23 June 2003 | William_Ponsonby-Cole
George Eliot was a truly excellent writer, but 'Daniel Deronda' was perhaps not her best work. This may go some way to mitigating the rather average results that emerge from this adaptation. Intended to be an insightful and complex tale of love, greed, selfishness, prejudice, maturity, and self-knowledge, the film (like the novel) proceeds more like two almost-unconnected stories, neither of which is wildly interesting.
Tying the two plots together is Daniel Deronda, played by Hugh Dancy. Dancy walks his way through, somehow making most of his lines seem redundant. To be fair, acting out a novel that uses extensive narration and introspection can't be easy, but a more experienced actor might have been a better choice to tackle such a tough job. The character of Daniel is a young man on the path of self-discovery, with detours along the way for a bit of romance and a little aimlessness. His relationships with two women form the fabric of the story.
The first tale revolves around the young, pretty, and petty Gwendolen Harleth. Played well, if not spectacularly, by the radiant Romola Garai, she is impetuous and selfish (though usually without intent), thinking that she is and must be the centre of attention. Garai plays her as someone who thinks that she has mastered the world around her, but is in fact nothing more than an indulged child. When her family is virtually ruined financially, she must choose between making a loveless marriage to maintain her high living, or quiet penury in the country. Naturally, she chooses the former. However, what she does not realise is that her suitor, Henleigh Grandcourt, is actually a cold, calculating sadist whose only interest in her is as an item of torment. Grandcourt is played by Hugh Bonneville, the one real stand-out in the production. Bonneville delivers an excellent performance as the deceptive, thoroughly wicked abuser. His Grandcourt is a flint-hearted reptile who first tricks Gwendolen with false kindness and then, when he has her in his grasp, begins to crush her with his cruelty.
Plot two centres on Daniel's relationship with Mirah Lapidoth, a Jewish singer whom he saves from a suicide attempt. Mirah is played by Jodhi May, who is actually rather flat in her delivery. May seems to go in for the "hushed whisper" technique quiet a bit. I suspect the idea was to portray Mirah as a sensitive, troubled woman, but in the end she just seems dull and high-strung. Her search for (and eventual reunion with) her family draws Daniel down a path that he would probably not otherwise have visited, and it has a significant impact on his life.
Good supporting work shores things up a bit, though the screen time is limited. The first comes from Edward Fox as Sir Hugo, Daniel's benefactor, a kindly old man of great wealth who acts as a sort of father to him. The always-excellent Greta Scacchi, looking strikingly haggard in character, is a ghost from Grandcourt's past who comes back to haunt his new bride.
I rate it 6/10.