There is a lot of pride and prejudice in the story of Small Island, the new Masterpiece Classic two-part adaptation of Andrea Levy’s award winning 2004 novel. Not the Jane Austen kind of pride and prejudice, but the kind experienced by millions of people whose countries were colonized by Great Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries. This particular story involves Hortense and Gilbert, two Jamaicans who immigrate to England in 1948, but could apply to native East Indians, Africans or Asians whose young men and women proudly served their Mother Country during WWII only to experience the cold embrace of prejudice and poverty in their new home. This story plays upon the dark underbelly of postwar racial discrimination in England paralleling the intersecting lives of one white and one black couple that is painful to experience but uplifting in its conclusion.
This griping story presents two women from modest beginnings born on opposite sides of the Atlantic, each with a strong desire to improve their lives but naïve expectations on how to achieve it. In 1939 Jamaica, Hortense Roberts (Naomie Harris) is a young black woman from a broken home who has been raised by her father’s cousin, a strict minister with a rebellious son Michael Roberts (Ashley Waters) who is a charmer and a rogue. Hortense is an idealistic dreamer who not only envisions Michael as her future husband and savior but wishes to immigrate with him to London where they will live the good life in a house with a garden, electricity in every room and a bell at the front door. Unfortunately, he only sees her as his little sister and channels his affections toward a young married white woman. After Michael’s affair is discovered and revealed by Hortense he is disowned by his family and enlists in the RAF. In London he becomes involved with an unhappily married white woman Queenie Bligh (Ruth Wilson) and is later reported missing in action.
Heartbroken, Hortense pines for Michael but continues to study and obtains her teaching credentials while accumulating a small savings and developing fine airs. After the conclusion of the war she is determined to immigrate to England and seizes upon a plan to bribe ex-soldier Gilbert Joseph (David Oyelowo) into a marriage of convenience in exchange for his passage fare to England with the plan that he will obtain her dream house and later send for her. Meanwhile, Queenie’s stiff and inept husband (Benedict Cumberbatch) does not return to her and their run-down row house in London after the war but bad penny Michael does, resuming their grand passion for a weekend. Gilbert arrives in worn-torn London and reconnects with Queenie who he had met during the war. To make ends meet she continues to take in borders and rents a modest room to Gilbert. Hortense arrives with a packet of luggage and her distorted expectations of her fine new life in England to find him living in squalor and misgivings. Hortense soon discovers that England is not the land that she had idolized and Gilbert experiences an intense racial prejudice from an emotionally and economically drained nation who would prefer he and his wife return to Jamaica. When Queenie’s husband unexpectantly returns home to find the neighborhood scandalized by her inter-racial household and her hidden pregnancy, it will take the birth of her baby and her great sacrifice to heal his prejudice to the Joseph’s and indifference to his wife.
As I was writing this synopsis it struck me that whittling down the narrative to its bare bones makes it seem silly and soap operaish. Only with the added embellishment of dialogue, scenery and powerful performances from the two outstanding female co-leads Naomie Harris and Ruth Wilson supported by David Oyelowo’s energized interpretation of Gilbert and Benedict Cumberbatch’s unappealing yet sympathetic Bernard save it from becoming trite melodrama. There is no doubt that this is intense drama based on the controversial subject of racial prejudice, oppression and England’s treatment of her colonial children. Even offset with a touch of humor viewers will feel continually on edge and emotionally drained until the last uplifting moments. Director John Alexander (Sense and Sensibility 2008) blends the transitions from present day and flash backs seamlessly and draws out performances from his cast that will garner attention come award season. Despite its dark theme, Small Island does occasionally shine and glitter drawing attention to a period of British history that some would like to forget and others proudly claim as their heritage. The second episodes airs next Sunday, April 25th on PBS.
Sadly, this is the conclusion of the 2010 season of Masterpiece Classic which brought us two classic bonnet dramas with Return to Cranford and Jane Austen’s Emma, a remake of WWI-era vintage spy thriller in The 39 Steps, two episodes of the exploits of early nineteenth-century British soldier Richard Sharp and a remake of The Diary of Anne Frank. With Small Island, Masterpiece is hoping to reach a younger audience with its more contemporary theme and grittier fare. I can not say that I am thrilled with their decision to move away from adaptations of classic literature that they have become known for, but I admire their courage to push their audience in a new direction.
Images courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE