A beguiling BBC drama, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” (airing twice tonight, at 6 and 10, on Arts & Entertainment), unfolds like a cinematic, first-person novel, in this case the odyssey of a girl growing up in a fanatical evangelical environment in northern England.
What rewards the viewer hearty enough to stick through the overlong three-hour production (including some 10 commercial breaks) are the sense of place, the weathered faces of the Christian zealots (a gaggle of aging women mostly), and the luminous protagonist with the orange hair and wondrous eyes (Emily Aston as the child and Charlotte Coleman as the adolescent).
This debut of an all-female production team (producer Phillippa Giles, director Beeban Kidron, and writer Jeanette Winterson, who adapted the film from her autobiographical novel) is impressive in capturing the novelist’s first-person viewpoint, which is difficult to do on film. You observe this pinched world and these hatchet faces through the unwavering eyes of the young girl.
The second hour is the most riveting, with the teen-age girl’s tumultuous discovery of the flesh in a lesbian love affair, her denunciation in front of the pulpit, a harrowing exorcism performed by a charismatic pastor, and her ultimate break from the church to hit the road selling ice cream out of a van.
Geraldine McEwan is memorably fierce and also loving in her crazed way as the girl’s spiritually obsessed mother. The heroine’s two girlfriends (Cathryn Bradshaw and Barbara Hicks) are exquisite casting, and the protagonist’s affairs with both leap from puppy love to sexual discovery with economy and touching sensibility.
There’s nothing pat about the story.
The tone is never merely satiric or mean-spirited, and the film grows into a reflection of a young woman’s looming acceptance as she prepares to go off to Oxford with one last visit with Mum and her now rather affectionate-looking band of believers.
One caution, besides the length, is the British accents. Occasionally, you can’t make out what people are saying, but don’t worry about it.
It’s small talk, it’s life, and you don’t need to hear everything.