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Movie Review: The Black Velvet Gown

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Fans of British period drama would do well to check out the 1991 TV production of Catherine Cookson’s 1985 novel, The Black Velvet Gown. Unlike the film adaptations of novels written during the period, the Dickens, the Trollopes and the Austens, Cookson’s book looks at the historical era with a modern sensibility and provides the filmmakers with a legitimate opportunity to apply that sensibility to their adaptation. It is not that adaptations of classics never deal with them in modern terms, they do, but when they do, they are in some sense violating the spirit of the original. What we have here, on the other hand, is the 19th century, its values and issues, as it appears to the 20th century eye.

While the story deals with such 19th century themes as marriage for money, class differences, and the education of the lower classes, The Black Velvet Gown expands on these themes. It is not simply education of the poor; it is education of women particularly, adding an element of modern feminist critique to the issue, an element that is central to the story. Other contemporary issues in the film include unwanted pregnancy, gay pedophilia, and the sadistic treatment of servants. These are things that may well have been happening in the 19th century, but they were not likely to make their way into the fiction of the period, at least until a novelists like Thomas Hardy and Oscar Wilde came along. Most importantly the film treats these issues and others with the same kind of restraint readers would expect from works of the period.

The plot concerns a widow with three children, played with grit and determination by Janet McTeer, who goes to work as a housekeeper for a misanthropic landowner of limited means (Bob Peck). She and her family become essential to him on many levels and gradually he begins to show a more humane side. He begins to teach the children and the young daughter shows a real aptitude for learning. When he dies, he leaves his house and land to the mother with some stipulations and to the daughter if those requirements are not met. Later, when she is grown into a young woman, she is taken by her mother to work as a servant to one of the major families of the area, where her educational achievements begin to make for trouble. There is of course a love story or two, but it wouldn’t do to give away too much for those who haven’t yet seen the film, and would still like to. Suffice it to say that as in the best of the novels of the period, there is a lot going on.

McTeer and Peck give finely nuanced performances, as does Geraldine Sommerville as Biddy, the daughter grown older. There is a fine supporting cast as you would expect from the typical British period drama. David Hunt who has appeared in wide variety of American films and TV productions turns in a nice performance as Biddy’s aristocratic protector and romantic interest. Louise Lombard is appropriately nasty as a pampered upper-class young lady, and Jean Anderson is appropriately regal and controlling as the noble matriarch.

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