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Woman of Substance, A

Acorn Media // Unrated // April 9, 2002
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted June 11, 2002 | E-mail the Author
A Woman of Substance is the miniseries adaptation of Barbara Taylor Bradford's best-selling historical/romance novel of the same title. Running six hours long, it starts off in the modern day with Emma Harte (Deborah Kerr) as the matriarch of a large family and the controller of a tremendous business empire. All is not well with the family, however, and Emma begins to make plans for a resolution that will keep her in control. But this portion of the series is simply a frame story for the real subject matter: how young Emma (played by Jenny Seagrove) started out as a poor servant girl in rural Yorkshire and rose to become the wealthy and powerful woman that we see in the frame story.

A Woman of Substance can't be said to have a lot of substance as a drama, if the truth be told, but it's really quite entertaining. Over the course of the story it pulls out every cliché in the book and uses them shamelessly; in short, A Woman of Substance is pure melodrama, populated by a heroine with a will of iron and ambition to match, evil landowners, an impoverished but golden-hearted family, enamored suitors, star-crossed lovers, and illegitimate children, as well as a liberal helping of affairs, disasters, wars, and romances. But despite being plainly manipulative, it's remarkably effective: I couldn't help but be caught up in the triumphs and tragedies of the characters even while recognizing the way the right strings were being pulled. A Woman of Substance is melodrama, but it's good melodrama: it always takes itself seriously, so it's easy to get into the spirit of it because it uses its clichés to weave an entertaining and eventful story.

The key element that makes A Woman of Substance stand out from more generic romance/soap opera is its historical setting, at the turn of the century. It looks as though it's been quite carefully researched; the story takes the characters to a variety of locations, from a high-class household to the inside of working mill, and though I don't have a historian's eye to tell if the details are right, they look authentic and add a lot of charm and appeal to the story.

A Woman of Substance is very fast-paced, often skipping months or years between scenes. The most entertaining part of the series is the portion when Emma is a servant and when she is working on the beginnings of her fortune; once she achieves riches (which happens astonishingly quickly), the plot loses some of its appeal. Fortunately, by that point the characters have been developed to the point that we're engaged by their fortunes and misfortunes, which gives the series entertainment value to the end. Characterizations are quite strong all around, with the actors doing a good job at showing how their characters truly (and realistically) changed over the course of their lives. Seagrove in particular does a good job with Emma, showing her as a woman who is driven by revenge and hate, and who despite achieving everything she sets out to, is nonetheless continually unhappy and unfulfilled. Money can't buy happiness, A Woman of Substance seems to say... though it does a nice job of buying revenge.

A Woman of Substance can be bought individually, or in a set with the two miniseries that were created as sequels: Hold the Dream and To Be the Best. Sadly, these two follow-ups utterly lack the charm that makes A Woman of Substance worth viewing.

Hold the Dream takes up where A Woman of Substance leaves off... disregarding the fact that A Woman of Substance had a perfectly good and satisfying resolution. The characters are the same as in the modern-day portion of A Woman of Substance, except that many of the actors have been changed. The most jarring change is in the character of Paula Harte, who is played in Hold the Dream by Jenny Seagrove, the actress who played young Emma Harte in the first series. Hold the Dream tells the story of Paula's attempt to hold onto the financial empire left to her by Emma. Lacking any particular story arc, the series muddles through a soap-opera plot with devilish machinations of Paula's business competitors, who seem to be fabricated (along with their motivations) simply for the sake of the plot. Video and sound quality for this disc are about the same as for A Woman of Substance; it includes an interview with author Barbara Taylor Bradford.

To Be the Best takes another turn for the worse. This series continues the "lives of the rich and famous" of Hold the Dream, lavishing attention on the sets, costumes, and exotic locations when what's missing is some genuine personality for the story. It's truly ironic that the story of To Be the Best focuses on the lives of the rich "gentry" who have inherited wealth and power from their parents and grandparents, when the entire focus of A Woman of Substance was Emma Harte's struggle to raise herself from poverty to success. The character of Emma Harte disdained the pampered rich who treated servants as invisible slaves, while the characters of Hold the Dream and To Be the Best have become those self-same rich, with servants as part of the furniture. To Be the Best does have significantly better image quality than either of the two preceding miniseries, with a much cleaner print; it comes with an interview with Barbara Taylor Bradford.


A Woman of Substance is a disappointment in the video quality department. It looks like the 1984 production was not cleaned up in the slightest for its DVD release. In general, the image is grainy and very noisy. There are also many print flaws such as scratches that pop up in the image. The series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33: 1.


The Dolby 2.0 track is adequate if not impressive. The series is mainly dialogue-based, and the soundtrack does present the dialogue clearly for the most part, with no background noise or distortion.


A Woman of Substance is packaged in a single-width DVD keepcase that has both discs secured in plastic spindles. The special features include cast biographies and filmographies, a twenty-minute interview with author Barbara Taylor Bradford discussing herself and her inspiration for the novel, and an interview with producer Diane Baker, who also has a supporting role in the series.

Final thoughts

A Woman of Substance, taken by itself, is a definitely entertaining series; it's fluffy, but it's fun. Its sequels are an entirely different story, so I would recommend getting A Woman of Substance but passing on To Hold the Dream and To Be the Best. In that way, you'll be getting the cream of the crop.
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