“Middlemarch” (1994) et la folie

12 March 2011

I am in an airport (which I hate) with a delayed flight, observing the array of human folly around me: people barking on cell phones, wailing toddlers, the sickly smell of sweetened pretzels and frustration. George Eliot would have had a field day with this material. No one ever treated the subject of human folly with such sympathy and wry observation as Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72) — as well as in the beautifully staffed 1994 BBC miniseries Middlemarch. (And speaking of folly and pleasure, my Dear Friend came over with beer and cupcakes for viewing last weekend!) In this small midlands town everyone marries the wrong person for the wrong reasons, virtue goes unrewarded, promises of change remain unrealized. Yet it somehow avoids cynicism. Eliot makes us fall in love with these characters and feel for them even when they’re acting stupidly or despicably. That’s why I like the French term, la folie: it signals madness as much as folly, and gets at something more deeply human. In fact, one can’t look at Rufus Sewell in this series without experiencing one’s own propensity for folly.

Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw

Sewell is delicious as the dissatisfied Byronic artist Will Ladislaw who takes a turn as a journalist on behalf of parliamentary reform (the story is set in the years before 1832); he gains most of his appeal, however, because he recognizes in his cousin’s lovely wife, Dorothea (Juliet Aubrey), a shared sensibility. They also share a sense of tragedy. Dorothea grew up sheltered but dreams of being truly useful to society, associated with some great work. She’s not in it for the credit. When she meets the aging, dour Casaubon — a scholar hard at work on what he calls A Key to All Mythologies (speaking of folly) — she’s entranced by the possibility of being useful to him, even learning Greek to do so. They marry, a decision that proves almost immediately to be a stupid one, and we watch Dorothea’s hopeful face turn dark and disappointed.

Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea

The inhabitants of Middlemarch are foolish about many things — money, politics — but marriage is the worst. What was Casaubon thinking when he married? To be sure, Dorothea is pretty and serious, yet he doesn’t really like women or want a wife; perhaps it was the appeal of adding her youthful face to his collection of heavy books in his dreary home. When the dashing but somewhat aimless Ladislaw stumbles across Dorothea on their utterly miserable Roman honeymoon, he forms a bond with her over their shared unhappinesses, not knowing exactly what he wants from her. In Ladislaw’s pursuit of her friendship and trust, he finally has a true goal if not a profession.

Patrick Malahide as Casaubon

In marrying Dorothea without any real desire for a true marriage, Casaubon was no less self-aware than the young doctor, Tertius (!) Lydgate, who’s come to Middlemarch with the plan to cure cholera and other fevers at the hospital — and perhaps to get his work on the map of cutting-edge medical research. Buttressed by his ambitions and determination not to earn easy cash by selling quack “strengthening formulas” to little old ladies, he’s doing all his work on a shoestring salary. More fool him that he thinks he can flirt with Rosamond Vincy with no consequences. Rosamond knows just enough from her fancy education to disapprove of her parents’ manners and to flirt prettily with the handsome young doctor. She believes town gossip about the doctor’s family wealth and aristocratic connections, so she flirts with absolute seriousness. The very moment Lydgate pronounces he has no plans to marry, he finds himself caught in Rosamond’s carefully-spun web: she weeps, begs to know what she’s done to lose his affection — so he proposes.

Trevyn McDowell as Rosamond

Nothing is more depressing — and probably realistic — than Lydgate and Rosamond’s marriage. With her finishing-school training, she knows how to be an ornament to the home and a lively conversationalist, but little else. Her blonde hair twirls and transmogrifies into ever more ridiculous designs, and she still uses her big blue eyes with good effect, but mostly she adds expensive new things to their house and helps to run them deep into debt. When Lydgate tells her of their financial troubles she throws a tantrum, not wanting to know of such things — yet she secretly tries to use her feminine wiles to wheedle cash out of the relations as if she might be a kind of good fairy to her husband. When that plan makes everything worse, she retreats to what she knows: how to be the little girl-child version of a wife she was taught in school.

How is it possible that watching people make such bad choices can be enjoyable, especially when they hurt one another so viciously? Perhaps it’s Andrew Davies’ streamlined script, which somehow transformed a 900-page novel into a neat six hours of television without using too many over-the-top caricatures. It seems to me that Eliot would be a hard source to translate: her wisest insights about a character or a situation are often revealed in the middle of a dense paragraph of prose. But it’s also the beautiful cast, who embody their characters so perfectly. I loved every minute — and while Dear Friend noted that Rufus Sewell does not possess the same acting subtlety and complexity of a Richard Armitage (and she is most surely right), he was perfect for the role, like all the rest of the cast.

Most of all, Middlemarch has given me that Eliot-esque perspective and humor for observing the world around me here at the airport. As the crowds stagger by carrying half a house’s worth of carry-on bags and I listen to the constant bleating of the intercom system, I know that Eliot would have refrained from turning sour and cranky — and would have spun it into narrative gold.

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7 Responses to ““Middlemarch” (1994) et la folie”

  1. servetus Says:

    I agree that Sewell did well in this role. Some of my commentators have been saying that he improved as his career went on and his stuff as Aurelio Zen in his latest tv series is much more subtle.

  2. Rosie Says:

    [” I loved every minute — and while Dear Friend noted that Rufus Sewell does not possess the same acting subtlety and complexity of a Richard Armitage (and she is most surely right), he was perfect for the role, like all the rest of the cast.”]

    As a fan of both Sewell and Armitage, I’m afraid I would have to disagree with that opinion. Both actors are capable of subtlety . . . in different ways.

    • Didion Says:

      Isn’t Sewell perfect for this role?

      I must momentarily defend the position of my friend, who has dedicated thousands and thousands of words on her site to elaborating the remarkable acting subtleties of Richard Armitage. I trust implicitly her opinions in this regard.

      But I take your point, Rosie, that such a position is irrelevant to the question of whether Sewell nails his part. And I think you’re right. He can do more with a look from those enormous green eyes than most other actors (and that hair!). As much as I found Dorothea to be the central character in the series, it’s Sewell I remember when I think back to it!

    • servetus Says:

      I’m heavily invested in Armitage-watching. Sewell’s style just doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid. For me as a viewer he doesn’t achieve as much. However, he sure is pretty.

  3. nicholas Says:

    That was a lovely post. I very much enjoyed this show. Did you happen to watch the interviews that were available on the DVD? That little club of George Eliot enthusiasts was great stuff. Juliet Aubrey was wonderful as Dorothea, and Patrick Malahide’s Casaubon, so brittle, so wooden, so pathetically insecure. That was one character you couldn’t wait to see die off of one thing or another, which is testament to Malahide’s portrayal. Very good. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Didion Says:

      Hey, thanks, Nicholas — and now I’m sorry to report that no, I didn’t see the bonus interviews. I believe I watched it streaming online, which doesn’t give you the option. But now I’m going to hunt down the library copy — or get it on Netflix — because that’s just a terrific interpretation. One of the best.

  4. VamosaValencia Says:

    Thank you for all your insights and pubic sensitivity, Didion. I loved Middlemarch when I read it as an undergraduate, and was completely besotted by Juliet Aubrey’s Dorothea. How well you capture George Eliot’s astonishing generosity of spirit, and her capacity for avoiding the galloping misanthropy that infects the rest of us- not only in airports!
    No- you are not wasting your time. Warm Regards.


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