Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now


From the very first moment you get a glimpse of David Suchet gobbling his way through the role of Augustus Melmotte, you're going to suspect PBS' "The Way We Live Now" is going to be a unique television voyage.

And you won't be wrong: "The Way We Live Now" is by far the very best thing I've seen on a television screen during this TV season. It's so incredibly good that it's like a great mushroom cloud of quality looming up over the great sea of mediocrity that is television today in America.

What's more, that fabulous actor David Suchet, who's best known to Americans as the man who plays Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot to absolute perfection, once and forever proves that he's no one-shot lucky marksman. His Melmotte--a greedy, vulgar financial piranha in 19th century England--is an acting bullseye of epic proportions.

When I say Suchet "gobbles," I don't mean he chews up scenery like a ham actor. This is no ham actor. Suchet plays Melmotte big because his persona is so swollen, his appetites so gargantuan. He's a glutton--a man who hogs down food, gulps down goblets of wine and inhales great storms of putrid cigar smoke, all the while sucking up all the money he can lay his hands on.

Set in England of the 1870s, "The Way We Live Now" was meant by Trollope to be a satirical view of the commerce-driven entrepreneurs who, in America, were becoming railroad barons and John D. Rockafeller wannabes. Melmotte is the worst of the lot: A man who's an expert at finding worthwhile ideas for grand scale projects, raising mammoth sums of money from investors to build them, but all the while skimming every dime he can grasp while "investing" it mainly in his own lavish lifestyle.

But Suchet plays Melmotte with such immense style that you almost feel like getting your banker on the phone and having him wire the clever sod every penny you have, so you, too, can be part of his latest grand scheme: The Mexican railway.

"These are great times," Melmotte tells his investors. "The Mexican railway is a great enterprise. And what is the engine of this great work? PROFIT!"

The story of Melmotte's rise to fame and fortune is a rich and deeply involving one, adapted for television by England's finest dramatic television writer, Andrew Davies, the man who has given the world such great television dramas as the fabulous "House of Cards" trilogy, starring Ian Richardson as a sinister British prime minister; the "Middlemarch" miniseries frm the George Eliot novel and the recent contemporary version of Shakespeare's "Othello," all for "Masterpiece Theatre."

Among those caught in Melmotte's web are his strange and shrimpy daughter, Marie (Shirley Henderson), who Melmotte wants to marry off to an English fop. But an impoverished noblewoman, Lady Carbury (Cheryl Campbell), instead sees a great opportunity to have her dissolute rakehell of a son, Sir Felix (Matthew Macfadyen), court Marie instead before he finishes the job of drinking and gambling his family into total ruin.

Paloma Baeza and Cillian Murphy are the decent couple among the many corrupt characters.

Also snagged by the Melmotte tentacles is Lady Carbury's decent and lovely daughter, Hetta (Paloma Baeza), who's being pressured to marry her good, but tedious cousin Roger (Douglas Hodge) just because he's wealthy and a secure member of the landed gentry. Instead, Hetta has fallen in love with youthful engineer Paul Montague (Cillian Murphy), who not only happens to be Roger's best friend, but has just become Melmotte's partner in building the fabled Mexican railway from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Vera Cruz, Mexico.

What Hetta doesn't know is that Paul once was engaged to pistol-packing American widow Winifred Hurtle (Miranda Otto), who arrives in England, dying to rekindle her romance with the handsome young man. If he doesn't honor his engagement to her, says Mrs. Hurtle, she promises to shoot him on the spot, just as she did her late husband some years ago.

There are several other intriguing subplots in "The Way We Live Now," but the core of the drama is the rapid rise of Melmotte himself and his seduction by English society. At first Melmotte is devoted to his scheme of raising an enormous sum of money, then diverting it secretly to his other global schemes while spending none of it on building the railway. But, along the way, he decides he wants to rise in British society and starts spending his investors' money accordingly, starting with a bold plan to buy his way into a seat in Parliament.

From left, Miranda Otto as pistol-packin' Mrs. Hurtle; Matthew Macfadyen and Shirley Henderson as ill-matched lovers; Douglas Hodge as stable, but boring Cousin Roger.

Each of these central characters is beautifully realized in Davies' extraordinarily witty teleplay--and played to the hilt by the outstanding cast. Henderson's Marie is the weirdest by far. Imagine Little Iodine speaking with the cartoonish voice of Bernadette Peters and you get the picture. Marie is so desperate for love that she literally squirms whenever the handsome, but mercenary Sir Felix appears. She hops up and down and squeaks with delight.

Macfadyen's Felix is the definitive English lout. His permanent air of boredom is only broken when he has a truly violent hangover or he limps home, bunged up badly after being beaten up by one man or another. (He always tells him mother he's been set upon by a gang of six or eight hooligans.) While he romances Marie, he's also plugging away at a farmgirl who runs away from home to track him down in the city. He starts building up a mighty need for comeuppance from his very first scene.

In sharp contrast is Murphy's Paul Montague, a lad so honest that he even risks facing up to the all-powerful Melmotte when he suspects the railway he's engineering may be nothing but a giant myth. He seems such an obvious match for the lovely and sincere Hetta, though, that you stumble over the notion that he ever might have engaged himself to the crass and malicious Mrs. Hurtle.

Another case entirely is Lady Carbury, a woman who has supported her family in the past by writing scandalous novels (as Trollope's own mother did) and now wants them to support her by marrying into wealth. Though it's troubling to see the glorious Cheryl Campbell, who starred in so many PBS dramas and such films as "Chariots of Fire," now a rather hefty middleaged woman, nobody could play Lady Carbury better. She's a once-sexy woman who still must see herself as a sexpot--and when Lady Carbury finally attracts a suitor of her own, Campbell literally steals every scene she's in.

Trollope certainly had his fun mixing all these peculiar types together because they produce a very tasty dramatic stew. But Suchet stirs that pot with such great flourishes, invigorating scene after scene with his commanding presence, that it very nearly becomes a tour-de-force, almost an impossibility with such a sterling cast of supporting players. If you know him only as the fussy, meticulous Poirot, you'll relish Suchet's ability to play a man who's the absolute antithesis of Poirot. You'll be talking about his final speech to Parliament for weeks.

In case you missed it, I'll underscore it again: This is a dazzling six hours of television. If you've forgotten how good television can dazzle you, this will be the wakeup call you've been waiting for all season long.