Whether one considers it a remake of the hugely popular 1975 series starring Robin Ellis, or a reinterpretation of Winston Graham’s original novels, Debbie Horsfield’s new eight-part adaptation of Poldark comes with the weight of expectations. It’s a show not only with a famous name to live up to, but a difficult task – to replicate the success of its predecessor and turn Sunday nights on BBC One into the home of must-see historical drama.
Unfortunately, while the ambition of the series is admirable, the show itself is disappointingly run-of-the-mill.
The Hobbit’s Aidan Turner stars as Ross Poldark, a “scoundrel and a libertine”, who returns from fighting in the American War of Independence to his native Cornwall. Once home, he discovers that his father is dead, his estate is close to bankruptcy, and his beloved Elizabeth (Heida Reed) is engaged to his cousin Francis (Kyle Soller). Against the advice of his conniving uncle Charles (Warren Clarke), Poldark channels his rage and sorrow into restoring his fortune, finding time to rescue the enigmatic servant girl Demelza Carne (Eleanor Tomlinson) from her abusive father along the way.
At first glance, it’s hard to see why Poldark fails to deliver the rip-roaring yarn that Bazalgette and his team were obviously trying to create. It has all the right elements – a brooding hero tormented by lost love, scheming villains, and thrilling derring-do set against the rolling hills and crashing waves of the dramatic Cornish coastline. What quickly becomes apparent, however, is that while plenty of money has been spent on the series, and both Horsfield’s script and Bazalgette’s direction are perfectly adequate, the show lacks anything original or compelling enough to truly capture the viewer’s imagination.
Whenever a TV show makes bold artistic choices, it risks alienating part of its potential audience. Last year’s atmospheric BBC adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, for instance, faced widespread derision for its use of “unintelligible” and “mumbling” actors, while Peter Kosminsky’s dramatization of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall received as much criticism as praise for its deliberate pace and naturalistic cinematography. These are risks that the makers of Poldark seem unwilling to take. In attempting to please as many viewers as possible, the show has smoothed down all of its rough edges and homogenised its visual style. What’s left is a fairly bland, family-friendly drama that no-one will hate but few will adore.
Poldark’s burning, doomed love for Elizabeth, which is presented as the emotional core of his character, is explored in several humdrum scenes that could have been lifted from any BBC or ITV period drama from the last thirty years. Featuring lines such as “all I could think about was coming back to you” and “you must forget me”, they lack any fresh insights on the familiar themes of forbidden desire, romantic rejection and social politics. Even the camera blocking (basic shot reverse shot with a couple of wider shots thrown in for variety) seems designed to get them out of the way as quickly as possible.
Similarly, the scene in which Poldark stands up to Demelza’s father is filmed in the slow-motion, shaky cam style popularised by Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan and now found in every movie and TV fight scene from The Bourne Supremacy to the BBC’s own The Musketeers. It has become a lazy visual shorthand for “exciting action” and it feels particularly uninspired here. This is exacerbated by the fact that Turner’s Poldark, a kind of cross between Mr Darcy and Richard Sharpe (but lacking the charisma or physical presence of either), treats the violent confrontation as a game, never looking like inflicting or receiving serious injury.
The best scene in the first episode is one in which the title character contemplates letting his cousin Francis drown in an underground pool. This sequence hints at the show Poldark could have been if it had been more willing to experiment, with a claustrophobic, handheld aesthetic that is nicely creepy and does more to illustrate Poldark’s mental anguish than the other 57 minutes combined. It’s just a pity that it sticks out like a sore thumb.
The acting in Poldark mirrors the show as a whole – none of the performances are bad but few stand out as exceptional. The late Warren Clarke is reliably accomplished as Poldark’s uncle Charles, half imposing patriarch determined to protect his legacy, half befuddled old man, and Phil Davis and Beatie Edney provide much-needed comic relief as morally ambiguous servants Jud and Prudie. However, the three leads, from smirk-prone Aidan Turner to brittle Heida Reed and suspiciously hygienic Eleanor Tomlinson (surely Demelza would have rotten teeth like her father?), are passable rather than outstanding. None of them sit that comfortably in their roles, with Turner’s uneven performance in particular coming across as affected and misjudged.
Poldark may well find its feet in subsequent episodes when the narrative is less bogged down with set up and establishing its characters’ motivations. However, unless it takes a few more creative risks, it’s difficult to imagine this series having anything like the same cultural impact as its 1975 namesake, or replicating its high ratings.
Poldark begins at 8pm on BBC One on Sunday 8th March.