“We’ll be making history gentleman, and money too”
I picked up a copy of The Way We Live Now mid-November and as my first Anthony Trollope novel, I rather enjoyed reading it. So with time on my hands for once over Christmas, I decided to watch the 2001 BBC adaptation which I didn’t watch at the time. Prolific period adaptor Andrew Davies was on hand to turn this lengthy novel into a four parter (just about 5 hours in total) and I found it to be a rather effective rendering of a most complex world of plots and subplots which, although a tad disappointing in its ending, was well worth the time to savour and enjoy.
If it were on the stage, it would be labelled all over as a ‘timely revival’ as Trollope’s main thrust concerns the deviousness of financiers and politicos and the depths that society will sink to in order to maintain its position. There’s also love and good natured people involved to and the balance between the ever-spinning storylines is very well done. At the heart of it all is David Suchet’s Augustus Melmotte, surely one of his best ever performances, a foreign businessman who attempts to reinvent himself as a Englishman of pedigree by buying his way into business, society, property, the House of Commons, his ambitions know no bounds. And as he does so, many around him attempt to jump on his coat-tails for the ride up, not least the aristocratic but impoverished Carburys.
Melmotte truly is a monstrous figure, Shylock-like even, in his avariciousness and blinkered determination and Suchet spares no-one as he spits and prowls and connives and blags his way into everyone’s purses whilst never making any outlay himself, the audacity of his financial scamming is breath-taking but also incredibly prescient in how such behaviour has continued for the century since it was written. But Suchet also manages the near-impossible, in presenting if not exculpatory circumstances but explanatory ones as his downfall fast approaches. For Trollope uses Melmotte as a mirror for the ugly side of Victorian society – its greed, selfishness, its anti-Semitism (shame on you Fenella Woolgar!) as character after grasping character tries and (largely) fails to just seize what they want.
Felix Carbury – Matthew MacFadyen in twinklingly charming form – is determined to marry into Melmotte’s family in order to restore his own family’s fortunes which he has gambled away, but his irresponsibility in love and life repeatedly catch up on him much to his mother’s despair, Cheryl Campbell in a very flirtatious mood. Shirley Henderson is simply remarkable as Melmotte’s put-upon daughter Marie, who is chased for her fortune yet determined to escape the shadow of her father; Cillian Murphy has a delicate charm as the railroader who is determined to expose Melmotte’s schemes yet doesn’t have quite the same honesty when it comes to the ladies; and Douglas Hodge is quietly affecting as the naïve Roger, doomed in love for his cousin.
Not all of it quite works. Miranda Otto is saddled with a terrible accent as the Texan Mrs Hurtle and some of the deviations from the book seem like odd choices. But when you’ve luminaries such as Maxine Peake and Anne-Marie Duff in supporting roles, one can’t complain too much. Peake’s country lass, forever exploited by Felix is most moving and Duff does an excellent job of the rather small but powerful story of her Georgiana Longestaffe, so determined to a make a good marriage that she doesn’t see her shooting herself in the foot until it is far too late. The Way We Live Now is no small undertaking but it really is a classy piece of television that is well worth your time and effort.