If a programme attracts over 800 complaints, is that a sign it’s doing something right? I suspect some of the audience members who criticised the BBC’s flagship Easter period drama, Jamaica Inn, for ‘mumbling’ actors whose lines they couldn’t understand, had tuned in expecting the usual crinolines-and-crumpets period drama, and were thrown by finding something different and much darker.
Having finally exhausted all Jane Austen’s work, the BBC has now turned to adapting a novel by the severely underrated Daphne du Maurier. Too often dismissed as bodice-rippers, her novels are in fact subtle, masterfully written and subversively feminist thrill-rides through the darkest corners of the human psyche. Jamaica Inn is a primary example. It begins with its orphan heroine Mary Yellan (Jessica Brown-Findlay) arriving at the run-down alehouse of the title in the middle of Cornwall’s muddy, misty moors, home of the aunt and uncle she has never met. However, she soon discovers that her uncle Joss Merlyn (Sean Harris) is a violent, unstable alcoholic who runs a smuggling ring out of the inn. Mary is appalled, but her vulnerability as a young and penniless woman in a ruthless world leaves her with nowhere else to go, and she becomes drawn into uncovering the smuggling gang’s secrets.
Jamaica Inn would not have been so enthralling without its outstanding lead performances. Jessica Brown-Findlay and Sean Harris both took characters who could have been clichés – the Feisty Period Heroine and the Crook With A Troubled Conscience – and made them complex, convincing characters. Between this and her portrayal of an innocent lost in a dystopian future in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, Brown-Findlay is rapidly proving to be the best Downton Abbey alumnus. Her Mary was softly-spoken and controlled, but with the impression of an emotional world beneath her astonishing blue eyes as she fought to protect her integrity and life in the teeth. Likewise, Sean Harris, despite being the source of most of the mumbling complaints, was a mesmerising mix of terrifying and pitiful as Joss. The warped growing dynamic between the two dominated the show, and meant other characters occasionally felt slightly superfluous – Mary’s romance with Joss’ brother Jem (Matthew McNulty), for instance, seemed clumsily crafted in from another, lighter series. However, Joanne Whalley as Mary’s aunt Patience offered a harrowingly realistic depiction of someone trapped in an abusive relationship.
Jamaica Inn had some flaws, mostly stemming from the tension between the commercially appealing drama it had to be and the more challenging and interesting story it wanted to be. Mary’s over-expository voiceover at the beginning of each episode grated, and the final climax descended into melodrama. However, overall it was a gripping and unforgettable depiction of the power of crime to subsume desperate lives as surely as the fogs covered the moors.