Based on the 17th century novel by Samuel Richardson, Richard Bierman's re-telling of this Georgian melodrama focuses not on the tender courting of it's lead characters, rather the fact they are virtually incompatible but they have a dangerous dynamic. The pure and virtuous Clarissa Harlowe (Saskia Wickham) is heir to a sizeable fortune due to her good and generous nature, something she does not want. She is content to live a modest life as long as she has her letters, books and independance. Despite this, her devious siblings feel that Clarissa should be put in her place and they coerce their father to entrap Clarissa in an engagement with an odious man she does not want and take away what few pleasures she has. Enter the debonair rake, Robert Lovelace (Sean Bean). A morally bankrupt man who is as notorious for his aberrant personality as he is for his conquests who sets Clarissa in his sights- he wishes to possess Clarissa, body, mind and soul. To achieve that, in his opinion, would be an act of God. And given Lovelace's opinion of himself, he is just the man for the job...
Dear Diary- I am a prick.
You'd be quite correct in assuming this lavish BBC adaptation is a melodrama because that is precisely what it is. Placing a naieve ingenue in a series of perils that threaten her being was a token staple of books of this period and it's done justice in this miniseries. Now, while this melodrama is being played right down the line, it really is the acting that gives this production it's boost. Were it not for Wickham's steely interpretation of the lovely Clarissa, the character would have been obnoxious and boring. For all of her piety and gentility, Wickham imbues Clarissa also with a wisdom that makes her a formidable combatant against Bean's Lovelace. While she may have the wool pulled over her eyes, Wickham's Clarissa is able to rely on her intelligence and wit to see her through each of Lovelace's advances.
In saying that, Bean's scheming villain Lovelace is a real piece of work. When he isn't being overt toward Clarissa, he is gleefully subversive. This is a man who enjoys the reputation he has because he knows he has the power, or at least feels he does. The more he spars with Clarissa, the more he begins to lose this control and he begins to develop feelings for her. Once again, this character may have been mustache-twirling quality on paper or in the hands of a lesser actor, but Bean gives Lovelace many layers to work with, at times he can be an absolute snake, others he can be a gentleman, but never sacrificing his agenda.
What a couple
While I have absolutely no gripes towards the rest of the capable cast, this really is Wickham and Bean's show. The relationship between their characters is dangerous as it is complicated, but not without some note of sexiness. Mind you, while Lovelace is still an ugly character, his desire for Clarissa to be his is pretty infectious, at least to me. Does he really want to simply ruin her or does he actually want to have a future with her? It's this sort of relationship that I personally love to watch, because while I value my ultimate desire to be safe, seeing something like this is a whole lot more interesting. Given I also have an interest in the Georgian period, when relationships between people appeared a lot more formal, underneath was a completely different story. In 'Clarissa' this vindicitive side of life is shown in well-recognized detail. Special props must be given to how the dialogue was scripted- given Richardson's prose was obviously not suited for television and actors, the writers must be given special credit for adapting this dialogue and making it a lot easier to follow. You can also feel the conviction of this work when the actors deliver their lines that you can actually understand what they saying and that it doesn't feel forced.
I don't truly have any issues with the series itself- given it's source material, I'm not going to accuse of being something that it makes itself out to be anyway. Perhaps it is also due to my bias toward content of this nature, but while I wouldn't say this is the best novel adaptation EVER, it would be a crime of fans of this genre and content to miss this. If you don't dig Austen, give Richardson's tale a go. For all of it's properness on the outside, there is delicious malice on the inside, and that, my friends, is what will win your heart.