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Motherland's Cold Embrace: An Advance Review of Small Island on PBS' Masterpiece Classic

"One should respect his motherland, his culture and his mother tongue because they are givers of happiness." - Rig Veda

Adapted from Andrea Levy's novel of the same name, the lyrical and profound Small Island--airing the next two Sundays as part of PBS' Masterpiece Classic--recounts the struggle of two very different couples, bound by a invisible web of fate, who attempt to reconcile their own notions of the motherland and the reality of their circumstances.

Set during and immediately after World War II in London, two-part drama Small Island--adapted by Paula Milne (Endgame) and Sarah Williams (Becoming Jane) and directed by John Alexander (Sense & Sensibility)--explores the imaginary landscape of the motherland, the promise of its embrace, and its cold reception towards those who might be willing to lay down their lives to her defense but whose skin color makes them outcasts.

For Jamaican schoolmistress Hortense (Pirates of the Caribbean's Naomie Harris) and military driver Gilbert (The Last King of Scotland's David Oyelowo), England represents the promise of happiness, a place of broad-minded people who will immediately embrace them as fellow children of the same mother. But their expectations are brutally shattered when they discover that the motherland that they have grown to love with such reverence rejects them completely because their skin is not white.

Hortense and Gilbert's relationship--a marriage of convenience for both are looking to escape Jamaica--is juxtaposed against that of white British couple Queenie (Jane Eyre's Ruth Wilson) and Bernard (The Last Enemy's Benedict Cumberbatch), themselves also enmeshed in another marriage that might seem idyllic on the surface but lacks any real connection or passion.

The four individuals find their lives connected in a variety of ways, some known and others more ethereal. Serving in the British military, Gilbert meets Queenie when she takes her father-in-law to her family farm in Yorkshire, a place she swore she would never return to. A fatal accident binds the two of them together in unforeseen ways and, after the war, when Gilbert is looking for a place to stay, he goes looking for Queenie, herself struggling to make ends meet after the disappearance of her husband, Bernard.

Moving into Queenie's spare room, Gilbert sends for his wife, the haughty Hortense, who only married him so that she would be able to travel to England and escape Jamaica. Giving him the funds to make his way to the United Kingdom, Hortense sells away her matrimony, looking upon her nuptials as little more than an escape route from her small island. With her elegant manners and imperious attitude, Hortense finds the squalor of Gilbert's home at odds with her fantasy of England, a place where her home would have an doorbell, a garden, and electric lights in every room. What she discovers is that England is just as small as Jamaica and that the reality of her situation is far different than she had anticipated.

For Hortense, Gilbert was a replacement for the true love of her life: Michael (Ashley Walters), the dashing man that was raised as her adopted brother. When he left for England and was declared missing in action, Hortense was heartbroken. But Michael also left his presence on Queenie when he meets her during the war. That these two very different women should be so united by their shared love for the same man is one of the quirks that makes this such a remarkable drama.

Filled with both humor and pathos, Small Island meticulously recreates the feeling of post-war London with a combination of grit and upbeat charm. The effect renders the plights of Hortense, Queenie, Gilbert, and Bernard as both heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measure. While there are some truly emotional beats, there are some terrifically funny ones as well and the cast excels at creating a very real vibrancy to these characters, delivering some of the very best acting--on film or television--seen this year.

Ultimately, the gripping and evocative Small Island serves as a taut exploration of the lure of opportunity and the way in which our lives may or may not turn out the way we imagined. The motherland might beckon to each of us in her own way but more often that not we'll be surprised to discover that we've just traded one small island for another. It's what we do next, when faced with overwhelming obstacles, that defines us for who we really are.

Part One of Small Island airs Sunday night at 9 pm on PBS' Masterpiece Classic. Check your local listings for details.


Myrna said…
Wow, this looks great. I think Ruth Wilson was excellent in Jane Eyre and look forward to seeing her in this. Thanks for the recommendation!

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