The 1997 adaptation of The Mill on the Floss is adequate. Emily Watson’s portrayal of Maggie Tulliver manages to make Maggie’s fervent but constrained nature cohesive. Philip Wakem, as played by James Frain, was particularly good, sensitive and cultured. I came away from the movie with the same feeling I got from the book: puzzlement as to why Maggie preferred Stephen over Philip. Other performances were adequate. Lucy was sweet, if not as vivacious as I pictured her. Mr. Tulliver was also much more restrained than I imagined him, but sufficiently vindictive. Tom, on the other hand, was significantly different from the way he came across in the book. In the book he is arrogant and self-assured, while Ifan Meredith plays him as uncertain, almost like he himself is seeking approval. While this differs from the book, it does make Maggie’s dependence on his approval a little more understandable.
I never thought of it while reading the book, but watching Philip Wakem in this adaptation, I was reminded of Will Ladislaw in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. He tells the heroine, Dorothea Brooke, “The best piety is to enjoy — when you can. … I suspect that you have some false belief in the virtues of misery” (Book 2, ch. 22). He later tells her that the belief which most helps him is “To love what is good and beautiful when I see it” (Book 4, ch. 39). In the movie The Mill on the Floss, Philip tells Maggie, “If we give up wishing, we cease to be alive! We must hunger after what we feel to be beautiful and good!” Although for different reasons, both Philip and Will Ladislaw argue against the rejection of enjoyment, not believing asceticism to be virtuous.
The movie does a good job of including the most important scenes and condensing the story into less than two hours, without excluding anything necessary. It adds details to Mr. Tulliver’s quarrels over his water “rights”, which were never elucidated in the book. I think this was a sensible choice, as it is important to know where he, and subsequently Tom, is coming from. Showing a flashback of Tom and Maggie together as children at the very end, concluded the movie on as peaceful a note as possible.
That said, the ending itself was poorly done. In the book, Tom and Maggie’s boat is dragged under oncoming debris, drowning them. In the movie, a completely safe Tom tries to lower himself into Maggie’s boat by a rope. The knot comes undone, dropping him into the flood where he becomes entangled in the rope. Maggie jumps out of the boat and they flounder around for a while before drifting apart and drowning. Why Tom doesn’t just reach up so Maggie could at least try to pull him into the boat is unclear and it was absurd to be trying to lower himself into the boat in the first place. In addition, the scene is dragged on much too long.
By and large, despite a few missteps, this is about as good an adaptation as could be made of The Mill on the Floss, without trying to “fix” a story which is not particularly good to begin with. Otherwise, the costumes, locations, and music were pretty, though suitably not lavish.
This is part of the Eliot Project, in which “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter and I read through all of George Eliot’s novels and watch a few adaptations of them. You can read “Sophie’s” review of the 1997 adaptation of The Mill on the Floss here: “Masterpiece Theatre’s ‘The Mill on the Floss’”.