“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” (2001) Review
Over seventeen years ago, the BBC aired “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW”, a four-part television adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel. Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by David Yates, the miniseries starred David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew Macfadyen.
“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” told the story of a Central European financier’s impact upon upper-crust British society during the Victorian era. Augustus Melmotte arrives in London with his second wife and his daughter, Marie in the 1870s. Not long after his arrival, Melmotte announces a new scheme to finance a railroad project from Salt Lake City in Utah to the Gulf of Mexico. And he promises instant fortune to those who would invest in his scheme. The Melmotte family is also surrounded by a circle of decadent aristocrats and nouveau riche businessmen, all trying to get a piece of the financial pie. One of the investors is Sir Felix Carbury, a young and dissolute baronet who is quickly running through his widowed mother’s savings. In an attempt to restore their fortunes, his mother, Lady Matilda Carbury writes historical potboilers – a 19th century predecessor to 20th century romance novels. She also plans to have Felix marry Marie, who is an heiress in her own right; and marry daughter Henrietta (Hetta) to their wealthy cousin, Roger Carbury. Although Marie falls in love with Felix, Melmotte has no intention of allowing his daughter to marry a penniless aristocrat. And Hetta shows no interest in Roger, since she has fallen in love with his young ward, an engineer named Paul Montague. However, Montague also proves to be a thorn in Melmotte’s side, due to his suspicions about the legitimacy over the railroad scheme.
As one can see, the story lines that stream from Trollope’s novel seemed to be plenty. In a way, the plot reminds me of the numerous story arcs that permeated 2004’s “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT”. Although some of the story arcs have nothing to do with Augustus Melmotte, nearly everyone seemed to have some connection to the financier. The exceptions to this rule proved to be the characters of American-born Mrs. Winifred Hurtle, Roger Carbury and Ruby Ruggles, a young farm girl who lives on Roger’s estate. Mrs. Hurtle’s story was strictly limited to her efforts to regain the affections of former lover and help Ruby deal with the licentious Sir Felix. Roger’s story arc was limited to his unsuccessful efforts to win Henrietta’s heart and deal with his knowledge of Paul and Mrs. Hurtle’s relationship. Fortunately, “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” seemed to possess a tighter story than “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT”. To a certain degree.
But I cannot deny that “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” was one of the most entertaining adaptations of a Trollope novel I have ever seen. If I must be honest, I enjoyed it more than I did “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” or 1982’s “THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES”. One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was due to its portrayal of society’s greed and opportunism. I have heard that Trollope had written the novel in protest against the greed and corruption of the 1870s, which resulted in the Long Depression that lasted between 1873 and 1879. The ironic thing is that the economic situation that Trollope believed had permeated British society during the 1870s had been around for a long time and would continue to permeate the world’s economic markets time again – including the recent downturn that has cast a shadow on today’s economies. Trollope’s Augustus Melmotte is today’s Bernie Madoff or Robert Maxwell.
Another aspect of “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” is that it revealed the darker aspects of Victorian society on a more personal level. I did not know whether to be amused or disgusted by the manner in which young British scions such as Sir Felix Carbury scrambled to win the affections of Marie Melmotte and get their hands on her money; or desperate debutantes like Georgiana Longestaffe willing to marry Jewish banker Mr. Brehgert, despite her contempt for his religious beliefs and social position. I doubt that the likes of Georgiana would never contemplate becoming an author of cheesy novels, like Lady Carbury or marrying a man with no funds – like .
Thanks to Davies’ screenplay and David Yates’ direction, “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” permeated with a richly dark and comic style that beautifully suited Trollope’s tale. Hardly anyone – aside from a few such as Paul Montague, Hetta Carbury and Mr. Brehgert – was spared from the pair’s biting portrayal of Trollope’s characters. Two of my favorite scenes featured a ball held by the Melmottes in Episode One and a banquet in honor of the Chinese Emperor in Episode Three. The banquet scene especially had me on the floor laughing at the sight of British high society members gorging themselves on the dishes prepared by Melmotte’s cook.
Although “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” is my favorite Trollope adaptation – so far – I must admit that I had a few problems with it. One, Andrew Davies’ portrayal of the Paul Montague character struck me as slightly boring. Like his literary counterpart, Paul found himself torn between his love for Hetta and his sexual past with Mrs. Hurtle. But Davies’ Paul seemed so . . . noble and stalwart that I found it hard to believe this is the same gutless wonder from Trollope’s novel. And if I must be brutally honest, I found his relationship with Hetta Carbury to be another example of a boring romance between two boring young lovers that seemed to permeate Victorian literature. A part of me longed for Paul to end up with Winifred Hurtle. At least he would have found himself in a more interesting romance. I have one more quibble. In a scene featuring a major quarrel between Melmotte and his daughter Marie, there was a point where both were in each other’s faces . . . growling like animals. Growling? Really? Was that necessary? Because I do not think it was.
One would think I have a problem with Cillian Murphy and Paloma Baeza’s performances as Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury. Trust me, I did not. I thought both gave solid and competent performances. I feel they were sabotaged by Trollope’s portrayal of their characters as “the young lovers” and Davies’ unwillingness to put some zing into their romance. Miranda Otto made a very interesting Mrs. Hurtle, despite her bad attempt at a Southern accent. And Allan Corduner and Fenella Woolgar both gave solid performances that I did not find particularly memorable. On the other hand, I felt more than impressed by Cheryl Campbell as the charming and somewhat manipulative Lady Carbury; Douglas Hodge as the love-sick Roger Carbury; Oliver Ford-Davies as the grasping, yet bigoted Mr. Longestaffe; Helen Schlesinger’s funny performance as the clueless Madame Melmotte; a poignant performance from Jim Carter, who portrayed Mr. Brehgert; and Anne-Marie Duff, who managed to create a balance between Georgiana Longstaffe’s strong-willed willingness to marry a man of another faith and her self-absorption and bigotry.
However, the three performances that stood head above the others came from David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew Macfadyen. Suchet could have easily portrayed the scheming and gregarious Augustus Melmotte as a cartoonish character. And there were times when it seemed he was in danger of doing so. But Suchet balanced Melmotte’s over-the-top personality with a shrewdness and cynicism that I found appealing – especially when those traits mocked the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of British high society. Shirley Henderson proved to be the perfect person to portray Melmotte’s only daughter, Marie. Superficially, she seemed like a chip off the old block. But Henderson injected a great deal of compassion and poignancy into Marie’s character, making it very easy for me to sympathize toward her unrequited love for Sir Felix Carbury and the heartache she felt upon discovering his lack of love for her. Matthew Macfadyen must have finally made a name for himself in his memorable portrayal of the dissolute Sir Felix Carbury. I cannot deny that Macfadyen revealed a good deal of Sir Felix’s charm. But the actor made it pretty obvious that his character’s charm was at best, superficial. Considering some of the roles he has portrayed over the decade that followed “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW”, I believe Macfadyen’s Sir Felix must have been one of the most self-absorbed characters in his repertoire. And he did a superb job with the role. It is a pity that he never received an acting nomination or award for his performance.
One cannot talk about “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” without pointing out the sumptuous production designs created by Gerry Scott. They were superb. With contributions from Diane Dancklefsen and Mark Kebby’s art direction, Caroline Smith’s set decorations, Chris Seager’s photography and Andrea Galer’s costume designs; Scott and his team did a wonderful job in re-creating Victorian society in the 1870s. I was especially impressed at how Galer’s costumes captured the early years of that decade. I would never call Nicholas Hooper’s score particularly memorable. But I cannot deny that it suited both the story’s theme and setting.
Although I found a few aspects of “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” to complain about – notably the Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury characters. I cannot deny that it is a first-rate production, thanks to Andrew Davies’ adaptation, David Yates’ direction and a fine cast led by David Suchet. More importantly, the story’s theme of greed and corruption leading to economic chaos was not only relevant to the mid-to-late Victorian era, but also for today’s society. “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” strike me as a story for all times.