This adaptation of Andrea Levy’s 2004 novel suffers from being a love story largely bereft of love. Rather than being the molten lava shooting from the mountain top, love is buried deep below the surface amid the cooling magma, acting as the discreet propulsion to the eruption rather than being responsible for the eruption itself.
Hortense (the ever marvellous Naomie Harris) idolises her foster-brother Michael (Ashley Walters), loving him for his cool insolence towards his father and his dreams of leaving the parochial pastures of Jamaica for the wonders of England. He is offered the chance to fulfil his dreams because of the outbreak of World War Two, and also because he is disowned by his own father after seducing the white schoolmistress during a hurricane. An event witnessed by Hortense, who blurts it out in a fit of wounded jealousy to the local pastor, provoking the schism between father and son.
But what upsets Hortense most isn’t the presumed infidelity of Michael – he seems oblivious to her affection – but the destruction of her dreams to one day emigrate to England with her restless foster brother rather than the mindless delirium of love.
And this theme of following dreams, only to have them brutally shattered is the theme that flows strongly through the veins of the protagonists. Queenie Bligh (Ruth Wilson) has the same outlook as Hortense, only her dreams are slightly more advanced. She has escaped the humdrum life on a rural pig farm and works in a shop owned by her aunt.
After her aunt dies, Queenie is threatened by her grasping mother that she will have to move back home to the pig farm. Standing beside her, dull boyfriend Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch) sees his chance to make his dreams come true and claims that he and Queenie are soon to be married. Trapped between regressing to her past life and treading water in her new life, Queenie elects for the latter. Wilson beautifully captures the resigned apathy with which she makes the choice, transmitting the weary frustration and concession she must make to keep her dreams intact, or at least vaguely recognisable.
It’s this compulsion to pursue dreams rather than affection and love that makes Queenie’s seduction by the stoically charismatic Michael, who has joined the RAF, just about plausible. With her husband away on duty overseas, Queenie is charmed by Michael’s exotic anecdotes about his homeland (just as Hortense fell in love with his fabrications of idyllic England).
Completing the brilliant cast is David Oyelowo as Gilbert Joseph, who leaves Jamaica for the British Army for more practical reasons than the wistful Michael. He believes Hitler will once more enslave his countrymen, while he wants the regular salary so he can pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer once the war has finished.
It’s part of the heavy, and sometimes clumsy, symbolism that Gilbert is mistaken by both Hortense and Queenie for Michael, representing a more realistic aim for both women. Both are initially attracted to him because they remind them of Michael, and Hortense even marries him; doing so with the same practical pragmatism that Gilbert might exhibit – she wants to fulfil her dream of journeying to England, and with Michael missing presumed dead, Gilbert is an adequate, though not outstanding, substitute.
The reliance on symbolism strips away from the cast their collective appeal, and their most desperate decisions are not founded upon love, but on envy or the fruitless pursuit of their futile dreams. And while they chase these dreams, it does make for an engaging narrative. But too often they deceive friends and lovers out of a calculating rationality rather than through the raptures of love, making them seem cold and aloof.
In fact, the across-the-board excellence of the acting becomes a flaw, as each of the cast becomes increasingly unlovable as they are so wonderfully nuanced, with every grimace or frown showing off their dispassion for their friends and lovers if their dreams are at risk of sacrifice. Even the prim Hortense betrays her best friend Celia when she reveals to her then-beau Gilbert that she has an infirm mother, whom she would gladly abandon to follow Gilbert across the ocean to begin a new life in England. Gilbert dumps Celia on the spot, enabling Hortense to concoct a plan whereby she will pay for his passage to England on the condition that they marry; entering a cold, loveless relationship; an experience that you share as the viewer no matter how beguiling the cast or rich the narrative.