On-Screen Stratagems: Clarissa

Last Update: 26 July 2002

Mick Imlah
Times Literary Supplement
November 29, 1991

Its frocks, wigs, great houses and teeming brothels notwithstanding, Clarissa hardly cries out to be dramatized. You can boil its 2,000 pages down to three hour-long episodes without sacrificing too much action, but the real matter of the novel is its exhaustive recreation of the feelings surrounding the events.

Again, its particular atmosphere of private fears and secret designs is a condition of its epistolary form: the whole book is sealed up in various confidential envelopes. Towards the retaining the effect of the latter, the adaptors David Noakes and Janet Barron invent a very pretty early tete-a-tete between Clarissa (Saskia Wickham) and her correspondent Anne Howe (Hermione Norris); but the heroine's enforced isolation and then her abduction prevent any more of that; while in the other camp, Lovelace and Belford can't be made to go to the same pub every night. Correspondence is cleverly remade as a theme: Clarissa ("Always writing, Miss!") is seen embattled at her desk, trying to uphold her independence from her family by smuggling her feelings out. But the adaptors' main task has been to coarsen what can be written into what can plainly be shown. Hence Lovelace's provocative but silent appearance in the pews of the Harlowe family church is rendered (in this first episode) as an all-in brawl on the steps. Belford speaks for the television audience when he insists of Lovelace's reports of the seduction's progress: "I want all the juicy details."

There is of course - thanks to Clarissa's modesty - only one juicy detail, and that has to be kept for the final episode. In the meantime, this version updates sentiment into titillation. Clarissa's first sight of Lovelace (and his of her) is when she stumbles on him snogging her sister Bella (the convincingly hungry Lynsey Baxter). There is incestuous strokeplay to underpin the conspiracy between Bella and her brother, and Clarissa surprises these siblings by tearing off her dress to show that she's not hiding any letters. The Puritan citadel - nicely figured in Anne Howe's measured distance from her suitor: "I desire my hoop may have its full circumference" is manifestly under siege.

As yet, though, the main assault on Clarissa is domestic. In rapid succession her sister, mother and uncle leave smouldering glances in her doorway as they seek to bend her to the family will. The first episode is dominated by the spite of brother James, so we see a bit too much of Jonathan Phillips, the only weak link in a decent cast. Phillips adopts a fixed sneer and stick neck, and constantly flourishes his hands and fingers as if he has caught Pointer's Disease from his eighteenth-century costume. Clashing with the general naturalness of the dialogue, his delivery is too mannered: for example, his emphases make nonsense of his objections to Clarissa's control of their grandfather's estate: "Property is always safest in men's hands", etc. The director, Robert Bierman, seems to have had something unusual in mind for his role; but his ambitions only make an awkward performance more conspicuous. Lovelace, meanwhile, has only to wait beyond the wall for her family to drive Clarissa into his care; Sean Bean, accordingly, has little to do beyond strutting about handsomely and hissing of sport and stratagem. If there is to be more to his character than the rakish epigrams that tumble out of the sky as he shoots pheasant with Sean Pertwee's companionable Belford ("Birds are like women, Jack'; "Girls, not gold, Jack"; "There's nothing sweeter than a virgin humbled"), Clarissa has yet to stir it up.

In the novel, Clarissa's unacknowledged attraction to Lovelace has some part in her preference for the devil over the deep blue sea. On screen, where "person" is a more immediate factor, she simply has no choice. The suitor chosen for her, Roger Solmes (Julian Firth), has already been written off by the make-up department as a powdered doll, with rotten teeth speckling his weak, wet mouth. The gratuitous shot of Solmes dribbling over an empty cot gives too much of a lie to Mrs. Harlowe's wan approval - "I can't see what you have against him" - and cuts through the work of tens of thousands of words. He is not impossible only because Clarissa, distracted and undutiful, says so. Marriage is out of the question. The screen Clarissa must choose to be raped.

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