BBC Video // 2011 // 177 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // June 23rd, 2011
An ambitious schoolmistress's ideals collide with post-World War One British reality in this miniseries based on Winifred Holtby's novel.
Feeling like a messy collision between Jane Eyre, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Pennies from Heaven, the BBC period drama South Riding frantically juggles several storylines without doing justice to any of them. A visually lush, surprisingly gloomy period drama with Gothic overtones, South Riding must have seemed like an ideal project for Andrew Davies, the literary adaptation powerhouse seemingly behind every Jane Austen or Charles Dickens production in the last few decades (including the legendary 1995 Pride and Prejudice that made Colin Firth the Mr. Darcy by which all future Mr. Darcys would be judged). But trying to cram at least six hours of story into a three-hour package proves too much even for Davies, resulting in an unwieldy, tonally dissonant narrative that skims rather than explores its characters as it hurtles towards a vaguely unsatisfying finale.
Our heroine, schoolteacher Sarah Burton (Anna Maxwell Martin, Becoming Jane), returns from London to her (fictional) home town of South Riding to apply for a position as headmistress of a girls' school. Headstrong, plucky, and other adjectives typically applied to strong young female characters who head up stories like this, Sarah makes short work of the stuffy, conservative members of the hiring committee -- save for dour, darkly handsome manor lord Robert Carne (David Morrissey, Hilary and Jackie), who butts heads with Sarah with a ferocity that all but guarantees a tempestuous romance.
As the new headmistress, Sarah is immediately beset with challenges. The school itself is in sad disrepair, with funding during these tough economic times being in short supply (and naturally reserved for the boys' school). One student, who turns out to be Robert Carne's young daughter, is having trouble adjusting, and dealing with some family troubles having to do with her mother (the Madwoman in the Attic to Carne's Mr. Rochester). Another, Lydia, is a whip-smart, studious girl who has the misfortune of being from the starving class of rural Yorkshire; her prospects of escaping her squalid world are put in peril by a tragedy in the family.
South Riding throws a number of storylines into the stew: there's Alfred Huggins (John Henshaw), the pious lay preacher who's having it off on the sly with a local strumpet, while conspiring with local business villain Anthony Snaith (Peter Firth) on a real estate scheme involving plans to move the residents of South Riding's wretched slum into an incrementally less wretched slum. Eager young leftie Joe Astell (Douglas Henshall), politically aligns with Sarah and one of her few genuine friends in South Riding (naturally, he's secretly in love with her). And, of course, we follow the mystery surrounding the fate of Robert Carne's mentally ill wife, Muriel (Lydia Wilson).
Hanging over the characters is the long shadow of the First World War, which England is still reeling from two decades later. Sarah -- who lost her fiancé in the war -- is one of England's "surplus women," a generation of women growing up in the wake of the war, whose prospects for marriage and children were curtailed by the lack of eligible men. Being set in 1938, South Riding is steeped in bitter irony, the characters being unaware that they're riding out the aftermath of one horrific war only to be tipped into a fresh hell.
Buoyed by unimpeachable performances and sterling production values, South Riding is more than watchable, and quite manageable at three hours, but it's stuffed with too many stories to do justice to any one of them. A nascent love triangle between Sarah, Robert, and Joe is barely suggested before we're whisked off to the squalid trailers where Lydia and her family eke out a precarious existence, then to Huggins and his various clandestine exploits, then whipped back to the Carne estate and poor little Midge pining for her missing mother. Any of these storylines, fully developed, would make for some gripping drama. Unfortunately, South Riding feels like a heavily condensed, Cliffs Notes version of itself.
Spread out over a more generous running time, South Riding's mashup of Gothic gloom, Depression grit, and pastoral romance might not seem so discordant, but the story just can't bear the combined weight of Carne's all-consuming grief and financial woes, and the misery of, well, pretty much all of its characters, from Alfred's pathetic, mundane schemes to the appalling poverty of South Riding's lower class. South Riding is drenched in gloom -- albeit a ravishing, picturesque gloom -- and by the time the plot grinds dutifully to its climactic crisis point, any thoughts of "who shall marry whom?" are pushed aside by the mere hope that the characters won't just kill themselves to escape their misery.
But at least there's light at the end of the tunnel...which of course we know to be the headlight of a train called World War Two.
South Riding has been given an appropriately classy presentation on DVD, with a handsome case and menus. Unfortunately, that's about as far as it goes; this is a bare bones set, with no extra features, which is a shame since some historical background would have been welcome. Otherwise, it's a solid presentation, with clear, gorgeous video and a perfectly adequate Dolby Digital stereo audio track (English only) with optional English subtitles.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 177 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated