There is a brief, poignant moment in "Masterpiece Theatre's" production of "The Mill on the Floss" in which Maggie Tulliver, the lead character, says, "We can't choose happiness. . . . We can only choose whether we listen to our conscience."
The phrase could serve as the motto for this gorgeous visual rendering of George Eliot's classic, haunting novel, a superb choice for the premiere event in "Masterpiece Theatre's" 27th season.
Maggie, performed with an extraordinary range of convincing emotion by Academy Award-nominated actress Emily Watson, is, like the other characters in her small 19th century English town, at the mercy of conscience, in all its forms.
Her story unfolds with all the inevitability of Greek tragedy. Maggie's father (portrayed by Bernard Hill) loses his mill--on the Floss river, which had been in the family for 300 years--to the manipulations of a heartless lawyer, Mr. Wakem (Nicholas Gecks). But a Romeo-and-Juliet theme parallels the mill's loss as Maggie becomes romantically attached to Wakem's disabled son, Philip (James Frain).
When Maggie's brother, Tom (Ifan Meredith), angrily insists that the relationship be broken off, in deference to their father's pride, a series of events unfolds that lead to an inescapably tragic climax.
The tale is wrapped in the complex dramatic threads and sudden story shifts characteristic of 19th century novels. But the acting--especially by Watson and Frain--is so believable and the directorial pacing so carefully done that the picture is absolutely gripping, from beginning to end.
"The Mill on the Floss" was shot in a picturesque area of Norfolk, England, with attention to fine detail that results in an utterly believable period quality. Director Graham Theakston has positioned his drama in spare, sometimes stark settings, allowing the actors time and space to find the inner life in their characters.
Composer John Scott's music, supportive but never intrusive, creates the perfect aural atmosphere for this dark, compelling romance.
* "The Mill on the Floss" airs on "Masterpiece Theatre" at 9 p.m. Sunday on KCET-TV Channel 28. PBS has rated it TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children because of moderate violence).