Small Island

That’s when I learned that this mother country doesn’t even know where its children live.

I hate getting dvds published by Masterpiece Theater (or just Masterpiece, these days)–they give the introductions to the show you’re about to watch.  I’m the kind of viewer that would rather go blindly into a theater to watch a movie I’ve never heard of than read a dozen reviews and see it a week into the run.  But Masterpiece gives us the trailer then Laura Linney, who I almost dislike in the first place, sets out the themes we are about to enjoy.  I fast forwarded, but I feel a little put out that I had to go through even that much trouble in order to gather my own views on the subject.  That’s the problem with reading reviews or hearing what someone thought beyond a simple bad-good-better-best judgment–it’s going to change the way I watch the movie.  I’ll wait for something to happen, and judge whether I agree or not on something or other.  Also a reason why I thought all the Harry Potter movies sucked (some more than others) and why I refused to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Small Island (2009) is another BBC miniseries based on novel (by Andrea Levy).  The difference between this and South Riding (2011) is that the novel intrudes on the film to a far greater extent.  Two couples–Queenie (Ruth Wilson) and Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch) as the white couple and Hortense (Naomie Harris) and Gilbert (David Oyelowo–Oh-yellow-oh) as the Jamaican couple.  Then there’s the selfish Michael (Ashley Walters).  And there’s a narrator telling us about everybody’s thoughts and history–that’s not allowed.  Oh, and there’s a war.  Gilbert joins to give himself a future, Bernard joins to prove his bravery, and the ladies are put to womanly tasks to support the war.  After the war, when Gilbert returns to find Jamaica sucks, Hortense gives him a proposition–marriage for enough money to get him back to England.  When the arrive, things aren’t as wonderful as she thought they’d be.  They live with Queenie who believes her husband has left her when he doesn’t return home (though she knows he arrived in England).  Things are difficult for everyone and Queenie’s got an enlarging secret that’s destined to come out.

This is far better filmed than South Riding and its ilk.  That might be a function of being located in London rather than the countryside.  Maybe this is out of the urban cookbook.  So, while the visual direction (by John Alexander) is great, the writing is a little bit amiss.  The main perpetrator is the narration–it bangs you over the head with would-be wisdom that’s not wise enough to keep a cynical viewer like me from rolling the eyes.

On the plus side are great performances from the four central characters.  Wilson I know from Luther (2010-11) where she played a sociopath who has an odd relationship with the titular detective–it’s a great role and she plays it very well.  Cumberbatch was as excellent as usual, this time playing a less confident character.  Oyelowo, who I know from MI-5 (2002-04), does double duty by playing a black man in a racist country and also making Harris’s character bearable.  The character is so proud, bossy, and occasionally mean that it’s pretty tough to look past it and care about her at all.  Still, she does it and I think Harris and Oyelowo can share the heaps of credit that the feat deserves.

The story telling is problematic.  The problem is thusly: there are about five key facts that need to come out after we’re attached to the characters and the drama.  So, they tell the story so out of order that it would take a genius to do it perfectly–there were no genii on hand, apparently.  Example, why wait until half way through the second episode to show us how [noun-spoiler] got [noun-spoiler] [adjective-spoiler]?  Another, less spoiling example:  The first thing we see (or is it the second), is Gilbert moving Hortense into Queenie’s house.  That isn’t the beginning of anybody’s story.  Maybe that’s how the book is, I don’t know, but that doesn’t matter.  Flaw.

Still, overall, the performances and our own righteous indignation at racism in the 30’s/40’s is enough to make this a very good show.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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