“DANIEL DERONDA” (2002) Review
With the exception of the 1994 miniseries, “MIDDLEMARCH”, I am not that familiar with any movie or television adaptations of George Eliot’s works. I finally decided to overlook my earlier lack of interest in Eliot’s final novel, “Daniel Deronda” and watch the television version that aired back in 2002.
This adaptation of Eliot’s 1876 novel was set during the same decade of its publication, although the literary version was set a decade earlier – during the 1860s. Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Tom Hooper, “DANIEL DERONDA”contained two major plot arcs, united by the story’s title character. In fact, Davies followed Eliot’s narrative structure by starting its tale mid-way. The miniseries began in the fictional town of Leubronn, Germany with the meeting of Daniel Deronda, the ward of a wealthy landowner; and the oldest daughter of an impoverished, yet respectable family, Gwendolen Harleth. The two meet inside a casino, where Gwendolen manages to lose a good deal of money at roulette. When she learns that her family has become financially ruined, Gwendolen pawns her necklace and considers another round of gambling to make her fortune. However, Daniel, who became attracted to her, redeemed the necklace for her. The story then flashes back several months to the pair’s back stories.
Following the death of her stepfather, Gwendolen and her family moves to a new neighborhood, where she meets Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, a taciturn and calculating man who proposes marriage safter their first meeting. Although originally tempted to be courted by Grandcourt, Gwendolen eventually flees to Germany after learning about Grandcourt’s mistress, Lydia Glasher and their children. Meanwhile, Daniel is in the process of wondering what to do with his life, when he prevents a beautiful Jewish singer named Milah Lapidoth from committing suicide. Kidnapped by her father as a child and forced into an acting troupe, Milah finally fled from him when she discovered his plans to sell her into prostitution. Daniel undertakes to help Milah find her mother and brother in London’s Jewish community before he departs for Germany with his guardian, Sir Hugo Mallinger. Although Daniel and Gwendolen are attracted to each other, she eventually marries the emotionally abusive Grandcourt out of desperation, and he continues his search for Milah’s family and becomes further acquainted with London’s Jewish community. Because Grandcourt is Sir Hugo’s heir presumptive, Daniel and Gwendolen’s paths cross on several occasions.
There are times when I find myself wondering if there is any true description of Eliot’s tale. On one hand, it seemed to be an exploration of Jewish culture through the eyes of the Daniel Deronda character. On the other hand, it seemed like an exploration of an abusive marriage between a previously spoiled young woman who finds herself out of her depth and a cold and manipulative man. Most critics and viewers seemed more interested in the plotline regarding Gwendolen’s marriage to Henleigh Grandcourt. At the same time, these same critics and viewers have criticized Eliot’s exploration of Jewish culture through Daniel’s eyes, judging it as dull and a millstone around the production’s neck. When I first saw“DANIEL DERONDA”, I had felt the same. But after this second viewing, I am not so sure if I would completely agree with them.
Do not get me wrong. I thought Andrew Davies, Tom Hopper and the cast did an excellent job of translating Gwendolen’s story arc to the screen. I was especially transfixed in watching how the arrogant and spoiled found herself drawn into a marriage with a controlling and sadistic man like Henleigh Grandcourt. However by the first half of Episode Three, I found myself growing rather weary of watching Hugh Bonneville stare icily into the camera, while Romola Garai trembled before him. Only Gwendolen’s pathetic attempts to rattle her husband and Grandcourt’s jealousy of Daniel provided any relief from the constant mental sadism between the pair. In contrast, Daniel’s interest in Milah, her Jewish ancestry and especially his confusion over his own identity struck me as surprisingly interesting. I also found the conflict between Daniel’s growing interest in Judaism and his godfather’s determination to mold him into an “English gentleman” also fascinating. When I first saw “DANIEL DERONDA”, I thought it could have benefited from a fourth episode. Or . . . the producers could have stretched the second and third episodes to at least 75 or 90 minutes each. But you know what? Upon my second viewing, I realized I had no problems with the production’s running time. Besides, I do not think I could have endured another episode of the Grandcourts’ marriage.
I have to give George Eliot for creating an interesting novel about self-discovery . . . especially for the two main characters, Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth. And I want to also credit screenwriter Andrew Davies for his first-rate translation of Eliot’s novel to the television screen. I would not say that Davies’ work was perfect, but then neither was Eliot’s novel. I have to praise both the novelist and the screenwriter for effectively conveying Daniel’s confusion over his own identity and his fascination toward a new culture and how both will eventually converge as one by the end of the story. Although Gwendolen plays a part in Daniel’s inner culture clash, she has her own struggles. I do not simply refer to her struggles to endure Grandcourt’s emotional control over her. I also refer to Gwendolen’s moral conflict – one in which she had earlier lost when she had agreed to marry Grandcourt. But a trip to Italy will eventually give her a second chance to resolve her conflict. On the other hand, I do have some quibbles about Davies’ screenplay. Daniel was not the only character who had developed feelings for Milah. So did his close friend, Hans Meyrick. Unfortunately, Davies’ screenplay did little to explore Hans’ feelings for Milah and toward her relationship with Daniel. Speaking of Milah, I could not help but feel fascinated by her backstory regarding her relationship with her father. In many ways, it struck me as a lot more traumatic than Gwendolen’s marriage to Grandcourt. A part of me wishes that Eliot had explored this part of Milah’s life in her novel. Speaking of Milah, Episode Two ended on an interesting note in which she finally became aware of the emotional connection between Daniel and Gwendolen. And yet, the story never followed through on this emotional and character development. Which I feel is a damn shame.
Some fans and critics have expressed regret that Daniel ends up marrying Milah, instead of Gwendolen. After all, Eliot allowed two other characters to form a mixed marriage – the Jewish musician Herr Klesmer and one of Gwendolen’s friends, Catherine Arrowpoint. Surely, she could have allowed Daniel and Gwendolen to marry. I do believe that they had a point. I feel that Daniel and Gwendolen would have made emotionally satisfying partners for each other. But if I must be honest, I can say the same about Daniel and Milah. I believe the two women represented choices in lifestyles for Daniel. Gwendolen represented the lifestyle that both Sir Hugo and Daniel’s mother wanted him to pursue – namely that of an upper-class English gentleman. Milah represented a lifestyle closer to his true self. In the end, Eliot wanted Daniel to choose his “true self”.
I cannot deny that the production values for “DANIEL DERONDA” struck me as outstanding. Don Taylor’s production designs for the miniseries did a beautiful job in re-creating Victorian England and Europe during the 1870s. The crew who helped him bring this era to life also did exceptional jobs, especially art director Grant Montgomery and set decorator Nicola Barnes. However, there were technical aspects that truly stood out. Simon Starling’s colorful and sharp photography of Great Britain and Malta (which served as Italy) truly took my breath away. I could also say the same for Caroline Noble, who did an excellent job of re-creating the hairstyles of the early and mid-1870s. As for Mike O’Neill’s costume designs for the production . . . in some cases, pictures can speak louder than words:
Truly outstanding and beautiful. I was especially impressed by Romola Garai’s wardrobe.
“DANIEL DERONDA” also featured a good deal of outstanding performances. If I must be honest, I cannot find a single performance that struck me as below par or even mediocre. The miniseries featured solid performances from the likes of Celia Imrie, Anna Popplewell, Anna Steel, Jamie Bamber and Daniel Marks. “DANIEL DERONDA” also included some interested supporting performances, especially Allan Corduner’s skillful portrayal of the blunt-speaking musician Herr Klesmer; David Bamber as Grandcourt’s slimy sycophant, Lush; Edward Fox as Sir Hugo Mallinger, Daniel’s loving benefactor; Amanda Root’s interesting portrayal of Gwendolen’s rather timid mother; Daniel Evan’s intense performance as Miriam’s long lost brother; and Greta Scacchi’s very complex portrayal of Grandcourt’s former mistress, Lydia Glasher.
Superficially, the character of Miriam Lapidoth seemed like the type that would usually bore me – the “nice girl” with whom the hero usually ended. But actress Jodhi May projected a great deal of depth in her portrayal of Miriam, reflecting the character’s haunted past in a very subtle and skillful manner. Barbara Hershey more or less made a cameo appearance in“DANIEL DERONDA” that lasted a good five to ten minutes. However, being an excellent actress, Hershey gave a superb performance as Daniel’s long lost mother, a former opera singer named Contessa Maria Alcharisi, who gave him up to Sir Hugo in order to pursue a singing career. Perhaps I should have been horrified by her decision to give up motherhood for a career. But Hershey beautifully conveyed the contessa’s frustration over her father’s determination that she adhere to society’s rules by limiting her life to being a wife and mother. And I found myself sympathizing her situation.
Like Miriam Lapidoth, the Daniel Deronda character seemed like the type of character I would find boring. Superficially, he seemed too upright and not particularly complex. However, I was surprised and very pleased by how Hugh Dancy injected a great deal of complexity in his portrayal of Daniel. He did an effective job in portraying Daniel’s conflict between the lifestyle both Sir Hugo and his mother had mapped out for him and the one represented by Miriam, her brother Mordecai, and their friends, the Cohens. Romola Garai was equally superb as the complex Gwendolen Harleth. She did such an excellent job in conveying Gwendolen’s growth from a spoiled and ambitious young woman, to the matured and more compassionate woman who had survived an emotionally traumatic marriage that I cannot help but wonder how she failed to earn an action nomination, let alone award, for her performance. Hugh Bonneville also gave an excellent job as Gwendolen’s emotionally abusive husband, Henleigh Grandcourt. I read somewhere that the role helped Bonneville break out of his usual staple of good-natured buffoons that he had portrayed in movies like 1999’s “MANSFIELD PARK” and“NOTTING HILL”. I can see how. I found his Grandcourt rather chilly and intimidating.
“DANIEL DERONDA” may have a few flaws. But overall, it is a prime example of the British period dramas at its zenith during the fifteen-year period between 1995 and 2010. It is a superb production and adaptation of George Eliot’s novel, thanks to Tom Hooper’s direction, Andrew Davies’ writing, the excellent work by its crew and the first-rate cast led by Hugh Dancy and Romola Garai. It is something not to be missed.