The Mill on the Floss
Director: Graham Theakston. TV Movie. Cast: Emily Watson, Ifan Meredith, James Frain, James Weber-Brown, Bernard Hill, Cheryl Campbell, Lucy Whybrow, Nicholas Gecks. Screenplay: Hugh Stoddart (based on the novel by George Eliot).

Graham Theakston's The Mill on the Floss, made for television's Masterpiece Theatre but now available on commercial video, would probably have vanished instantly for the cultural radar were it not for Emily Watson's starring performance. The actress had just been nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for Breaking the Waves when this adaptation of George Eliot's 1860 novel aired stateside on PBS. To no one's surprise, her moody, jagged embodiment of Maggie Tulliver—similar to but hardly a retread of her work in Waves or Hilary and Jackie—is the most impressive ingredient in The Mill on the Floss, which too often sacrifices holistic unity or a coherent narrative to its impulse to grant the able cast their fair share of Big Moments.

The plot of The Mill on the Floss centers around Maggie, who, as is typical of Watson's other screen characters, is a vibrant, emotional presence in a conservative and harshly judgmental community. She is brighter than her brother Tom (Ifan Meredith), both in terms of her book learning and her impatience with the rigid "codes of honor" by which Tom defends his family and his work; yet, as is familiar from so many other 19th-century novels, Maggie is denied a formal education or a general recognition of her unique gifts because rural English society does not take women or nonconformists seriously. Either quality would be enough to make Maggie suspicious among her neighbors, and the combination of her forceful passions and her proud femininity make her all but a pariah. The only person who admires Maggie and shows her affection is Philip Wakem (James Frain), the son of the man who bought the Tulliver's mill away from the family and thus represents to the seethingly jealous and inferior-feeling Tom everything in the world that is aligned against him. Philip, a quiet intellectual with a crippled arm, could not be taken by any rational person as a threatening figure. Tom, however, is not rational, and when Philip's secret friendship with Maggie is exposed—and in a way that makes clear Philip's romantic attraction to Maggie—Tom bans the two of them from ever meeting again.

The plot of The Mill on the Floss expands in several different directions from these early conflicts, and Eliot's famously verbose but exceptionally organized prose accommodates both the internal thoughts of her characters and the tense exchanges between them, as well as a wider, analytical survey of the provincial lifestyle, gender roles, and financial exigencies in which these men and women are cast. Film always has a harder time than written language of penetrating psychological complexities, and only directors who are more daring or more crafty than Theakston have been able to transport such challenging figures as the Tulliver family to the screen. To their credit, Theakston and script-writer Hugh Stoddart preserve some of the more challenging layers of Eliot's story, including the almost perversely heated emotions, both hot and cold, which Maggie and Tom feel for one another from childhood and ever after.

Still, Eliot's story is more than the story of a Misfit Woman who thinks and loves too much; many of us have seen that story played a million times in corsets and hair-ringlets, and too often, this is the mold into which The Mill on the Floss is cast. Emily Watson, God bless her, blazes right through the role of Maggie, so that even when the movie seems stolid and conventional, she lets you know what fiery, expansive feelings are hidden beneath the surface of this film, this story. Bernard Hill, later the captain on the Titanic has some fine moments as Maggie's father, as does James Frain in avoiding a too-sentimental portrait of Philip Wakem. Perhaps the earnestness of Frain's playing against Watson was what earned him the opportunity to work with her again in a similar neglected-lover role in Hilary and Jackie.

Though it is less well known, The Mill on the Floss is a novel just as prodigious and occasionally ungainly in its themes as Middlemarch, which PBS had earlier mounted as a multi-part miniseries. For all the intensity of Watson's work and the intermittent force of the teleplay, The Mill on the Floss ultimately feels belittled by the 90-minute Masterpiece Theatre formula into which it has been cast. Like Maggie herself, the story needs a bigger, broader canvas on which to operate than the one it is ultimately given, making the final project an almost inevitable disappointment: worth it if you're a Watson fan or die-hard Eliot scholar, but it can't compete with the richness of her prose and won't attract many viewers who aren't established fans of the novel. C

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