This review contains spoilers.
Adapted from the excellent Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name, Jamaica Inn follows the trials of Mary Yellan (Jessica Brown Findlay) who travels to the inn on Bodmin Moor after the sudden death of her mother. She is taken in by her aunt, Patience (Joanne Whalley) and uncle, the imposing Joss Merlyn (Sean Harris) and is swept up in their schemes. She becomes determined to resist all that goes on at the inn, including the charm of Jem Merlyn (Matthew McNulty), Joss’ younger brother, a horse thief and a bit of a cad.
The first episode wears its Gothic sensibilities on its sleeve; there are ever-lengthening shadows, enigmatic figures glimpsed from afar and a mystery to be solved. Emma Frost’s adaptation quickly gets to the heart of the smuggling ring using the inn as its base and thrusts Mary into the action. In doing so, Frost establishes Mary’s isolation in this world. Initially arriving at the inn with a strictly black and white moral view of the world, she is quickly worn down by the morality of the locals, which is more of a murky grey.
As with any adaptation, changes to the original text have been made, but largely for the benefit of the story and the characters. One such welcome change is the expansion of Aunt Patience’s role. Little more than a damsel in the novel, here Patience has been written as a multi-dimensional figure. Her lies spring from a desire to remain positive in the face of criminality and daily drudgery and she serves as a warning to Mary of what she may become if she remains in this life. Whalley’s performance is excellent, combining the vulnerability of a beaten wife with the steeliness of a woman determined to survive.
That will to survive is something which Mary has also been given a great deal of, to the point where how to get through the next situation she finds herself in becomes the character’s driving conflict. Jessica Brown Findlay is a solid presence at the heart of this drama, bringing a surly attitude to the character that clashes well with the strong masculine environment in which she finds herself. It threatens to become a little one-note before the episode’s end, however, but with relationships developing with Patience and Jem in particular, it looks likely that Brown Findlay will have more to work with in the coming episodes.
An undercurrent in the novel, the threat of sexual violence also becomes graphically clear as Mary is nearly assaulted by one of her uncle’s colleagues and she is consistently fighting for her independence in a world which demands that she should marry. However, the right to her bodily autonomy is a battle Mary has throughout the episode; she is observed by several men, notably Jem who stands watching her clean herself.
Her initial meeting with her uncle Joss is a clash of wills which leads to her biting his hand in a show of strength. It’s a chilling moment, one which signals that not only is Mary able to go up against her uncle, but also that he will be a constant physical threat to her. Sean Harris is a wonderfully calm, yet menacing presence, a contrast to the blustering Joss of the novel. Here, the danger he represents is largely unseen until the end of the episode. The hanging was very well-constructed, using Mary’s perspective to leave the horror of the situation to the imaginations of the audience. Even here, Joss was remarkably calm, but Harris’ taut performance throughout suggested a man quick to violence when pushed.
This sense of isolation is well matched by Phillippa Lowthorpe’s direction, which captures the unsettling atmosphere of the novel instantly, utilising the Cornwall, Yorkshire and Cumbrian filming locations to create a harsh, threatening landscape into which Mary has been thrust. The shots of Mary on the moors, isolated and at the mercy of the world around her combine well with the claustrophobic scenes within Jamaica Inn itself.
The inn itself is beautifully shot, rarely seen in anything but shadow, be it during the day or at night with only a candle for company. Even the wider shots in daylight don’t reveal anything about the place. It’s a Gothic delight, dark and uninviting, equally adept at offering Mary hiding places as it is terrifying her when men come looming out of the dark. It gives the inn an unknowable quality; the geography of the rooms is not wholly certain during this first episode, but this adds to the unsettling atmosphere rather than becoming a source of frustration.
With its strong cast and a swiftly established mystery at its heart, Jamaica Inn is off to an intriguing start, willing to revel in the darker aspects of du Maurier’s novel and bring the beautiful, threatening landscape to life.
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