A quick glance at IMBD shows that there have been 11 filmed adaptations of R.D. Blackmore’s 1869 historical romance Lorna Doone made between 1911 and 2000. It is the kind of epic adventure tale that seems made for the screen—the big screen certainly, but the small screen as well. Yet oddly enough, although I have not seen all of these adaptations, of the ones I have seen, none of them seem to have really done justice to the material’s possibilities. Some are better than others, but even the better ones are not particularly impressive. The 1990 television version, now available in North America on home video from Acorn Media, is no exception.
Set in 17th Century England, Lorna Doone is a story of murder, revenge, and a forbidden love affair. John Ridd, a respectable farmer, is murdered in front of his young son, also named John, by Carver Doone and his lawless band of ruffians. The son grows to manhood hating the Doones and looking for vengeance. But then he comes across a beautiful young woman and falls in love only to discover that she is Lorna supposedly a daughter of the hated Doones. As if this wasn’t complication enough, Lorna seems destined to be the unwilling bride of Carver, who is in line to head the family the current patriarch dies. None of this, of course, can deter our intrepid young hero. Violence and treachery ensue, but, as one would expect, true love conquers all. In the novel, the story of the young lovers and Ridd’s vengeance is embedded in the political turmoil following the death of Charles II and the Monmouth Rebellion.
The 1990 version, as one would expect, pays little attention to the historical context, focusing instead on the love affair and the vendetta. It stars a young Clive Owen as Ridd and Polly Walker as Lorna. The most notable thing about Owen’s performance is his long hair, other than that there is a lot of soulful staring. It is not his finest moment.
Walker, on the other hand, has little to do besides to look fetching which she clearly does. Sean Bean plays the villainous Carver with all the evil bravado he can muster, which in his case is plenty. Billie Whitelaw is subdued and stoical as Ridd’s mother. The trouble is that at 87 minutes running time, Matthew Jacob’s script doesn’t give them much to work with in terms of character. Indeed, many of the plot points could use some further explanation. How is it that Ridd doesn’t seem to know that the girl he has just met is a Doone? How is it that the Doones manage to get away with their marauding? How is it that Lorna’s real family fails to learn the truth of her whereabouts? These are just a few of the problems. In general the script could use some work.
The best parts of this particular adaptation may well be the location shooting in Northern England. The waterfall scene in which John is saved from drowning by Lorna is effective and nicely paralleled at the end with the death of Carver. The Ridd farm and Doone valley have an air of authenticity. The fog and rain that seems omnipresent is almost a metaphor for the Doone’s oppression. The musical score is impressive as well. I quite liked Julian Nott’s original music which reminded me of Holst and Elgar.
Bonus material on the DVD includes filmographies of the cast and a short biography of Blackmore. Because of the age of the program and the improved resolution of the DVD, there is a warning that there are occasional “flaws in the image and audio” that they were unable to correct from the original. For the most part there is nothing particularly disturbing or unexpected.