Gwendolen and Grandcourt.

Dancy's Deronda is a subdued hero tortured by the question of his birth and his need to serve a greater good. Garai shoulders the more difficult role of Gwendolen splendidly, daring to give us a haughty heroine who sees in Deronda a mirror of the good person she should have been.

Bonneville (a Colin Firth look-alike) embodies the perfect villain, a vain and sadistic man who, like Gwendolen, lives to bend others to his will. May captures the exotic possibilities of a woman proud of her past and brimming with a brilliant artistic future.

"Daniel Deronda" is not one of "Masterpiece's" best efforts, but it's a noble effort to bring to life a lesser-known but boldly experimental novel.

Betsy Kline can be reached at bkline@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1408.

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