By Ray Bennett
LONDON – From the moment wealthy young Louis Trevelyan sits down with Sir Marmaduke Rowley, governor of the Mandarin Islands, to negotiate his betrothal to Rowley’s beautiful and spirited daughter Emily, two things are obvious: They are made for each other, and it can’t last.
Something else is soon clear too. “He Knew He Was Right” is comfort television of the highest order; intelligent drama, well acted with crisp dialogue and all the ingredients required for a period piece. There are horses and carriages on crunching driveways; languorous English country gardens; rubicund gentlemen in muttonchops and weskits; stout matrons in bonnets and frowns; and the most handsome young men and women struggling to find their place within the formalities of Victorian life.
Anthony Trollope’s 930-page 1869 novel has been adapted into four hour-long episodes by the prolific Andrew Davies, whose television work includes the miniseries “Pride and Prejudice,” “Vanity Fair,” “Dr. Zhivago” and one based on Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now.”
Davies benefits hugely from Trollope’s style of writing, which as well as being extraordinarily well crafted is also painstakingly detailed. No reader of Trollope is ever in doubt as to a character’s mood or meaning; no action is unexplained. The “he” who knew he was right in the title is rich young Louis (Oliver Dimsdale) who becomes convinced that his lovely wife Emily (Laura Fraser) has behaved in an unseemly manner with one Col. Osborne (Bill Nighy), a bachelor gentleman of middle years known to enjoy making mischief with married ladies.
All that has happened is that Col. Osborne, who is a friend of her father and her own godfather, has called upon Emily, and enjoyed innocent conversation with her. But news of his visits becomes known in London society and soon Louis becomes outraged even though he accepts not the slightest impropriety has occurred.
Still, in Victorian England, the husband has the right to impose his will and he demands that Emily apologizes and never willingly sees Osborne again. She promises obedience but knowing she has done nothing wrong, declines to say that she has.
On this trifling difference, Trollope hangs a plot that allows him to explore universal issues of love and trust, fear and madness and the impositions of a rigidly stratified society. For, as Louis banishes Emily and their son to increasingly impecunious shelter, he shrinks from his well-mannered life, eventually kidnapping his son to flee to a hideaway in Florence.
Meanwhile, the subplots are many and various and they all serve to amplify the central question of women rebelling against the Victorian notion that they are chattel. Emily’s sister Nora (Christina Cole) must choose between proposals from a lord and a penniless journalist named Hugh (Stephen Campbell Moore), whose sister Dorothy (Caroline Martin) similarly is caught between a vain cleric and a handsome young heir.
Davies limns all these characters expertly, often having them address the camera directly in order to speed the exposition along. They are rich characters, too, Dickensian in their particularity, especially the erratically strict Aunt Jemima (Anna Massey), the ruefully flirtatious Reverend Gibson (David Tennant), and the determinedly upstanding but ineffably seedy private eye Mr. Bozzle (Ron Cook).
As Louis, Dimsdale, who played Shelley in last year’s “Byron,” has the convincingly haunted look of the gifted early dead, and Fraser, who was outstanding in the film “16 Years of Alcohol,” never lets her loveliness mask the confusion, heartache and rage inside Emily.
Produced handsomely by Nigel Stafford-Clark and directed winningly by Tom Vaughan, ”He Knew He Was Right” is another triumph for writer Davies and all the bookstores that inevitably will have a major run on Trollope.
Airs: April 18, 25, May 2, 9 BBC1; Cast: Oliver Dimsdale, Laura Fraser, Christina Cole, Stephen Campbell Moore, Bill Nighy, Anna Massey, Goffrey Palmer, Geraldine James, John Alderton, David Tennant, Caroline Martin, Claudie Blakley, Fenella Woolgar, Ron Cook; Producer: Nigel Stafford-Clark; Director: Tom Vaughan; Screenplay: Andrew Davies, adapted from the novel by Anthony Trollope; Executive producers for the BBC: Sally Haynes, Bill Boyes, Laura Mackie; Executive producer for WGBH: Rebecca Eaton; Director of photography: Mike Eley; Production designer: Gerry Scott; Composer: Debbie Wiseman; Costume designer: Andrea Galer; A BBC Wales/WGBH Boston co-production in association with Deep Indigo.
This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.