Moth [2003]

Brutal family brawls, World War I post-traumatic stress, religious skepticism, and child prostitution--not what you expect from a collection of romances! But though Catherine Cookson's novels emphasize the redemptive power of love, they never lose sight of the harsher side of life. Certain themes recur again and again, particularly the cruelty of class snobbery (before she became one of the wealthiest women in England, Cookson worked as a servant). But her treatment of class is nuanced and complex; in The Wingless Bird, for example, an upper-crust couple oppose their son marrying a shopgirl--but the shopgirl's middle-class parents are just as hostile to their other daughter marrying a lower-class bloke. In The Rag Nymph--perhaps the most enjoyable of the four, with its detailed Victorian setting and ripping plot--an orphan girl hopes a gentleman will marry her, but her dream is clearly portrayed as folly, while the class-bridging romance of The Fifteen Streets--set at the turn of the century--has a chance to triumph, as does the 1913 romance between a carpenter and an heiress in The Moth. Cookson's romances lack the wit and subtlety of Jane Austen or the theatricality and invention of Charles Dickens, but her vigorous storytelling combined with her unblinking eye towards class and violence in ordinary life--both physical and emotional--make her stories vivid and engaging. The excellent casts don't hurt either; these miniseries are dotted with actors who went on to great acclaim in movies and television, including Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings, the Sharpe series), Jane Horrocks (Absolutely Fabulous, Little Voice), Jack Davenport (Coupling, Pirates of the Caribbean), Juliet Aubrey (The Mayor of Casterbridge), Honeysuckle Weeks (Foyle's War), and more. Hopeful yet honest, romantic but skeptical, these four adaptations splendidly demonstrate Cookson's blend of tart and sweet. --Bret Fetzer

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