`Now' gives Trollope even more relevance

Preview: `Theatre' has an uncanny resemblance to the situation with Enron.

April 01, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The Way We Live Now is a big, fat, Masterpiece Theatre, English melodrama full of ladies and lords, young men on the make and old ones in decline, weekends in the country, romantic misunderstandings and so much social class stratification and confusion that it almost makes you dizzy.

The six-hour, four-part miniseries starring David Suchet is also highly addictive. And, while it's based on the 1875 novel by Anthony Trollope and set in Victorian England, The Way We Live Now could not be more of the moment and American.

The story is one of capitalism gone wrong - speculation and fraud as a crooked financier by the name of Augustus Melmotte (Suchet) lures investors to a phony railroad scheme and then manipulates the price of their stock as he gets rich and elected to Parliament with their money. Banks, lives and families are decimated by Melmotte's monumental deceit.

"It's so dark and so modern in tone, and centered around a scam that reminds one of the dot-com collapse or the recent Enron scandal," screenwriter Andrew Davies - who seems to have written everything good that's come out of Britain in recent years - says of Trollope's story.

"And in the middle is this huge monster, Melmotte, sitting like a fat spider, drawing all the other characters into his great scheme," Davies adds in press materials from PBS.

That's the way he adapted it, with almost everything swirling around Melmotte, and Suchet is absolutely up to the challenge of keeping this sprawling saga on the tip of its dramatic toes for all six hours.

"These are great times," Melmotte exclaims to his board of directors with all the fervor of a preacher addressing the congregation. "The Mexican railway is a great enterprise. And what is the engine of this great work? Profit!"

It is profit built on blue smoke, mirrors and Melmotte's ability to exploit these 19th-century gentlemen's desire for wealth without labor. These are not innocent flies Melmotte draws to his web; these are members of a social class that have always lived off the labor of others. And now, with industrialization and other social forces causing great upheaval in the rigid class system they enjoyed, these men are ripe for the lies of someone like Melmotte.

There are women in this saga, too - some fascinating ones, in fact. While Melmotte's story offers a dark satire of capitalism, their story lines tend to satirize the social mores and cultural values of Victorian England, especially as they pertain to marriage.

There's Lady Carbury (Cheryl Campbell) as a down-on-her-wealth member of the aristocracy trying to make a living as a popular novelist until she can get her two adult children married off. Her daughter, Hetta (Paloma Baeza), is beautiful, level-headed, smart and earnest. But in a society as topsy-turvy as this one, such qualities mainly cause her one problem after another until the very last moments of the miniseries.

Lady Carbury's son, Sir Felix (Matthew Macfadyen), is an absolute fool whose life consists of losing at cards at his exclusive men's club and coming home to whine to mommy. He is Lady Carbury's great hope for rescuing the family financially by marrying Melmotte's daughter, Marie (Shirley Henderson), a woman so brittle and manic that you fear she's going to explode into a million tiny pieces. This courtship is played fast, furious and French-farce funny.

Masterpiece Theatre might be just about the last place on American television that you would expect to find ripped-from-the-headlines topicality. But here it is, done delicious, wicked and wise.

Tonight's TV

What: The Way We Live Now

When: Tonight at 9 (Part 1)

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

In brief: David Suchet shines in an Enron-like saga of greed.

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