Clarissa (review)

This handsome BBC/Masterpiece Theater production toodles along elegantly, all period costumes and posh accents and people being beastly to one another in the most refined way… until it turns so shockingly vicious that you’re riveted, unable to believe what you’re seeing. The hints were there all along, of course, in this original dangerous liaison, based on the 1748 novel by Samuel Richardson: The virginal Clarissa Harlowe (who’d be obnoxiously virtuous if not for the steely performance of Saskia Wickham) suffers horrendously at the hands of her jealous siblings, overlooked in their grandfather’s will (he left his fortune to Clarissa), so they scheme to marry her to the most hideous clown of an aristocrat they can find — picture a Regency version of Carrot Top, and imagine the gall. The evil glee with which Clarissa’s family variously disowns and dishonors her foreshadows the horror to come, as she is forced by circumstance to throw herself upon the mercy of notorious rake Robert Lovelace (a harrowing Sean Bean: The Island), who is alternately plotting to pluck her virtue and finding himself genuinely besotted by her. This is the rare period production that is enjoyable as both serious drama and delicious camp… until that riveting moment toward the end, when you’ll be tempted to start watching all over again in order to appreciate how dark the entire affair really is. The transfer to DVD of this 1991 production is fine, and unexpected among the bonus material are outtakes and actors’ screen tests.

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