I can’t tell you how funny it’s been to see Hugh Bonneville play such a stalwart, upright (well, at least so far) character in Downton Abbey when the first thing I ever saw him in was the BBC’s 2002 drama adaptation of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda in which he played the villainous Henleigh Grandcourt. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this production, and I can’t help but think about the mysterious Daniel Deronda whenever I see Downton Abbey.
Daniel Deronda follows the parallel but often intersecting stories of the beautful but selfish Gwendolen Harleth (Romola Garai) and the magnetic Daniel Deronda (Hugh Dancy – too cute). When Gwendolen’s family faces financial ruin, she looks to various ways to make her fortune before finally entering into a loveless marriage with Henleigh Grandcourt (Hugh Bonneville, of course) which slowly descends into a nightmare as she discovers just how cruel and abusive he is. She seeks solace and comfort from Daniel, whom she had known before slightly and who also happens to be Grandcourt’s cousin, but he is dealing with his own problems. He is the ward of Grandcourt’s uncle, Sir Hugo Mallinger, and has no clue about his real background. He has also become involved with a beautiful Jewish girl, Mirah Lapidoth (Jodhi May), whom he saved from drowning, and she gets drawn into his quest for his origins.
I had read the George Eliot 1876 novel before watching this, so I was a little skeptical since I couldn’t imagine how the BBC (even with Andrew Davies of Pride and Prejudice fame) could turn a rather dense story about morality and Jewish mysticism into an entertaining, crowd-pleasing miniseries. But I was happy to see how wrong I was. The series followed the book closely enough for me, and if there were glaring omissions, then I didn’t mind. My favorite character from the book, the visionary Mordecai, wasn’t quite what I pictured, but he was still pretty compelling.
Hugh Dancy was great at injecting a kind of levity into Daniel’s character (though I don’t know how intended that was), but I don’t think he had much chemistry with Johdi May. I’ve liked Romola Garai ever since I saw her in the wonderful I Capture the Castle (2003 – you should really see this), and I liked her here too, though her take on Gwendolen was a little strange and affected – but then again, Gwendolen was pretty strange and affected so maybe Garai is just a super good actress. I think it’s funny how she can go from playing someone kind of plain, as Cassandra was supposed to be (at least compared to her sister), to embodying the beauty (Eliot’s women are always outsized beauties) Gwendolen, whom a character describes as a Van Dyke duchess. Maybe that will mean something to you.
I admit that when I saw this, Bonneville didn’t really stand out. He was good, but nowhere near as evil as I had always imagined Grandcourt to be. I know that he started his career playing the kind, bumbling character (like in Notting Hill), but eventually moved on to villainous roles like this one. But now he seems to have returned to his mild-mannered origins. Maybe this is the right choice for him – the hair alone makes it worth it, I think.