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Satisfaction at `Ends of the Earth'

Masterpiece Theatre's seafaring trilogy is rich with period detail, romantic color and the sweep of a long voyage.

October 21, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"To the Ends of the Earth," the latest goody from "Masterpiece Theatre," PBS' long-standing English Embassy of the Air, adapts a seafaring trilogy by William Golding, best known as the author of "The Lord of the Flies." Set in 1812-13 at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it tells the story of a nine-month trip from England to Australia, and in the way that it focuses upon a small number of people cut off from greater society, it coincidentally resembles the many American TV series that are taking cues from "Lost" -- and that Golding also wrote the castaway classic "Flies" seems to complete a circle of influence.

Having not read the books, I can't say whether this is an accurate, sympathetic or appropriately deep or shallow translation of the originals -- "Rites of Passage," which won the Booker Prize in 1980, "Close Quarters" and "Fire Down Below," each of which gets a 90-minute adaptation over the next three Sundays -- but having had long experience of "Masterpiece Theatre," I can say that it is definitely an excellent thing of that kind: Rich with period detail and romantic color, made with as epic a sweep as a small screen will allow, it puts you convincingly upon the water -- and not, like, a pool on the Paramount lot or a pond at Universal but the open sea, full of wind and waves -- thanks to some excellent stagecraft, a little bit of digital prestidigitation and an actual ocean. (The Indian, near Durban, South Africa.)

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Edmund Talbot, a young aristocrat traveling to Australia to take up a government post; he is something of a pill, a preener and a patriot. It takes nearly the whole 4 1/2 hours the trilogy runs, but he will finally come to see that he is not as smart, good or even as nice as he thinks he is -- and that, of course, is the first step to maturity and a happy ending. (A sailor sizes him up, telling him that he might make "a man one day if someone don't kill [you] first -- only you don't know nothin, nuffin, do you?") And though he is unusually tiresome for a lead character, he is put next to characters more tiresome than himself, who make him appealing by default. Together they express a range of social types at a time when the world was full of new ideas that not everyone was ready to embrace.

First and foremost among them is tough but able Capt. Anderson, played by Jared Harris (son of Richard). Although Anderson is not the central figure here, Harris is in many respects the star, who you wait for through the bits he isn't in. He has his father's musicality but with a sharper edge, and he gives Anderson a concentrated force that seems equal to whatever the sea can throw at him. Jamie Sives is the self-made and serious 1st Lt. Summers; JJ Field the dashing but dangerously bored Lt. Deverel; and Niall MacGregor the brilliant Lt. Benet, whose overflowing ego makes Talbot's seem a small thing. Territorial competition between them runs throughout the miniseries.

Passengers include a boozy painter of nautical scenes (Richard McCabe); a 19th century salaryman (Jonathan Slinger); a modern thinker (Sam Neill, making strange faces); an independent governess (Victoria Hamilton), who has a short scene in a sailor suit that plays almost as a tribute to all the women who went to sea dressed as men in the ballads of old, or "olde"; and Talbot's sensible servant (the excellent Brian Pettifer). Charles Dance (of "Bleak House") arrives midway commanding a ship that Anderson's meets in the Doldrums; Cheryl Campbell (of "The Singing Detective") is his lady.

The three episodes are connected but discrete: The first contains a kind of mystery centering on the death of one of the passengers, a parson (Daniel Evans); the second is mostly about love, its centerpiece a ball thrown on deck after the meeting of the ships; and the third is a nail-biter, as starvation or sinking begin to look like real possibilities and danger after disaster loom up out of the sea. But it also contains a wedding.

Directed by David Attwood and written by Leigh Jackson and Tony Basgallop, "To the Ends of the Earth" is not heavy on plot, but it is loaded with event -- set off by passages meant to betoken the utter lack of event characteristic of a long sea voyage before the advent of hot tubs, casino gambling, golf lessons and musical revues. It's long, but length tells half the story, engendering the sense of unending isolation necessary to the story.

The seafaring tale survives now mostly as science fiction, with spacecraft standing in for sailing ships and endless space replacing the ever-present ocean -- if only because it is easier to fake the future than to convincingly re-create the past -- but there is something undeniably grand about those tall masts and big sails, something that continues to stir the blood. For the viewer, at least, getting there is all the fun.


`Masterpiece Theatre: To the Ends of the Earth'

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29 and Nov. 5

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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