Riding a wave of adaptations of Edith Wharton novels a decade ago (following "Ethan Frome" and "The Age of Innocence" and preceding "The House of Mirth"), "The Buccaneers" aired on "Masterpiece Theatre" in 1995 and was soon forgotten. But, against all odds (it is, after all, based on an unfinished novel), the miniseries works. Its lavish production, fine cast and, above all, its unblinking analysis of the Victorian class system mark it out for near-classic status.
In this story's depiction of the interplay of the New World and the Old, Wharton enters territory so thoroughly staked out by her older friend Henry James. The title refers to a group of American girls of the 1870s who, at the suggestion of a British governess, "invade" England with the aim of finding high-society husbands. The four girls -- sisters Nan and Virgina St. George (Carla Gugino and Alison Elliott), Lizzy Elmsworth (Rya Kihlstedt) and Conchita Closson (Mira Sorvino) -- are all nouveau riche and therefore denied true entry into the high society of New York and Newport, R.I. But they and their fathers' vast fortunes are welcomed by the English nobility, which has been reduced to an elite in name only -- their wealth is gone but they still have their huge, lavish estates and lifestyles to maintain. With the exception of Lizzy, the girls all make bad marriages: the vivacious Brazilian-American Conchita to the dissolute Lord Richard; Virginia to Richard's brother, Lord Seadown (Mark Tandy), who continues his long affair with a penniless spinster (Jenny Agutter); and the rebellious Nan to the priggish Julius, Duke of Trevenick.
Nan's true love is Julius' friend Guy Thwaite (Greg Wise), who has been left without an inheritance due to his father Sir Helmsley Thwaite's (Michael Kitchen) history of financial irresponsibility. Nan is the youngest of the girls and her story is the central one; her brave climactic act -- worthy of a D.H. Lawrence heroine -- is an affront to the very society she had so eagerly tried to enter.
Cherie Lunghi plays the governess, the 40ish Laura Testvalley, who is Nan's teacher and confidante. Laura -- beautiful and gracious but "common" -- is the miniseries' occasional narrator and she stands for the fate of unmarried women in 19th-century society. She sums up the piece's theme when she moans near the end: "Can a woman never be free to choose her life, to love, to have her own free will?"
"The Buccaneers" is full of melodramatics worthy of a soap opera: extramarital affairs, repressed homosexuality, addiction, a self-performed abortion, veneral disease. Wharton was a teenager in the 1870s, like her heroines, but she wrote the novel from a distance of 60s years and was thus able to be more explicit. She died in 1937 before finishing the novel, but left behind a plot outline. Screenwriter Maggie Wadey completed the work and perhaps only a Wharton scholar could tell where one storyteller left off and another began, so smooth is the whole enterprise. (A tie-in edition of the novel was complete by Angela Mackworth-Young, who wrote the last two-fifths of the book based on Wadey's screenplay.)
Despite a shaky beginning, some overbearing theme music and a few weak performances that augur something on the level of a Lifetime movie, "The Buccaneers" develops into a complex and subtle work. And a funny one for American viewers, too: Watch the end credits and note that the character names we've heard often throughout as "Seaton" and "Brittlesee" are in fact spelled "Seadown" and "Brightlingsea."
BBC Video has squeezed all five hours of "The Buccaneers" on one double-sided DVD, with Side A containing three episodes, and Side B holding the last two episodes plus a 24-minute "making-of" featurette. There are no running commentaries or subtitles, so more bit space is devoted to the picture, and it is superb, the green lawns, red flowers, blue dresses and yellow and purple sofas bright and vivid. (The Victorians have an erroneous reputation for being all blacks and grays.)
The series was shot on Super 16mm in the European widescreen standard of 1.66:1. It is presented on DVD in the unusual, BBC-developed 14:9 ratio, a compromise format: on a standard TV, the entire screen will be filled, though you're not seeing the right and left edges of the original picture; but on widescreen sets and monitors, you get it all, with narrow black bars at top and bottom and wider bars on the sides.
The main menu on each side features attractive full-motion scenes. The first, 90-minute episode, has 12 chapter markers; the other, hourlong installments, each have seven.
When you insert the disc, you automatically get the standard BBC montage plugging its adaptations of literary classics by Austen, Dickens, et al. Other than a closed-captioning option for TVs that enable it, the only extra is the making-of featurette, "On the Set of 'The Buccaneers.'" The special was made to air on the BBC in 1995 and gives background on that "neglected female writer" Edith Wharton. Many of the cast members are interviewed on the set. Sheila Hancock in full garb as the elderly Duchess of Trevenick, says: "Nobody else could be less sympathetic to the aristocracy than me. I verge on extreme left-wing, and I'd like to see the lot of them abolished. But ... as an actress, I have had to get inside the minds of people like this and I have ended up having a great deal of respect for them, particularly in this period [the 1870s]."
Executive producer Phillippa Giles notes the problems of working from an unfinished novel. "It was challenge which we welcomed because it meant that we could have a bit more license. And I think because also this is a project which I've not put the 'classic' type to. It is not [Wharton's] best work, therefore I think we could make quite bold changes."
Not a classic like other Edith Wharton novels -- indeed, not even known by most lit lovers -- the unfinished "The Buccaneers" was salvaged in 1995 and turned into a fine miniseries that will appeal to the "Masterpiece Theatre"/Merchant-Ivory crowd. Intelligent, well-acted and moving, it also features early performances by Mira Sorvino and Carla Gugino. The DVD is only moderately extras-endowed and the aspect ratio is unusual, but the show looks great, and so it's recommended for fans of literary adaptations and fine British heritage production values.