From just the title of this new lavish costume drama based on the novel by Anthony Trollope, it’s easy to already picture the protagonist of the tale – a brash, arrogant, young man who has succeeded in life through his very inflexibility, the very traits that will impair his private life.
The opening scene compounds this impression as Louis Trevelyan (Oliver Dimsdale) sits discussing the vigorous state of his wealth on a tropical island with the British Ambassador Sir Marmaduke Rowley (Geoffrey Palmer). At the conclusion of their conversation, Louis asks for the hand in marriage of Sir Marmaduke’s daughter Emily (Laura Fraser). Sir Marmaduke is only too pleased to accept as this will set his daughter up with a well-respected member of society, but also has the shrewdness to insist upon agreeing only if his other daughter Nora (Christina Cole) can accompany her sister and keep her company in the strange environs of affluent Mayfair.
Upon their arrival in Mayfair, Louis is entranced by Emily’s beauty and vivacity. Almost upon stepping through the front door, we see Louis piling up important business papers when Emily rushes into the room and tosses them in the air. The couple then indulge in a chase about the house; something the stoic, sentinel-like stance of the servants clearly shows is unusual behaviour for their master.
But it is already becoming apparent that Louis doesn’t love her and was merely infatuated with her beauty and the novelty of her foreign disposition. Nevertheless, the infatuation lasts for a few more years and yields a son. Their problems begin when Laura is visited with increasing frequency by her godfather Colonel Frederick Osborne (the excellent Bill Nighy), an oily MP and friend of Emily’s father.
Initially Louis is just annoyed at the regularity of his calls, but his doubts are exacerbated by idle gossiping in the salons of high-society London that paint Osborne as a Lothario who has already caused scandal in one marriage. From these seeds of suspicion, Louis’s jealousy grows into a fit of Othello-like rage, and he forbids Emily from seeing Osborne. While acceding to his request Emily, who genuinely loves Louis, is upset at his distrust. “Do you understand how deeply you have hurt me?” she asks, and from his callous expression it is obvious he does not.
Laura Fraser superbly conveys Emily’s willingness to forgive her husband when he suggests forgetting the whole episode ever happened. Of course, as soon as they again encounter Osborne, on a walk in the park, the distrust rears its ugly head once more. This time they agree to separate as Emily and Osborne’s phantom liaisons are damaging Louis’s good name. His selfishness is made more apparent when he sends Emily and Nora to Somerset to stay with the mother of Hugh Stanbury, his best friend, to keep her from the clutches of Osborne.
Andrew Davies’s screenplay is excellent with each scene introducing and fleshing out a whole raft of supporting characters, and even the briefest vignette drives the cohesive narrative on. The best of the supporting characters include Colonel Osborne, who benefits hugely from a rather ambiguous portrayal. We hear of his alleged illicit affair in the salons of London, but later we also hear from the same sources about his romance with Emily which the viewers know to be false. Such complexities add to the intrigue of Osborne’s true intentions over Emily and the validity of his own scurrilous reputation.
And the drama is lightened by the outstanding Anna Massey as Miss Stanbury, a puritanical spinster who is first observed disinheriting and hilariously castigating her nephew Hugh for working as a journalist for the non-Tory press. But later a more sympathetic side emerges when she has to bribe Hugh’s sister to come to live with her to ease her loneliness.
The only disappointment could come in the shape of the impending romance between Hugh and Nora – a relationship based purely on love. Hopefully their blossoming affection won’t diminish both their characters and it becomes just one of many reasons to watch this brilliant drama unfold over the coming weeks.