(BBC) 1875. London. A carriage stops before an elegant Grosvenor Square mansion. A commanding voice within callously calls: “Get out!” And out comes a woman, looking rather bewildered, and her daughter, stumbling as if she’s been pushed. They wait dutifully for the “master” to emerge. At the door, a line of servants in elegant livery awaits the aristocrat who has taken this rich house. As he walks in, we see him from behind: a short, squat man. Not until he stands in the ornate entry and looks around him do we see his coarse, toadish face. He looks possessively at the richly decorated room and says, “We’ll see what we can make of this.”
His name is Augustus Melmotte. We’ll find shortly that he’s a “self-made” millionaire, and if he wasn’t born to this way of life, he’s bloody well claiming it as his own. When he eats, he stuffs food in his mouth. He roughly commands his wife and daughter, who are clearly afraid to cross him. And if you ask him what he does, he’ll tell you, “Money. I make it work for me.”
In the scene immediately following, we learn, from the “real gentlemen” chatting in their London club, that Melmotte has come to town with money. He may have had a failed bank in Vienna, and as one aristocrat says with scorn: “He’s a scoundrel and he may be a Jew; I shant know him,” and the other responds: “He’s got a cool million. Can you afford not to know him?” And here begins the quite wonderful four-part Masterpiece Theater series based on the satiric novel of Anthony Trollope. If you haven’t read Trollope in English Lit, do yourself a favor. Get to know him the easy way and watch the wonderful David Suchet play this fascinating villain, and watch how the rich and not-so-rich aristocrats get trapped by their own avarice in Melmotte’s scheme.
Sound familiar? Maybe Bernie Madoff didn’t live in an ornate mansion, but he’s a member of the same club. Trollope’s satire on money, aristocracy, anti-semitism, and human folly exposing the fools and swindlers caught in a great get-rich scheme is just as valid here today as it was in Victorian England. And it makes good theater.
The original novel was huge -- 800 pages and many fascinating storylines. Begin with the handsome, buxom matron with two quite different children. Her daughter is honorable, being courted by a boring but honest and rich gentleman with whom she is not in love; a wastrel of a son (Matthew Macfayden -- a juicy and challenging role for an actor who usually plays the hero) and a decoratively weak character who has already gambled away the family fortune, leaving his mother to try to pay the bills by writing pop novels. The wastrel son is one of the many impoverished noblemen who decide to make a go for Melmotte’s daughter -- an odd creature (Shirley Henderson of the squeaky voice and odd kittenish face) who is so aggressive that she leaps at the young suitor and covers him with a thousand kisses, so hot for love that he has to physically resist her from getting him into bed.
Then we have the young and handsome engineer who has come to Melmotte with a genuinely good scheme for building a railway from New Orleans to Veracruz. Melmotte has seized on the “railway scheme” for selling stock and gathering a group of “noblemen” as his “board of directors” to fool the public into buying stock in this “once in a century chance to make millions.” The engineer is the ward of the good but dull nobleman who wants to marry and shelter buxom writer’s daughter. But when engineer falls in love with her, he is now in uneasy competition with the man who has sponsored and educated him. Complication: when he was in the States, he loved and courted a handsome lady who left him, but in the custom of the times, must release him from his “engagement” before he can court his lady-love, and he is too honorable to simply cast her aside. Also, the wastrel son has a “commoner” lover with whom he “rolls in the hay” whenever he is in “the country.”
It sounds like a soap opera, but it’s a great romp, and consider the writer of the script, Andrew Davies, who has brought us a number of incredible adaptations -- several which, if you have missed them, rush to your computer and order from Netflix. I mean, a must-see list: A Room With a View, Sense and Sensibility, House of Cards, Circle of Friends, Dr. Zhivago -- all of which have become contemporary “classics.”
Melmotte is played by David Suchet, and if you happen to be a fan of British mysteries, he is the consummate M. Poirot -- that great Belgian detective of the waxed moustache. And if you haven’t seen the great Murder on the The Orient Express, do yourself a favor and put it on your list.
What’s so fascinating about the character Melmotte is that he knows himself. He’s up from the gutter, has no shred of ethics, and is without apology. He knows what money does. He says that if you give elegant parties, invite the best people, and serve the best food, you can get into Parliament, which he does. And (I won’t say too much more and spoil the fun) when, in the end, he gets his comeuppance, he is one of the great losers in literature: his final scene is one of the acting highlights of the series.
This, of course, is an adaptation of a Victorian novel, which means that it has to give us something perhaps contrived but satisfying at the end. But, like Dickens, Trollope gives us universal characters, and especially universal scoundrels. And in this one, the frantic love-seeking daughter ends up a sort of feminist. But the fops and the arrogant aristocrats and the self-deluding mother and the young earnest hero who makes whopping mistakes in loving the wrong lady, the self-deceivers, the blow-hards, the addicted gamblers, the women who climb on others and end up flat on their whatevers: We know these guys. We read about them in the business section of the Times or on the Calendar page. But take a look at the villain, David Suchet. He is Augustus Melmotte. Worth watching for the scene alone where the titled wastrel comes to ask for the hand of Mellmothe’s daughter.
It’s not only an English lesson in the form of a fascinating and entertaining four-part series, but Trollope gives us a great lesson in human nature in a Victorian romp. And if it’s a bit contrived at the end, well we are the audience and we love happy endings.
For Fans Of: Pride & Prejudice, Vanity Fair, Mansfield Park
Why We Like It: David Suchet, Anthony Trollope, Team Buzzine Hearts Period Dramas
'The Way We Live Now' is currently streaming on Amazon Instant Video.