Film Review of Masterpiece Classic’s Adaptation of Andrea Levy’s “Small Island”

By Your Salonniere

An adaptation will never be as good as the original. It’s like the first love. Never the same as the first time. Its best to think of the screen version as a two-dimensional interpretation. No matter how accurately the writer, director, cast, crew, and cinematographer capture the spirit of the novel, the film, as dictated by form, will only compress and crop the internal and external multiverses that a novel so extraordinarily encompasses.

Andrea Levy’s Small Island is one of those few works that steals readers’ breath, and, at the same time, begs to be lit on the celluloid screen. Her characters are so fully realized, after reading

Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre

them, you feel as if they’ve just come to visit for a cup of afternoon tea, and you’re anxious for their return visit. Suffice to say, expectations ran high for Masterpiece Classic’s adaptation of this prize-winning book. Those anticipations should have been checked with the cast list. Directed by John Alexander with screenplay by Paula Milne, the story is about four lives colliding in the midst of World War II. An English husband and wife find that they need the aid of a Jamaican husband and wife to survive their struggles. Although Ruth Wilson brought integrity and spirit to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in Masterpiece Theater’s 2006 adaptation, she is no Queenie, who is supposed to be a real looker, a buxom, bouyant dame who turns heads every where she goes. She brings sass to the page and has a spine of steel. So, Ms. Wilson is an odd choice to carry a role of someone who steals the limelight every time she walks into a room.

Speaking of sass, Levy’s book is filled with humor. She makes you laugh out loud throughout the story. Somehow the director and writer decided to tone down Levy’s brilliant wit, wringing out the comical nuance, which is a great shame because this seriously truncates the spirit of the story and the complexity of characters. Only towards the conclusion does the film pick up Levy’s jests that really drive home the painful past of racism she so deftly deals with among the tangled web of characters she’s painstakingly created.

David Oyelowo
David Oyelowo

Benedict Cumberbatch, although entirely too young to play the part of Bernard Bligh, makes do and dives deep into the vacuousness of his character. Bernard is supposed to be a ruddy ol’ bloke, and Cumberbatch does justice, playing up the simple-minded,  self-involved blunderbuss that Queenie’s husband is. As much as we pledge our loyalty to David Oyelowo, his portrayal of the kindhearted, stalwart, and true hero, Gilbert Joseph, was often too stoic and too reserved compared to who Gilbert is on the page. No matter though, by the end of the film, Oleweyo owns this character, and viewers will miss him the second the credits start rolling.

The second part of the film finally kicks into Levy’s humor, inciting laughter and tears as her book does. Hortense, played by Naomie Harris, and Gilbert finally embrace the full breadth of their characters. They break your heart and make you smile through their struggles. Inspired by their endless reserve of courage and compassion, neither of these actors come across as sentimental or over-dramatic as their lives yank and jerk the heart strings. They come to terms with reality and find more hope and more love despite the hostility and harshness that England serves them. Ms. Harris, by far, played Hortense to perfection. Prim, proper, and pretty, she scratches against your nerves, almost like nails against chalkboard, but, at the end of the film, as in the book, Hortense wins your love and devotion forever. Harris was simply stunning in this role.

A male narrator gives back-story through voice-overs, and those who read the book before seeing the film may feel frustrated, since after all Small Island was written by a woman, but the director and screenwriter thought it best to tag on a present day ending, which seems so very unnecessary, as if we, the viewers, couldn’t put this story into context. Perhaps they really believe, as MT producer Rebecca Eaton recently stated in a discussion with Professor Steve Marini from Wellesley College on “Masterpiece Theater: Creating the Past Through Drama” 12.7.2010, that most young adults had never heard of Hitler.

Many of the intricate threads that Levy weaves through her textured story is simply severed on screen. Events are condensed into single days. For instance, the friendship that grows between Arthur Bligh, Bernard’s father, Gilbert Joseph, and Queenie is absolutely remarkable in its evolution in the book. A WWI shell-shocked veteran, reminiscent of Septimus Smith, finally finds a kindred spirit in RAF serviceman Gilbert Joseph and, over time, they become fast companions in the middle of World War II-torn London. Despite the rampant racism that competes with the Nazi air raids, these three find true compassion among each other however we don’t really get to see this blossoming miracle in the film. What we see instead is Joseph struggling in Jamaica after the war, as if this isn’t a surprise to viewers. What’s most surprising about this story is the relationships between the characters, yet these relationships are given short shift, and to what end?

Naomi Harris plays Hortense
Naomie Harris as Hortense

Overall, Masterpiece Theater’s Small Island inconsistently captures the colossal genius that is Levy’s work, thanks to the talent of Oyelowo and Harris. Its worth checking out, but nothing’s better than the real thing, and Levy’s book proves to be untouchable.

For a review of the novel, click here.

Also, check out a reading of the book by Levy herself and interview/discussion with The Guardan’s book club, moderated by Claire Armistead, published January 31, 2011.

Interview excerpts:

I wrote it in different bits and then put it together in the end…It was only once I got the whole did I realize that I had the whole back and forth. When it first came out, maybe in America, there was some people who said, “I didn’t like it.” It was trouble for them.

Once I started writing these four people in first person, it really sprang off the page, and I really love the first person.

I want to express people’s natural sense of humor…Its about humor that comes out of characters… Part of the human fabric. Humor is all around us, all the time.

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