Clarissa Delightfully Juicy and Disturbing
By Kristin Battestella
Despite being a Sean Bean fan and a classic literature aficionado, I’ve always avoided watching the 1991 television adaptation Clarissa for one critical reason: I don’t want to end up reading Samuel Richardson’s one million word book! If The Lord of the Rings took me four months, I can’t imagine what birth I’d have to set aside for this early classic of morality and torment. Thankfully, the BBC has given us a condensed, delightful, and tragic helping here.
Clarissa Harlow (Saskia Wickham) is a chaste and devout daughter. Upon her grandfather’s death, she inherits most of his estate-much to the chagrin of her brother James (Jonathan Phillips). The ruthless but handsome rogue Robert Lovelace (Bean), meanwhile, is charming Clarissa’s sister Bella (Lynsey Baxter). However, once Lovelace meets the fair and innocent Clarissa, his attentions quickly turn to her sexual conquest, much to his and friend Jack Belford’s (Sean Pertwee) sport. Clarissa’s father (Jeffrey Wickham) and Uncle (Ralph Riach) plot for her to marry the decrepit Mr. Soames (Julian Firth), and pleas to her mother (Frances Vener) fall on deaf ears. Virtually a prisoner in her chambers, Clarissa corresponds with Lovelace and her friend Anna (Hermione Norris) with pleas of assistance. Despite the long line of broken ladies in Lovelace’s past, Clarissa flees from her family with him. Unfortunately, he soon confirms her suspicions of his true nature, and Clarissa realizes her situation may have gone from bad to worse.
Part One of this four hour miniseries feels like a quick fifty minutes where nothing really happens. Thankfully, Director Robert Bierman (Waking the Dead) kicks up Janet Barron and David Nokes’ (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) adaptation for Part Two. The audience feels for Clarissa, we have no reason to like her family and learn to like them even less as the tale moves along. However, we are also privy to Lovelace’s true colors from the start. Sometimes the pacing of the back and forth parlor drama is more annoying than it is dramatic early on, but as the complexity of the characters and situations are allowed to stew, Clarissa shifts from love or money Austen ideologies and debates to gothic, almost predatory horror. By the second half of the series, we are hooked in to seeing the degradation of the players, despite the increasing inevitability of an unhappy outcome.
Saskia Wickham (Peak Practice, Demons) treads a fine line as the titular woman in question. She is our emotional fulcrum, the one we are supposed to care about and root for. Sometimes, however, it’s tough to like Clarissa amid all the whining and back and forth highbrow discussions. We can almost understand why cruel sister Bella, Mrs. Sinclair and the working girls despise her. Clarissa is at times too good, too naive, and too dang annoying. How can she merely sit at her desk and write letters rather than see how things can play to her favor? Is she really so meek and useless? Fortunately, as Clarissa progresses, we do appreciate Wickham’s high and mighty attitudes. When she does get wise of Lovelace, it’s too late. Once stripped of her gilded cage, we can relate to Clarissa and feel for her-or at least we certainly don’t want to be her. She’s caught between two evils, and though we want to see her survive unscathed, it doesn’t seem likely.
We don’t have much of Sean Bean (Sharpe, Lord of the Rings, Patriot Games) and his Lovelace in Part One, but the cruel rogue turns up the fictitious charm as Clarissa develops. In some ways, he is the Vader of the piece-every use and situation is generated by Lovelace or orchestrated into his favor. Sometimes I found myself chuckling that any lady could fall for such an obvious lothario and snake-but Sean Bean plays Lovelace with such tongue in cheek delight. He is juicy, and he knows it. It is attractive, alluring, powerful, and scary all at the same time. We have no doubt that Lovelace will see his intentions upon Clarissa fulfilled. It’s a little too freaky and we don’t want to see him win, but we also know he will and must see his conquest to fruition. The viewer wants to know how far Lovelace will go, even if we regret going down the dark path with him. It’s a difficult part to play, a character within a character. Lovelace is slick and pretty-but the powdered wigs and makeup are a little garish and gaudy to us. But also, this is a very ugly role, a cruel and wicked wolf in sheep’s clothing that makes for an exceptional performance. Had Clarissa been a fancy HBO production, I’ve no doubt there would have been an Emmy nomination for Bean.
Naturally, some of the humongous book’s time and players have been whittled down, but the cruel support in Clarissa is on form. Saskia’s real life pop Jeffery Wickham (Sapphire & Steel, The Remains of The Day) is wonderfully conflicted as the stern father damning his daughter for choosing herself over her family duty, and Jonathan Phillips (Titanic, Vanity Fair) and Lynsey Baxter (Gormenghast) are equally creepy as the somewhat kinky and cruel siblings. I didn’t even recognize Hermione Norris (MI-5) as Clarissa’s good-hearted pen pal Anna, but she and Sean Pertwee (Cleopatra, Mutant Chronicles) as Jack Belford add an extra element to the series. Both are stuck on the sidelines between Clarissa and Lovelace and can’t do much to help. Belford’s realization of how far Lovelace is willing to go marks a fine turning point in Episode 3. It’s an element of hope for the audience, but we also see how far past the point of no return this situation is.
Shirley Henderson (Marie Antoinette, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) is also a naughty riot as the sassy maid Sally, and Cathryn Harrison (Soldier Soldier) as Mrs. Sinclair is delightfully cheeky and twisted as the leader of the disguised brothel effectively keeping Clarissa prisoner. We can see the prostitutes and all their deceptions for what they really are, but by time they resort to full on kidnapping, drugging, and violence with Lovelace, the writing is on the wall for Clarissa. The conclusion of Clarissa does leave a few questions and doesn’t clarify a few of the details, but a vindication of sorts and thus a satisfying conclusion is met. Now, I am tempted to find out which of
’s nine volumes have all the juicy stuff and take a literary gander. Oh, darn! Richardson
Clarissa is of course, a period piece, and fans of powdered wigs and frock coats will delight. The ladies costumes are all wonderful-even the rakish styles and overdone looks look accurate-as do the houses and set dressings. For those of us who see George Washington on the US Dollar Bill daily, the men’s ponytails and curly Q bangs are quickly overcome, but others might find the male opulence somewhat humorous. Once your knee deep into Clarissa, however, the stylized world overcomes the pomp and ceremony. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles to help with accents and old world language, but the intelligent viewer will pick up on the old speaketh dialogue just fine. I was surprised to see there are a few features on the Clarissa set-including some outtakes and screen tests. The slides on author Samuel Richardson are also interesting reading, but it’s a shame there’s no behind the scenes interviews with scholars and such for the real scoop of the novel’s place in literary history.
Men who love to hate Sean Bean and the women who can’t get enough of him will love Clarissa. Fans of the rest of the cast, period piece lovers, costume connoisseurs, and literary scholars will also delight. Some of Clarissa second half is a little too heavy for youth or the classroom, but if you’re deep enough to even consider the book, then I think one is probably mature enough for the film. Clarissa is romantic and yet disturbing, charming as well as revolting. Fine performances, great visuals, and a fine story keep this adaptation of the two hundred and fifty year old tale relevant. Get to know and love Clarissa today.