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Overstuffed, But Not Without Charm--This Presentation Lacks Sufficient Running Time To Develop Its Many Plot Points
on May 19, 2011
Originally, I had no particular inclination to review the BBC production of "South Riding." But after seeing this program, people are tending to fall into either love it or hate it positions. This perfectly pleasant presentation is far from perfect and yet it has plenty to recommend it as well. So, with no other reviews, I felt compelled to chime in with the middle ground and present a few pros and cons of the miniseries. To rate this at the five star level indicating that it is at the top echelon of quality might seem to set unreasonable expectations. While nice, this is hardly on the level of the original "Upstairs, Downstairs" or the sublime recent version of "Bleak House." Everything can't be five stars or the classification loses any meaning! Conversely, even if you don't particularly care for the program--there are many solid elements (especially the performances) that would elevate it beyond a dismissive one star. So here I am, standing squarely in the middle--at about 3 1/2 stars rounded up for three very convincing actors (a strong Anna Maxwell-Martin, the always reliable David Morrissey, and the increasingly entertaining Penelope Wilton).
If this three part miniseries is guilty of anything, it is of having too much story to compress into its limited timeframe. Ostensibly the tale covers an entire town's worth of characters and story lines and three episodes is not adequate time to present them in an in-depth way. The heart of the story involves a local girl (Maxwell-Martin) returning to South Riding to take up a position as the school mistress. Headstrong and independent, she immediately clashes with some of more traditional town leaders--including Morrissey. You know immediately where this battle of wills is headed, but credit the writer and actors for maintaining a credible conflict without an easy resolution. This is, by far, the most intriguing aspect of the story as Morrissey is haunted by an unresolved relationship in his life. Maxwell-Martin may be a little progressive and modern for this tiny 1930's village, but she plays with a wide eyed conviction that keeps you on her side.
The story, however, also extends to subplots about an illicit affair, a land grab scheme, an impoverished girl making good, unrequited attraction and a number of other narrative elements battling for screen time. The talented supporting cast is very much underserved by the script that has little time or interest to develop them beyond the most superficial qualities. As such, much of the drama and impact of "South Riding" is limited. The second episode is probably the most engaging with the Maxwell-Martin and Morrissey pairing being explored at length. But even that plot point comes to an abrupt end. The complicated and overstuffed plot points, however, all come to tidy conclusions in a rushed ending filled with pat solutions and cliched narration.
For its faults, though, this is still a handsome production filled with terrific actors. I'm glad I watched it, and I found it entertaining and pleasurable. Is it the best that BBC or Masterpiece Theater has to offer? Not even close! But if you enjoy this type of entertainment, this show has its share of charm even if it's not particularly substantive. A good effort that simply has too much going on and, thus, leaves the viewer wanting more story and character development. KGHarris, 5/11.