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TV Reveiws : 'Buccaneers' Tells a Deliciously Dark Tale

October 07, 1995|LYNNE HEFFLEY

"Masterpiece Theatre" launches its 25th season on PBS Sunday with an ambitious, deliciously addictive 5 1/2-hour adaptation of Edith Wharton's last, unfinished novel, "The Buccaneers," a lavish saga about the fortunes and misfortunes of four upstart nouveau riche American women who marry into the rigid confines of England's 19th-Century aristocracy.

The miniseries starts in shallow American waters as the four young girls--sisters Nan (Carla Gugino) and Virginia (Alison Elliott) and their friends Conchita (Mira Sorvino) and Lizzy (Rya Kihlstedt)--are introduced.

Depth and undercurrents appear when the action crosses the Atlantic, thanks to Nan's enterprising English governess, Laura (Cherie Lunghi), who counsels that a season in England will help the girls overcome the onus of being snubbed as "new money" by old New York society.

The girls' heady marital triumphs, however--Virginia to Lord Seadown (Mark Tandy), Nan to Julius, the Duke of Trevenick (James Frain) and Conchita to Seadown's brother, Lord Richard (Ronan Vibert)--exact a high price as entrenched English codes of behavior and class take an often tragic toll.

Maggie Wadey, who wrote the screenplay, stays true to Wharton's keen-eyed observations of class, the confines of marriage and convention, and the dignity and suffering of women whose worth was measured in coin and in their success as breeding stock.

Directed by Philip Saville, the cast is uniformly terrific. To single out a few: Gugino's Nan is a heartbreaker, maturing from naive teen-ager to elegant, disastrously married young matron, and Sorvino is utterly charming as Conchita, making the best of a bad situation by taking lovers, yet mustering compassion for her syphilitic, pathetic husband.

And, however cloudy our heroines' fates, the program's seductive, sumptuous visual splendor--the gorgeous gowns, shawls and beribboned hats designed by costumer Rosalind Ebbutt, the outdoor vistas and palatial estates of the rich and royal--never fades.

* "The Buccaneers" airs Sunday through Tuesday at 9 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28. It also will air Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on KOCE-TV Channel 50.

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