This is the weirdest period production I've seen in a while, and a terribly disappointing effort from the master of the adaptation, Andrew Davies. Fair warning: I'm including spoilers, because I can't adequately justify my complaints without them.
Firstly, the pros. Anna Maxwell Martin is bright, beautiful and interesting. Her costumes are so lovely I want them for myself, and she is a stellar actress. I have no complaints about her performance whatsoever (although I do have some issues with the character). David Morrissey is also excellent. He has a knack for portraying both the absolutely repulsive (ie. Bradley Headstone in 'Our Mutual Friend', Stephen Collins in 'State of Play') and the terrifically endearing (ie. Colonel Brandon in 'Sense and Sensibility') and sometimes both at once (friendly/murderous Nazi Gunther Weber in 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin'). In 'South Riding' he's utterly convincing as a brusque Yorkshireman. Other stand-out performances include the always marvellous Penelope Wilton, and Charlie May Clarke, who plays impoverished and heavily accented student Lydia Holly with such authenticity it's hard to believe she's not real.
The landscape is breathtaking, and the sweeping cinematography very impressive. The score is very dramatic too. In short, the production values generally are excellent. Unfortunately, once you're fully invested in the characters and in love with the scenery, the director abruptly pulls the rug out from under you. For the sake of brevity, I'm going to list the awkwardly resolved plot points that left me scratching my head:
*I found myself wondering if I had missed an episode, or at least some vital piece of the action, as love interest Robert Carne (David Morrisey) and his horse abruptly plunge off a cliff. One minute he's enjoying the bracing Yorkshire rain, the next we're told his horse has been found on the beach below. Are we to assume he's dead, or hope he's alive? Apparently the former: there's a sudden funeral. His body must have washed up at some point (I can't be sure - all we see is a dark shape bobbing in the waves as children play on the beach), but the sequence of events at this point is so confused it's hard to work out what's actually happened. When the action turned abruptly from the graveside ceremony to Carne riding breathlessly along the cliffs, I thought for a moment he was crashing the funeral to exclaim "that body isn't mine!". It turned out to be an awkwardly inserted flashback, complete with dodgy CGI, to explain how he'd died (mudslide).
*Ms Burton (Anna Maxwell Martin) announces at the funeral that she knew Carne well, and was not ashamed to say it. The problem is, she didn't know him well. She helped him deliver a calf, and they had a single date (followed by a late-night tryst that ultimately didn't pan out, due to a mysterious heart condition that is never adequately explained). The chemistry between the two is palpable, but the relationship isn't explored in enough depth to make Carne's death truly devastating. The romance began pretty abruptly (something along the lines of "would you like to come to my room?"), and the only reason it wasn't a shock was because we've all seen tv shows before, and we all know the main guy usually hooks up with the main girl. It could have been handled with more grace, but I guess delivering a calf with someone is the sort of icky/lovely bonding experience that rapidly accelerates the relationship to Stage Two, whether you like it or not.
*Socialist Joe Astell's declaration of love for Ms Burton comes completely out of the blue, and lacks resonance. I was never quite sure what he was doing in the story, or what his relationship to Ms Burton was, but in the final episode she emphatically declares that they are "just friends", then emphatically kisses him. Then the mudslide, then Astell's proposal (of sorts), which is confusing and ill-timed, as though the director is trying to tie up loose ends we didn't even know were there.
*After her father's death, Carne's daughter Midge, whom the first and second episodes imply is prone to psychosis and cruelty, inexplicably decides to live with her grandfather, whom neither Midge nor the audience has ever met until the last five minutes of the program. This, despite her father asking the beloved and familiar Mrs Beddows to raise Midge in the event of his death.
*Carne's mentally ill wife, who is usually doped up and restrained when he visits her in the asylum, is suddenly released after his death and returns home to Midge and the grandfather. Throughout the marriage she was suicidal and promiscuous, and Carne announces shortly before he dies that it doesn't looks like she will ever be well enough to leave the asylum. So what's the deal? Is she recovered? Was it a madwoman-in-the-attic type scenario, the psychologically unbalanced wife imprisoned by a husband who is himself no angel, or is she genuinely in need of full time care? The story never lets us in on her diagnosis, but I'm not confident that she's fit to raise a daughter, and we don't even witness the reunion. It's unsatisfying. Moreover, Ms Burton seems to have formed no lasting bond with Midge despite claiming to 'know' her father, and it's unclear why Midge is so indifferent about Mrs Beddows.
*Lydia Holly returns to school and becomes a teacher, which is as it should be. The circumstances are bizarre, though. After the sudden death of his wife (presumably due to a botched abortion?), her father decides, apparently on the spur of the moment, to propose marriage to a decent-looking woman we've never met before. Why she accepts the offer of a destitute widower with four or five kids - including an infant - and living in what can only be described as a converted tram is not clear, but it does wrap everything up in a neat little package, which I guess was the point.
*Married councillor Alfred Huggins' relationship with Bessy Warbuckle is disturbing, in that I can't tell whether she's supposed to be intellectually challenged or not. She's sophisticated enough to seduce Huggins, but blithely announces her pregnancy as though he'll receive it as happy news. Either way, once her scheming fiancee has extorted a large sum from Huggins, she seems to vanish from the story. Huggins gets his comeuppance in the form of a major financial loss, but it's not clear why the eccentric and corrupt Alderman Snaith gets away with his machinations, or really what he has to do with the story at all, except as a plot device. I may have actually missed something there, because I don't totally get what happened in the end.
Ultimately, the various storylines converge in a tangled mess in the third and final episode, and resolve themselves unsatisfactorily or not at all. Everything winds up very suddenly, and it left me puzzled and frustrated. It wasn't the story of triumph over struggle and poverty that I had hoped it would be. I didn't necessarily anticipate a happy ending, but an audience is always entitled to a satisfying one, because we've engaged with the characters and invested in the story. Sarah Burton's motivations remained a mystery, and her militant feminism and defiant attitude too often came across as unprovoked irritability. Though she succeeds in drawing promising student Lydia Holly back to school, she fails to engage with her on her level, or to present realistic solutions to the problems of a critically impoverished single-parent family. While Lydia triumphs, fellow student Midge Carne is abandoned to an indifferent fate.
Despite it's visual beauty and glossy production values, the meaning of this story is obscured in a confused conclusion, and I'm disappointed.