Significant glances figure highly in this adaptation of Wharton’s final, unfinished novel. Entire scenes are made up of actors glancing across salons, dining tables and ballrooms to encounter one another’s look and make their own nuanced response. Do not venture into the territory of the dramatisation of Wharton’s subtle Neo-Victorian world without the patience to interpret such language. Her novels are told from the perspective of the 20th century about a transatlantic cross-cultural Victorian world that she inhabited in her youth.
The Buccaneers, unfinished at her death in 1937, tells the story of the St George sisters, Virginia and Annabel (Nan) and their friends, who seek to break into late-19th century New York high society, thanks to the benefit of family money. When rejected by the upper class American set they venture into London society, assisted by Nan’s governess, Laura Testvalley (Val), who has the ability to supply their entrée into the London season, thanks to her contacts.
This adaptation rode the wave of popularity for Wharton’s novels thanks to the high profile film version of The Age of Innocence (1993) directed by Martin Scorsese, Ethan Frome (1993) starring Liam Neeson, and an earlier adaptation of The Children seen in 1990. Jabeen Bhatti writes about the adaptation process in an article originally published around the same time as the first broadcast, “How did a Wharton mini-series end up with such a happy ending?” (Current.org, 11 September 1995),
The funding for the work and the politics surrounding the choice of the piece for adaptation were determined, it emerges, by the relationship of the BBC with American broadcasters and distributors. This lesser known, incomplete work by Wharton, was an unusual choice and was remarkable for its tone of reminiscence and reflection. The young women with their ideals and ambitions for romance and fulfilment are thought to reflect Wharton’s state of mind in her youth and were a vehicle for her to examine this in fiction from the perspective of her later life. For the screenwriter Maggie Wadey to then incorporate marital rape and homosexuality into Nan’s storyline caused some controversy and dispute with Wharton purists, as well as those expecting an Age of Innocence-style drama – all restraint and frustrated passion. Wadey’s tactic has also earned the DVD release a PG15 rating (at least in this UK version).
An ending of some sort had to be found for this story, however, in order to supply resolution for the characters. A synopsis of the author’s original plans for it existed amongst her papers and scholar Marion Mainwaring edited and concluded a new edition of the novel which was published around the same time as this adaptation came out. The subtlety of the character’s behaviour and their rigid acceptance of society’s rules are then contrasted by the disputes and violence behind closed doors encountered by the young women as their lives unfold. There is a proto-feminist current running through this, in Wharton’s original voice, but the updated elements supplied by Wadey do have a jarring, slightly incongruous quality.
To manoeuvre from such hinted, slight gestures in conversation and manner to outright depictions of rape and violence wholeheartedly shifts the tone of the piece and strips some characters of any redeeming features. This is a risky thing to do with the original material, and therefore makes this more of an adaptation of the novel than a dramatisation of it. The origins are Wharton, but the means to the resolution combines shocking events, romantic sentiment and a neatness that are not typical of her work. It is a late-20th century reinterpretation of a Wharton ending; not to be found in her earlier 20th century renderings of the period of her youth.
Without the strong performances from a genuinely engaging cast there would have been less to find interesting about this work. Mira Sorvino as Conchita Closson has a distractingly modern quality as she attempts to be the more liberated foreign beauty, but this does not actually lead to a weaker depiction. In the end she and Carla Gugino as Nan are memorable and endearing. Outstanding are the trio of Rosemary Leach as Lady Brightlingsea (pronounced ‘Brittlesea’), Connie Booth as Jackie March, and Shelia Hancock as the Dowager Duchess. At one point they sit together, having a game of cards whilst viewing others enjoying their Christmas festivities. The feigned interest in the game and the varying approval and disapproval of their glances and comments amounts to a perfect lesson in performance of character roles in costume drama. Never descending into caricature, they find the humanity and sympathy in the roles of women whose lives have once had all the promise of the young female protagonists but who now face loneliness, poor health and impoverishment as invisible souls in the social framework. That is the subtlety that Wharton never disappoints on.
For those seeking the fairytale possibilities in the story, these are found in the visuals. The locations range from Castle Howard, to Lacock Abbey (now known for its place in the Harry Potter films), to the ruins of Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. To have the opportunity to use such authentic and stunning settings adds emphasis to the narrative as one of exterior respectability and enviable beauty, with the hidden deterioration and decay beneath the surface.