13 August 2002 | Philby-3
An engrossing adaption from the Eng Lit specialists
Another fine Sunday night filler from Andrew Davies and the BBC. Based on one of Anthony Trollope's later and less well known novels, this six -part story (300 minutes) covers the short but spectacular career in London of Augustus Melmott, financial fraudster extraordinaire. Melmott is a Victorian Robert Maxwell (the bouncing Czech), a promoter of huge ambitious business ventures with a flamboyant style that proves irresisitable even to the hard-nosed. Like Maxwell, he has a seat in the House of Commons. Some of the hard-nosed have their suspicions but go along for the ride anyway no doubt hoping to get something for themselves along the way.
Trollope weaves the strands of the plot adroitly using the Carbury family as the central characters. Lady Carbury (Cheryl Campbell) is the widow of a baronet (minor aristocracy) and without the means to live in the appropriate style. Her son Felix (Matthew McFadyen) is a total waster, putting any money he gets on the card table, and losing it. Lady C is trying to palm her rather priggish daughter Hetta (Paloma Baeza) off onto her nephew Roger (Douglas Hogg), also a prig, who has inherited the family estates. Roger is interested but Hetta is not, as she fancies Paul Montague (Cillian Murphy), a railway engineer and friend of Roger's. Murphy works for Melmott's company (the board is stacked with peers and baronets, including Felix). The Central American railway is supposed to be building a railroad from the central west of the US to Mexico. The railroad route has been surveyed, but funnily enough construction keeps on being delayed even though enough money has been raised to at least start it. Where's the money Melmott? Some is syphoned into his daughter Marie's trust fund. Marie (Shirley Henderson) is courted by Felix, who is very interested in the money, though not so interested in Marie.
To say more would spoil the story. The casting is splendid, except for Cillian Murphy as Paul whose pretty-boy looks are more appropriate for a Romeo than some who has been a civil engineer for some years and spent a lot of that time in the merciless Mexican sun. As his American mistress Mrs Hurtle, Miranda Otto, otherwise a capable actress, can't do the Deep South accent. It would have been better to re-write the part for an Australian. If it's any consolation, Meryl Streep can't do an Australian accent either it comes out as cockney, as we saw in 'Evil Angels'.
The star performance is without a doubt David Suchet's as Melmott. Though a small man, he dominates every scene he is in, with his deep loud voice and grand manner. Critics are silenced by a mixture of flattery, bluff and sometimes threat. In the finish we almost like him, despite the chaos he causes. It is truly the role David Suchet was born to play, one utterly different from his small fussy Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Shirley Henderson as Marie also stands out in this company of very accomplished acting.
I haven't checked the novel, but there are one or two quite modern touches for which Trollope may have been responsible, such as Marie's (or was it Hetta's?) feminist speech towards the end. He may have got that from his mum, who had to support her family by novel-writing after her husband died, and did so quite successfully.
In the 1870s we had railways, in the 2000s we had dot coms. The vehicles change but we still have fear and greed as dominant players in the markets. The title 'The Way We Live Now' is just as apt today, as we see the Enron, Arthur Andersen, Worldcom crashes in the US, and HIH, FAI and One-tel in Australia. It is interesting that this 1875 novel, with no high literary pretensions, pulp fiction in fact, should be so relevant today. A engrossing film adaption from the Eng Lit specialists.