Appellate Judge James A. Stewart cried during Skyfall, but didn't have any hankies left after this one.
"I'm afraid, old chap, it really rather looks like we're in the soup."—Jonathan Dakers
Period dramas are all the rage nowadays in the wake of Downton Abbey. Myself, I've reviewed the new Upstairs, Downstairs and Magic City for DVD Verdict. The above, of course, are filtered through modern eyes, with full knowledge of the years between their settings and their viewers.
My Brother Jonathan, in contrast, is taken from Francis Brett Young's actual "Edwardian romance novel." There may be a touch of modern reshuffling in the adaptation, but the story doesn't seem to have been tinkered with much.
There are a few flashbacks, but the story starts in 1908…
Facts of the Case
Jonathan (Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln) is working at the hospital when he learns his father was in an accident. As the news of his father's death sinks in, Jonathan recalls how his father always liked brother Harold (Benedict Taylor, Beau Geste) best. Then news of the family's finances sinks in for both brothers. Jonathan falls for restless Edie (Caroline Bliss, The Living Daylights), who passes in and out of his life as he embarks on general practice. Treating low-income patients, Jonathan gets to know Rachel (Barbara Kellerman, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), the daughter of his practice partner—and she comes to love him.
The DVD cover describes the source for My Brother Jonathan, Francis Brett Young's book, as an "Edwardian romance novel." Actually, I'd call it more melodrama than romance. It's not just that Jonathan loves Edie, who doesn't want to settle down—at least with him. Brother Harold chides Jonathan at one point for being the sort of bloke who puts others' happiness first, and you realize that Jonathan hasn't let himself fall in love with Rachel, even if he's developing a strong attachment. He just never loosened up for her—or Edie, for that matter.
Sadder still, as Jonathan comes to that realization himself and sets out to rectify his mistake, fate intervenes in, shall we say, particularly fictional ways. I kept hoping there'd be a happy ending—or at least figuring that Young was running out of bad things to happen to poor Jonathan. I hoped in vain. As a romance, Edwardian or otherwise, My Brother Jonathan is a downer.
Still, there are moments when My Brother Jonathan comes alive. James Andrew Hall's adaptation wisely emphasizes Jonathan's battle to make the local hospital accessible to people without means. He keeps fighting—with encouragement from Rachel—even as his own first operation ends in failure. Daniel Day-Lewis makes Jonathan's determination even as he's confronted with his own fallibility fascinating to watch. His performance in this plot thread—mainly in the second and third episodes—makes the unlikely ending chapter a little less painful. Barbara Kellerman's performance as Rachel, conveying deep emotion with an expression or glance, also helps, but given the melodramatic nature of the romantic storyline, it's a blessing that she's very involved in Jonathan's struggles to open up the hospital.
I found no problems with the picture quality. My Brother Jonathan only dates back to 1985, and the concept of reruns was fully understood by then, so there aren't flickers or spots to worry about. The only bonus feature is a travelogue from the Day Out series, which takes a look at Dudley, a town in the Black Country, where My Brother Jonathan is set. It's barely related to the miniseries, but interesting.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Since the BBC's DVD package emphasizes Daniel Day-Lewis' role, he may have a few fans. He delivers an excellent performance; my qualms about My Brother Jonathan are about the story as a whole. Also, if there are any fans of the original novel out there, I doubt there will ever be a better retelling of this story. I haven't seen the 1948 movie, but I'm not planning to seek it out.
Two strong performances make My Brother Jonathan watchable, but if you're not in the mood for a tearjerker, the ending could hurt. Ouch! If you're particularly in the mood to see everyone live miserably ever after, this is the perfect miniseries for you.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
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