A sweeping period-drama: romance, danger, and intrigue. Oh my!
It is easy to forget Poldark’s initial run in North America way back when in 1976. Broadcast on Masterpiece Theater, that famed presentation on PBS (America’s closest equivalent to the BBC in terms of both programming and funding models), Poldark gained a loyal, if modest, following of viewers on this side of the Atlantic, despite never having quite claimed a prior literary appreciation of Winston Graham’s novels.
Its appeal these days must seem somewhat distant. This “Novel of Cornwall” was inspired by a county few Americans can point out on a map and featured as its title character – gasp! – a soldier who fought against the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Yet all it took was Ross Poldark (Robin Ellis), astride his horse, careening with purpose across the Cornish hills, to win the audience over.
While we love Poldark for his gallant charm, smoky bedroom gaze, and seductively tortured soul, the novel’s original subtitle – A Novel of Cornwall – describes the very best of Poldark. This is a romantic adventure of the enjoyably archetypal fashion – we are promised, and have delivered to us, betrayal and love, daring and ambition, intrigue and danger. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: Poldark in its quintessential charm recreates, with vivid detail, a portrait of the 18th century to great majesty.
Cornwall – suspected of hiding, variously, Avalon, Camelot, and Lyonesse – resounds with mystical charm. Ross Poldark, formerly of the British Army, returns home to find his state of affairs in complete disorder. Family, business, and love have triply been reduced; the echt-rural charm of the Cornish village offers little in the way of a homecoming. Perhaps it is because he has lost the war…
A viewer might be casually mesmerized. Poldark focuses on a dramatic period in British history, plagued with deep social rifts and on the brink of industrialization. The production’s intense eye for detail is breathtaking. The look and feel of the sets, right down to the extras, clearly draws from a well-read designer and director who took pains to recreate 18th century Cornwall. An illusion cunningly created is a spell well-cast. The saga’s 821-minute rich mixture condenses the first seven novels of the series: its distillate is a provoking concoction that has fashioned a Cornwall now lost.
Unfortunately, it is very easy to get lost in the intrigues of Poldark’s life. The backstories that come with seven full-length novels jostle for attention - even across four DVDs, there will be the inevitable confusion and the curious gasp of ‘what?’ from a viewer. The soap of the Poldark dish comes thick and fast. While thoroughly enjoyable in (nearly) all its scenes, a viewer of moderate constitution will naturally be overwhelmed.
That, friends, is what the episodic breakdown is for – to collect your thoughts, gather and collate your notes, and quiz the heady drama for its myriad relationships and clashes. One cannot help but feel, strongly, for the delightful cast of characters – the investment in time and effort is real, and its payoff dramatic and exuberant. While not in any respect groundbreaking or particularly innovative, Poldark is period drama at its mesmerizing best.
Poldark’s grand scope has led to comparisons with America’s great romantic classic, Gone with the Wind. The comparison is not unfair. Both share the epic struggle, breadth, and scope of dramatizing the enormity of its age – the work of roman a clef for film. However, Poldark does demand your time for a lot longer than Gone with the Wind. If one is not spellbound by the first few episodes, it would hardly be worthwhile to see it through to the end.
The ultimate resolution is only for the seriously committed. The problem is that, despite the majesty of the source material and the stellar performances of the cast, Poldark can feel draggy at times. Although this was a TV serial of its time, it may appeal to a contemporary audience that find a range of feuds, entanglements, and little side adventures—not terribly unlike current shows such as Damages and The Wire that, like the very best Tolstoy epic, bring in a whole cast of supporting characters—make for a good watch, and compelling reasons to keep track of every character and scene.
Indeed, this was a truly great period in British television – the era of Fawlty Towers and I, Claudius—and the acting is truly top-notch. Robin Ellis delivers a stunning marathon performance as the eponymous hero, coping with the immense challenge of being both proud to the point of arrogance, and holding a polished degree of honor and integrity. In a frock coat and riding boots, Ellis is Poldark. Anghared Rees as Cornish servant girl Demelza Carne and the gently menacing Ralph Bates as George Warleggan add dramatic stature to the impressive field. It would nearly be worth the price of purchase to see these fine thespians act off each other on the screen.
While the raw narrative itself remains quite brilliant, its transition to the digital era has been torturous. Having disgraced American DVD collections with its absence for years, Acorn’s reissue has not been best of efforts. Poldark has not been restored by technical boffins, resulting in predictably fuzzy outdoor shoots. Extras, too, seem to be a tagged on as mere afterthought – just a few cast bios and a short history of Cornwall. Nothing spectacular, but not, perhaps, fitting of a great series.