I confess: I never watched the original BBC production of Winston Graham’s Poldark novel series, a family saga of late 18th and early 19th Century Cornwall, England. So, I am delighted that the BBC and PBS have gifted us with a new rendition, which debuted on Masterpiece Theater last week. The eight-part series (episode two aired last night) is sprawling and intimate, telling at once the story of Ross Poldark (the wonderful Aidan Turner–Kili the dwarf in the Hobbit movies), a former wastrel who evidently grew up while on the fields of Virginia during the Revolutionary War.
Returning home to Cornwall, he finds that his father has died, and Elizabeth (Heida Reed) the sweetheart he’d left behind had, in the three years since he’d last set foot on British soil, had become betrothed to his first cousin Francis (who is also his close friend, played by Kyle Soller). In the first few scenes of family reunion, the camera closes in on Ross’ face we (at least we uninitiated) assume a revenge play in the works. The dark, intensity of Ross’ expression and wrongs he’s suffered (compounded by the terrible condition in which his father’s home and lands had been left for him to find) scream “Heathcliff!”
But we soon learn that Ross is far from Emily Bronte’s anti-hero of Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff, too, had grown up going to war, hoping to win back the heart and hand of his Cathy, but Heathcliff’s scheme was dangerous and far darker. Our Ross Poldark is the anti-Heathcliff. Although he is an aristocrat, he is a friend to his workers, feeling a deep responsibility to care for the tenants working his land, and the vulnerable in the disintegrating mining culture of Cornwall. He mourns the loss of his deepest love, even contemplating moving to London to avoid her, lest her reputation be smeared, and his cousin be cuckolded.
But soon, Ross decides his responsibility to the tenants, to the land and his name mean more than the loss of love. And so he redoubles his efforts to restore the land, the mine, and the people who work it, while redeeming himself. To some, Ross is a fool for giving a damn about those below his station, an abomination for working the land and mine alongside his employees. But he wins the loyalty of his workers, which, when you’re trying to build a mining company, probably counts much more (something with which his uncle Charles agrees).
Ross’ outlook is fueled by the beginnings of the great American experiment–more populist, and more about what you do than a centuries-old name. And for that, his peers look down their noses, even more so when Ross takes in the impoverished, abused girl Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson), eventually falling in love with and marrying her, horrifying everyone.
Poldark is populated with great characters and nasty villains, including George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) and his father, both upstart blacksmiths who’ve created a banking and mining empire–one that includes putting everyone else out of business, taking down the aristocracy one estate at a time.
Interestingly, George’s story should appeal to Ross, for the Walleggen’s are living the new American dream, and are disdained by the upper class (including Ross) for it. But it is this corruption of new money–money without responsibility to the poor–profit for profit’s sake above all else, that irks Ross. And makes an enemy of George (who is also close with cousin Francis!)
And then there is the sweet Verity (Ruby Bentall), an old maid by the standard of their society, and probably Ross’ best and most loyal friend and ally. She has her own little drama, which threatens to scandalize her. It’s a fabulous subplot, which speaks much of a woman’s true status in society, a theme touched on as well in the stories of both Elizabeth and Demelza.
But the story is Poldark’s. Turner is great as the Byronic, brooding, compassionate maverick mine owner Ross Poldark. I first noticed Turner in the Peter Jackson Hobbit movies playing Kili, the young, sweet-natured (okay, and completely delicious) dwarf. Much has been written in the press about his shirtlessness during the series, and to be honest, I barely noticed the abs. I confess that I care more about the dark and brooding than the sexy shirtless.
Poldark is serious and often dark, but not completely. A bit of comic relief is provided by Jud (Philip Davis) and Prudie (Beattie Edney), Ross’ lazy servants. And the scenery itself, beautifully shot, makes the Cornwall coast of England a character in the drama as well.
If you have not yet watched this great new Masterpiece Theater entry, run, don’t walk to the nearest DVR or streaming service and catch up before next Sunday night. It’s a beautiful love story (on many levels) and a grand epic about a noble man driven to do the right thing, not alway successfully. I’ve screened the entire first season, and personally, I can’t wait for season two (and yes, I’m reading ahead in the novels to find out what happens next!)[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00VC1YIB8,B00Z621CEK,1492622079,B005X5XIMO,1492622109,1402226985]