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The Mill on the Floss flows through PBS

By Jeffrey Gantz

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  THE MILL ON THE FLOSS. Adapted from the George Eliot novel by Hugh Stoddart. Directed by Graham Theakston. With Emily Watson, Bernard Hill, Cheryl Campbell, James Frain, Ifan Meredith, and James Weber-Brown. A BBC/WGBH production for Masterpiece Theatre. Airs this Sunday, October 12, at 9 p.m. on Channel 2.

Now that Jane Austen's lamentably few novels are pretty much used up, the good folks at Masterpiece Theatre are looking around anxiously for the Next Big 19th-Century Thing. Henry James is too dense. Thomas Hardy is too pessimistic -- or so the BBC seems to think. Emily Brontë would be a sure thing if Wuthering Heights hadn't been done to death. So MT is holding tryouts this fall. Anne Brontë is getting a shot for her only novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, on October 26. The respectable 1995 cinematic release of Austen's Persuasion (an MT co-production) will be airing October 19; and mystery writer Wilkie Collins, whose The Woman in White did well a decade ago, checks in on November 2 with The Moonstone. First up, though, is George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss.

Eliot's Middlemarch was a reasonable MT success, but that was a six-hour mini-series. The Mill on the Floss, which runs between 400 and 500 pages, gets crammed into 108 minutes. A rambling affair covering at least eight years, it's really three consecutive mini-novels: a satire of provincial small-mindedness centering on mill owner Edward Tulliver and his children Tom and Maggie; a Romeo-and-Juliet story in which Maggie falls in love with the son of her father's greatest enemy and incurs the wrath of Tom; and a proto-Harlequin Romance in which Maggie is courted by sensitive hunchback Philip (her Romeo) and conceited stud Stephen (her best friend's beau) while still trying to get her mind off . . . Tom. All this is borne along on the book's central metaphor, the river Floss: a flood of passion carries Maggie and Stephen away in a rowboat (can a metaphor get more obvious?) before a concluding deluge of Biblical proportions turns the river into a real flood (evidently yes).

Something has to give in Hugh Stoddart's adaptation. The good news is that Eliot's occasionally patronizing overlayer of musing and moralizing ("We learn to restrain ourselves as we get older") has evaporated. The bad news is that the complexity of her characterizations, particularly Maggie and Tom, has gone with it. The settings are postcard perfect (Mr. Deane has a lawn Wimbledon would envy), with lots of long cloaks and white horses; the romantic score swells at crucial moments (when the Tullivers have to leave the mill; when Maggie leaves Stephen); the acting is contained and cultivated. Too cultivated, actually -- all these BBC productions are starting to look alike. If this one had more wit and point, you could mistake it for Jane Austen.

Well, it doesn't. What it does have is Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves) as Maggie and some uncommon insights into the Tulliver siblings, who can't seem to let go of each other. Watson is worth watching in any role; here her crinkling face and hunted-doe eyes capture Maggie's perplexing combination of self-sacrifice and self-indulgence. Ifan Meredith's Tom looks more like a new Baywatch recruit than Eliot's "lad with light-brown hair, cheeks of cream and roses, full lips, indeterminate nose and eyebrows," but the smoldering resentment in his face suggests a loveless childhood -- and an odd sort of obsession/repulsion about his sister. Is Maggie is the victim of Tom's domineering? Or are the two of them fixated on each other (Maggie can't bring herself to marry Philip or Stephen; Tom never so much as looks at another woman), like Poe's Usher twins? Eliot can't seem to decide. In the end she makes Maggie the victim of a hypocritical patriarchal society (as Eliot herself was), and Tom and Maggie the sacrifices designated to set that society straight.

Bernard Hill's Mr. Tulliver starts out too affably ("I didn't raise my dam to cause anyone trouble") but finds the right sort of choler and obtuseness thereafter; Cheryl Campbell doesn't try for more glamor or intelligence than her Bessy Tulliver has a right to. But James Frain's Philip and James Weber-Brown's Stephen get reduced to stereotype; and the satirized relatives (Bessy's three sisters and their husbands) disappear pretty much altogether. So does any mention of religious ideas (Maggie's Thomas à Kempis-inspired renunciation of desire, for example). What's left is a classy soap that's well worth two hours of your Sunday evening, but I wish the BBC and 'GBH had gone the full monty with Eliot's novel instead of reducing it to a masterpiece-of-the-week.


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