Acorn TV's Gold Digger Doesn't Quite Go Far Enough, But It's an Enjoyable Ride

Not an auspicious start to the marriage. Julia Ormond as Julia. Photo Credit: BBC/Mainstreet Pictures

Daughter. Wife. Mother. These are my roles. I chose them. For better, for worse. And then you came along, exploded all of that.
Julia in the Gold Digger

I’ve recently turned 60, I’ve got most of my own teeth, a bit of a mum tum—I’m off to the British Museum …
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Acorn TV drama Gold Digger is seductive. It catches you unawares and then works its wiles upon you, so you have to keep clicking on to the next episode.

But at the end, although certain moments and the characters stay with you, in general, the series is just trying too hard to be clever and often misses the subtlety mark by a mile. That doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining, or that it doesn’t pack the occasional emotional punch. But as a whole, it doesn’t quite hang together, despite its formidable cast. Let's dig into some of its strengths and flaws.

The story begins with Julia (Julia Ormond, Howard’s End) on her way to London from her home in Devon. She’s traveling to celebrate her 60th birthday with her children, who, it turns out, all have good excuses to stand her up. Naturally, she ends up in that notorious cruising spot, the British Museum. (I had no idea.) Decades ago Julia worked as a conservator there and goes to visit an artifact she worked on, a tiny statue of an ancient female warrior (note symbolism). The piece is missing (note symbolism again), but she encounters handsome younger man Benjamin (Ben BarnesWestworld) who flirts and invites her out for a drink.

Alarm bells ring in the viewer’s mind, or they did at least in mine - but why shouldn’t she have a bit of fun? The series’ creators and many fans claim the love scenes revolutionize the younger man-older woman trope. They don’t. For that, you’ll want to watch the 2003 movie The Mother with Anne Reid (Last Tango in Halifax) and Daniel Craig (say no more).

Throughout the story, Benjamin remains a cipher. We suspect he's lying, he's damaged in some way, and he’s probably up to no good, but we’re not allowed to know much. Similarly, Julia is an unknown quantity. She married, she had children, she divorced very recently, and she seems to have no friends or outside interests. Her husband Ted, acted brilliantly by Alex Jennings (Victoria) left Julia for her best friend Marsha (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and they live nearby. This is a massively dysfunctional extended family that are far too involved with each other given how much they each need to resolve in their own lives. Ironically, Ted and Marsha are the most highly developed, complex characters in the series.

Marsha (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Ted Day (Alex Jennings)(Image Credit: BBC/Mainstreet Pictures Photographer: Mike Hogan)
Julia has been betrayed by her best friend Marsha (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and her former husband Ted (Alex Jennings). Image Credit: BBC/Mainstreet Pictures. Photographer: Mike Hogan.

Her adult children are entitled, self-obsessed, and financially dependent on their mother. We learn they were damaged long before their parents separated: Patrick (Sebastian Armesto), afflicted by a perpetual deer in the headlights expression, suffers from sleeplessness, guilt, and adulterous urges; Della (Jemima Rooper, Lost in Austen) is a stand-up comic who isn’t funny and whose love life is in tatters: and the baby of the family at 25, Leo (Archie Renaux), is still at home and not settled to anything in particular. Naturally, they are all mostly appalled at their mum’s new romantic choice, although Della is the only one who tentatively suggests that she may deserve some happiness. At their introductory dinner, Patrick first mistakes Benjamin for the waiter, and then interrogates him about his honorable or otherwise intentions; Benjamin meanwhile eats Patrick’s dessert. Oh, the symbolism.

The introduction of Benjamin, an unknown, unreliable, and sexual being, into the family’s lives starts to crack the carefully concealed facade Julia has built. Troubling memories return and we realize that Julia has protected herself for years, isolated in her grand Victorian house and its dim, cozy interiors. Is she naive, deluded, greedy? She can't trust anyone because that has led to pain and betrayal. We see her gazing out of windows, into mirrors, searching for her own identity and almost incapable of questioning Benjamin’s. And when she tries, he pushes back and they break up.

Patrick, who is a lawyer and should know better, joins forces with Della to discover the truth about Benjamin. This mostly incompetent detective duo discover Benjamin is about to be evicted and catch him chatting to another woman of a certain age in a pub. Julia finds his phone is disconnected, and is heartbroken, confessing to her family that she was in love with him.

And while you’d think this was the end of it, Benjamin turns up in Devon to apologize and explain--phone got in the laundry, the meeting was for work, and so on. She believes him, warning her children that they are making her choose between him and them. Julia suggests that Benjamin move in. She has dropped the bombshell of her financial situation, mentioning her villa, investments, and a very comfortable income, so how could he possibly refuse?

Julia (Julia Ormond) and Benjamin (Ben Barnes). Photograph: Mike Hogan/BBC/Mainstreet Pictures
Can they trust each other? And don't get too close to the cliff edge, please. Julia (Julia Ormond) and Benjamin (Ben Barnes). Photograph: Mike Hogan/BBC/Mainstreet Pictures.

In a scene which had me bellowing Don’t push her off! at the screen, Benjamin proposes to her on a clifftop (the scenery is lovely, by the way, but I digress). I found many opportunities for such audience participation, mostly of Don’t Do It! or Come On, Julia! variety. And then, as wedding plans are in full swing, in a blatant deus ex machina move by the writers, Benjamin’s brother Kieran (David Leon) turns up. It’s all very awkward for Benjamin who has told Julia he is an only child. For the first time, he gets really rattled and suggests to Julia that they elope and run off to the villa in Italy. Julia persuades him to stay.

In another fine bit of melodrama, the day before the wedding, Julia plays detective herself and drives to Sunderland to find out more about Benjamin’s childhood (she has a clue from a photograph Kieran showed her). Conveniently, the bartender in the local pub has some devastating newspaper clippings about a local robbery/murder from several years ago to show her. There’s a showdown between Julia, Kieran, and Benjamin about what really happened in their past, and this is actually a clever scene: Benjamin tells Julia he took the rap for Kieran because as a youth offender he’d receive a lighter sentence. But if you listen to the dialogue it's really not that clear who actually committed the crime.

Julia has insisted that she and Benjamin spend the night before the wedding apart as tradition demands, but in the morning she has disappeared. She’s gone to meet her ex-husband Ted, and we’ve since learned how very bad that traumatic night was for the children, particularly for Della.  Julia knows that she should have left Ted then, and can barely acknowledge the damage she has caused. We know now that the abuse continued.  When Ted tells her not to marry Benjamin, Julia defies him and he responds violently.

Back at the house, Benjamin finds a signed prenuptial agreement, drawn up by Patrick who suddenly remembered he was a lawyer and could do that sort of thing, and yes, we saw Julia forge the signature. Benjamin drives to the scene of the proposal and finds Julia’s car abandoned, with a note and the newspaper cutting. And that is why he finds Julia, on the cliffs wearing a big, dirty white dress and with a bruised face, deeply distressed. Kudos to Julia Ormond for not wearing makeup for this scene, lines in full view.

Julia rips up the prenuptial agreement, and we’re led to believe the marriage will take place, but Benjamin finds himself waiting for her at the church. Julia shows up very late with her three children, and we wonder if this is going to be the deciding moment.

Della (Jemima Rooper), Patrick (Sebastian Armesto), and Leo (Archie Renaux). BBC/Mainstreet Pictures
Julia’s children attend her wedding. Is it concern for their mother or worry that they’ll be disinherited that has made them so glum? Della (Jemima Rooper), Patrick (Sebastian Armesto), and Leo (Archie Renaux). BBC/Mainstreet Pictures.

But, no. We infer from her comment about wanting to avoid the just causes and impediments part of the marriage service (where the congregation is called upon to present any reason why the marriage should not take place, usually a formality), that it doesn’t. The scene cuts to the reception at the house, full of the friends we didn’t think Julia had. Benjamin makes a lovely speech, and so does Julia, who has since changed into a much more flattering sexy red dress, and everyone has a good time. There’s even a suggestion that the children may have sorted themselves out a bit.

Gold Digger works in that we find, somewhat surprisingly, that we care about what happens to the characters after the end of the series. Maybe everything will be okay. But it’s difficult to forget the image of Benjamin staring into Julia’s mirror with dead, cold eyes, thinking he’s about to lose everything.

Have you watched Gold Digger? What did you think of the series?

Janet Mullany

Writer Janet Mullany is from England, drinks a lot of tea, and likes Jane Austen, reading, and gasping in shock at costumes in historical TV dramas. Her household near Washington DC includes two badly-behaved cats about whom she frequently boasts on Facebook.

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