Classics Revisited: 'Daniel Deronda'

Picture shows: Daniel Deronda (Hugh Dancy)

Hugh Dancy as Daniel Deronda.

© BritBox

After the success of their 1994 production of Middlemarch, director Tom Hooper collaborated with Andrew Davies on George Eliot’s last book, Daniel Deronda. Set in her present day, when it just happened that Britain had a flamboyantly Jewish prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, it was initially published as a magazine serial, and then in book form in 1876. The novel explores her interest in Jewish religion and culture, with her titular hero discovering his origins and destiny are way beyond those of an English gentleman. Jostling this subplot with the journey of troublesome heroine Gwendolen Harleth, with whom Daniel maintains a more-or-less chaste intimacy after she marries the wrong man, the book is notable for feeling as though you’re reading two entirely different novels. 

I have spent my life in doubt and confusion but now I realize it was always your voice I heard.

The notable 20th-century critic F. R. Leavis firmly believed the Harleth-Deronda part of the story was the only one worth keeping, but when it was first translated into Hebrew, those very sections were dropped. I can’t imagine either version would be a very satisfactory read, but for many of us, Daniel Deronda is the Eliot book that doesn’t quite work, though it's not so much the battling plots as the titular character. This production, and in particular titular lead Hugh Dancy (Downton Abbey), mostly solves the problem, and in there lies its brilliance.

As a TV series, it doesn’t get better than this. The cast is excellent, with breakout roles for leads Romola Garai (Vigil) as Gwendolen Harleth and Jodhi May (The Confessions of Frannie Langton) as Mirah Lapidoth, plus Hugh Bonneville playing his first villain in Henleigh Grandcourt. The settings are beautiful and the superb costumes by the late Mike O’Neill received an analysis at Frock Flicks for each episode, they’re that good. Bring on the bustles!

Each episode starts with a short scene, followed by the titles. Episode 1 drops us into a German casino where Gwendolen Harleth plays roulette. The steady gaze of a good-looking young man throws her off her game. He’s Daniel Deronda, visiting Europe during his gap year to meet up with his adoptive father, Sir Hugo Mallinger (Edward Fox, father of Freddie), before returning to England. As she exits, Gwendolyn receives a letter from her mother, Mrs. Davilow (Amanda Root), with the news the family is ruined. She pawns her gold and turquoise necklace, only to have it returned with an anonymous note. Daniel is responsible, and it’s either massively romantic or creepy. You decide.

Rewinding, Gwendolen’s story began when she, her recently widowed mother, and her three younger sisters moved to Offendene. There, Gwendolen took the neighborhood by storm. She was breathtakingly beautiful and selfish, and her adoring mother always deferred to her. The local bachelor of note, Henleigh Grandcourt, was renting Diplow, which he would one day inherit from Sir Hugo Mallinger, hosting lavish entertainments, such as a ladies’ archery contest, for the neighborhood gentry. He was attracted to Gwendolen as a trophy wife, and while she believed herself calling the shots, he was a master manipulator. 

We see Grandcourt’s true nature early on when he torments his dogs as entertainment and treats his minion, Lush (a slimy David Bamber), with contempt. Grandcourt was working himself up to propose. However, Lush had arranged for Gwendolen to meet Mrs. Glasher (an outstanding performance by Greta Scacchi), Grandcourt’s longtime mistress and mother of his three children, newly widowed. She told Gwendolen to step back, sister; she’ll marry Grandcourt, so her son will inherit. Gwendolen, for once intimidated by someone, agreed and then realized what an awkward position that puts her in; she made a run for Europe, our original starting point.

Picture shows: A line of ladies prepare to hit their target at an archery contest. Romola Garai as Gwendolen wears a red dress and is positioned next to her friend Catherine Arrowpoint (Anna Steel) wearing beige.

Romola Garai (Gwendolen) and Catherine Arrowpoint (Anna Steel) take part in an archery contest.

© BritBox

But let’s take a look at Daniel. He’s observant, sympathetic, intelligent, and handsome. Sir Hugo notices his interest in Gwendolen and hints that Daniel might have a chance with her, although he describes her as “dangerous as gunpowder.” Daniel has no idea how attractive he is to women and how his natural sympathy and kindness could be taken as something more (Sir Hugo finds this very entertaining, and Daniel is annoyed. He never flirts!). Although everyone thinks Daniel is his illegitimate son, Sir Hugo has made it clear to him that he’s not. 

Although he’s part of the Mallinger family, a big brother to three half-sisters, Daniel is still searching for purpose in his life. He doesn’t know what his career should be other than an English gentleman. Daniel’s passivity and his role as an observer and adviser are the real weaknesses of the book, but Dancy brings the role to life with passion and conviction.

Gwendolen heads home to find she’s got an offer to become a governess. (The horror!) Gwendolen has other ideas. She summons the music master, Herr Klesmer (Allan Corduner), hired by her rich neighbors, the Arrowpoints, whose daughter, Catherine (Anna Steel), is the closest Gwendolen has to a friend. Klesmer is brutally rude about amateur music performances (there’s a theory Eliot based him on Franz Liszt). Gwendolen tells Klesmer she wants to become a professional singer, but she is put off when he advises her to spend the next six years or so studying and learning to drop her ladylike affectations. She also discovers he and Catherine are now engaged.

Picture shows: Grandcourt (Hugh Bonneville) kisses Gwendolen (Romola Garai) hand after they have been on a horseback ride together.,

Grandcourt (Hugh Bonneville) and Gwendolyn Harleth (Romola Garai).

© BritBox

Gwendolen is shocked. “A Jew and a foreigner. They [the family] are not happy.” (She’s right; The Arrowpoints were hoping for Grandcourt as a son-in-law). Klesmer is the first Jewish character to appear, but not the last. Meanwhile, word gets out to Grandcourt about the Harleth descent into poverty and proposes –– although he is carrying a riding crop, not a good sign –– and is appropriately attentive and discreet about the lack of ready cash for the wedding, and everyone is happy.

Grandcourt then visits Mrs. Glasher to request she return his diamonds. She lives in the middle of nowhere, and her children, particularly her son, hate and fear their father. There’s a subservient sexual charge between them when she lights his cigar. She’s passive and seductive; he’s cold and controlling. She tells him she’ll return them, and so she does, sent to Gwendolen with a devastating note cursing her for breaking her promise. On their wedding night, Grandcourt finds Gwendolen crying hysterically, the diamonds lying on the floor.

Gwendolen scores a minor triumph when Grandcourt fires Lush at her request, but it’s a paltry victory, as she is now unable to escape his control and cruelty. (There’s more than a hint that sexual consent does not feature in the relationship.) However, she and Daniel continue to move in the same circles, and she easily manipulates his generous nature. With Grandcourt, she’s cool and passive-aggressive, but she is vulnerable and emotional with Daniel, and (sigh) he can’t say no.

Picture shows: Daniel Deronda (Hugh Dancy) rescues Mira (Jhodi May) from the river.

Daniel Deronda ((Hugh Dancy) rescues Mira (Jhodi May).

© BritBox

Back in London, Daniel goes for a row on a rural stretch of the Thames and sees a woman preparing to drown herself. He rushes to the rescue and takes her to artist Hans Meyrick (Jamie Bamber) and his mother (Celia Imrie). Her name is Mira Lapidoth (Jodhi May), a Jewish singer. Her father forced her to try an international singing career, changing her last name from Cohen. Her voice was damaged from overuse, so he tried to sell her to an admirer. Mira fled but, on returning to England, could find no trace of her mother or brother, Ezra.

Daniel begins a search for her family in the East End, a foreign country where Yiddish is spoken more than English. He meets a bookseller, Mordecai (Daniel Evan), who asks him immediately if he is Jewish and introduces him to the jolly, gregarious Cohen family who run the pawnshop next door. (In the book, this is an excruciating read as Daniel winces at their vulgarity, hoping they’re not Mira’s family.) Mordecai is insistent Daniel return.

Newly sensitive to the casual anti-semitism of polite society, Daniel hates people assuming the “little Jewish protegée” is his mistress, even kindly Lady Mallinger (Georgie Glen). Mira auditions for Klesmer, who invites her to sing at a soiree. The Grandcourts attend, as does Lush. Gwendolen invites Mira to sing at her house but is shocked when her husband tells her Mira is Daniel’s mistress. Gwendolen confronts Mira, who is furious when she realizes Gwendolen is double-checking her relationship with Daniel. Chastened, Gwendolen apologizes and leaves to find Lush with Grandcourt at their house, finalizing Mrs. Glasher’s son officially becoming his heir.

Picture shows: Jhodi May as Mira.

Jhodi May (Mira).

© BritBox

Mordecai invites Daniel to meet his zionist friends, those who argue for being granted the land they believe is historically theirs. Daniel suggests that assimilation is the answer, the views of a liberal Englishman, someone comments. But Mordecai reveals he is sick, dying, and it’s too late for him. Once, he was about to board a ship to Israel, but a letter from his mother arrived saying his father and sister disappeared. He came to England to support her, changing his name from Ezra and searching in vain for Mira, his sister. Daniel takes Mira to meet her brother in an emotional scene.

Daniel’s mother sends him a letter, and he finally learns her identity as Sir Hugh talks about the love of his life, Contessa Maria Alcharisi. Daniel is surprised, having always assumed she was poor. He visits Gwendolen, who admits she’s thinking of leaving Grandcourt. Daniel says her friends will stand by her, but Gwendolen doesn’t have friends. She begs him for help, and they almost––almost––embrace. He tells her he will meet his mother as Grandcourt returns, and the moment is lost. “He’s not for you,” Grandcourt says, announcing they’ll be going on holiday. It’s no surprise they turn up in Genoa along with Daniel. Grandcourt grabs control by staying on his yacht, allowing only day trips in a small boat.

Daniel’s meeting with the Contessa (Barbara Hershey) is dramatic. She has lived for music, breaking the cycles of control she experienced with her father and her husband, rejecting conventional roles of daughter, wife, and mother for her art, and she has also rejected the Judaism into which she was born. She guesses Daniel’s high-flown ambition to find a purpose in life also means he’s fallen in love with a Jewish woman, which he at first denies. She’s tough; she admits that, given the chance to repeat her life, she would make the same decisions with no regrets. But now Daniel knows he is Jewish by birth, and his life is about to change.

The plot falls even deeper into melodrama at this point with an accidental –– or not –– drowning when Grandcourt is knocked into the sea by the boom of a boat so small it barely contains Gwendolen’s bustle. We don’t know what happened because Gwendolen is in shock, begging Daniel not to forsake her. She admits she hesitated when she could have saved her husband, but what does she expect from Daniel? His silence? His devotion?

In London, Hans reads the news and announces Daniel will marry Gwendolen. Mira is angry at his callousness and his flip judgments. Hans, desperately in love with Mira (his sketches of her are all over the house), realizes he doesn’t have a chance, not even if he converted, which he’d do, as he tells Daniel. Mira was jealous of Gwendolen; didn’t Daniel realize? Daniel has lost his friend, who blames him for not seeing how Mira was jealous of Gwendolen, and Mira has disappeared, angry and upset that she couldn’t return Hans’s love or be sure of Daniel’s. Daniel seeks her at the Cohens’ but learns Ezra is dying. Daniel can tell him he was right all along; he is Jewish. He can now speak freely to Mira of his love for her.

Daniel visits Sir Hugo to tell him of the Contessa’s death; it’s an emotional moment for them both, and Sir Hugo changes the topic to the boating accident. He, too, assumes that Daniel will now court Gwendolen and is shocked and angry to learn that he plans to marry Mira and that he is proud of his heritage and the opportunity to work for his people. When Daniel returns to Mira, he finds Ezra has died, and they grieve together.

Picture shows: Daniel (Hugh Dancy) and Jodhi May (Mira) aboard a ship. They are dressed in white and the sky is a brilliant blue.

Daniel (Hugh Dancy) and Jodhi May (Mira) sail away to their happy ending.

© BritBox

Daniel, ever responsible, visits Gwendolen, who has returned to Offendene, where she reports that she has been trying to be a better daughter and sister. He tells her he has found he is Jewish, and she naively asks what difference that can make to them. For a start, he’s marrying Mira, and she is lost for words for a second before responding that she hopes they’ll be happy –– or happier than she has been. It’s a subtle crack, which Daniel politely ignores, but we realize she has learned more from Grandcourt than she realizes.

“I always thought I was the best of gamblers but now it seems I have lost in every way.” 

When he tells her of his plans to travel to Israel and help his own people, she blithely responds that she is indeed forsaken, as she predicted. She seems to be in genuine emotional distress before rallying and declaring she’s still young and not all that bad. She dismisses him, claiming she is better for having known him. 

The series ends on a joyful note (thank goodness) with Mira and Daniel’s wedding. Infected by the joyful atmosphere, Sir Hugo finally cracks a smile, and we say goodbye to Daniel and Mira as they sail to the east to begin their new lives.

Daniel Deronda is streaming on BritBox

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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