"Daniel Deronda," George Eliot's final novel, is such a long (849 pages), complex work, I could not see how it could possibly be squeezed into a 3 1/2-hour time frame on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" (Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. on KCET and KVCR). But writer Andrew Davies, producer Louis Marks and director Tom Hooper have managed somehow to distill the entire novel without compromise, encompassing both the large social issues and the nuances of character in a production that is acted superbly and visually stunning.
In many ways, the novel is Eliot's message to the world, in which she explores the issues most central to her life: the woman who chooses art over family; the need for a cause, whether artistic or political, greater than oneself. The novel was groundbreaking in its exposure of Victorian anti-Semitism and the growing Zionist movement among London Jews.
But ultimately it is about romantic choices and their consequences, a subject with which Eliot, who lived with a man separated from his wife for 24 years, was obsessed.
Writing in 1876, pre-Freud, Eliot explores why people make the romantic choices they do with remarkable psychological insight. Some, like our hero Daniel Deronda (Hugh Dancy), need to be needed. Some, like upper-class bully Henleigh Grandcourt (Hugh Bonneville), need to control. Some, like insolent, insouciant beauty Gwendolen Harleth (Romola Garai), need money. Some, like the young Jewish woman Mirah Lapidoth (Jodhi May), just need love.
Daniel is caught between his strong attraction to Gwendolen, who is like a magnificent thoroughbred, and his tender affection for Mirah, more of a delicate songbird. His ultimate choice is surprising, in some ways radical and in others disappointing.
Despite the novel's title, it is the character of Gwendolen who steals the show. Garai captures her Jane Austen-heroine-with-bite persona perfectly.