I had high hopes for this production, as it's one of my favourite books. And after thirty or so years since the last adaptation (a melodrama lacking the gravitas of the book, in my view), this is a novel overdue for a screen interpretation which finally does it justice. Regrettably, although this production got some things right, overall it fell somewhat short of my admittedly high expectations. A shame, because Du Maurier's gothic evocation of wild, brooding landscape in which unfolds a mounting sinister tension, culminating in a violent and macabre climax, is so descriptively rich that this story is a dream for any writer, director and producer.
So let's start with what was right: firstly, a strong cast- Jessica Findlay Brown has that vital strength needed to play such a powerful, captivating heroine as Mary Yelland; Matthew McNulty with his gipsy looks was well chosen for the the gritty, alluring rogue Jem Merlyn, Mary's love interest. Their chemistry was probably the best thing about this adaptation. Ben Daniels shows his considerable skill as an actor in his portrayal of the shadowy facets of Francis Davy, the strangely powerful vicar of Alternun. Shirley Henderson's performance as the vicar's devout and intense sister (not in the book) was also very good.
The sets were well done, too. The inn was exactly as I had imagined, a desolate, dismal place by day, the eerie lair of smugglers by the flicker of candlelight and the cold light of the moon. The vicarage at Alternun, tasteful,warm and comfortable, only giving the slightest of hints at the strangeness of its incumbent.
The soundtrack is also good- melancholy and haunting, emphasising the loneliness of Mary's situation with nobody to depend on but herself.
So, where did it go wrong? Generally speaking, it's too long. It's not a long book, but it's gripping from start to finish. I kept waiting to be thrilled, horrified, on the edge of my seat, but it never happened. It's clear that there are parts of the production where the plot (which, annoyingly, has been changed somewhat in several places) falters and loses momentum, even becoming rather boring in places. It's so important that, with themes of bleakness, loneliness and betrayal, the overall mood doesn't become dreary. But the first episode was particularly so. Even Jessica Findlay Brown occasionally lacks the monkey-like spark and wit that so becomes Mary in the book. And McNulty, while physically ideal as Jem, is occasionally missing something of Jem's louche, insolent charm.
But I couldn't quite reconcile myself to the casting of Sean Harris as Joss Merlyn. He's certainly a good actor, but physically, this depiction of Joss Merlyn is more like a cross between Frank from Shameless and Phil Mitchell, as opposed to a brutish hulk of a man whose wild dark hair and skin lend him a beast-like quality. The production is the lesser for it- Joss Merlyn IS Jamaica Inn. His physical presence is so important to the story- to highlight the contrast between his bodily strength and his mental weakness. One of the great tensions in the book is that Mary is all too aware that what physically repulses her in one brother, attracts her in another, but this is a theme sadly lacking from this version. And his presence extends into the characterisation of Mary's long-suffering aunt, Patience. Oddly, she is depicted in this production as a shrewd, resigned accomplice to Joss's nocturnal wrongdoings- a far cry from the weak, timid and spirit-broken waif in the book. This too was a mistake, for it is through the pathetic sight of Patience, mentally and bodily broken by Joss's mistreatment of her, that we see the bullying but desperate monster that her husband is, and herself a foil to his own inner weakness.
There are other unnecessary changes in characterisation throughout- Jem is portrayed as loyal to his brother when in the book he stays well out of the smuggling and even swears to kill Joss for hurting Mary. Harry the pedlar's is also a noticeably different character- he is a loyal friend to Joss in this production, instead of the loathsome lecherous backstabber in the book.
While it was haunting, crucially, the production could have done more to convey the terror, savagery and darkness of Mary's abduction and witnessing of the wrecking party at work in the early hours of Christmas morning. In the book she is clearly a hair's breadth from being tortured, raped or even murdered by Merlyn's motley crew, and only her relationship to Joss spares her from this fate- there is nothing of this here. The final twist in the tale, where the real evil of the story is revealed, however, was better handled and quite compelling.
This is not a bad production; in parts it is very good. It is buoyed up by a strong cast, but because of the lack of momentum, spark and gothic feel, as well as the plot and character changes, it should have been better.