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Ross Poldark is the protagonist of a beloved series of historical novels (twelve in total) published between 1945 and 2002 by English author Winston Graham. The character is a kind of anti-establishment brooder who returns home to Cornwall after the American Revolutionary War to a meager inheritance and to the distressing news that the woman he loves is marrying another.
Graham’s books were first adapted for television in an extremely successful, two-season series that aired between 1975 and 1977 on the BBC. This new production—shown in eight episodes overseas, but airing as seven here with the final two installments screening as one—is being promoted as a Downton Abbey substitute. Yet it’s hard to imagine that series (even at its soapiest) ever approaching quite the same level of unabashed smolder.
It’s left to devotees of the novels to determine if this Poldark, adapted and overseen by Debbie Horsfield, is true to the spirit of Graham’s creation. To this critic’s neophyte eyes, and based solely on the rollercoaster first installment, the series is akin to hungrily flipping through one of those florid airport novels with Fabio on the cover. And that’s meant as a compliment.
Start with Poldark himself: Aidan Turner, who played the handsomest dwarf, Kíli, in Peter Jackson’s recent Hobbit trilogy, simply exudes charisma from his first scene, in which he cheekily talks back to his redcoat commanding officer right before a very bloody skirmish. This is the only glimpse we get of Poldark on the American battlefield, at least for now. As in Graham’s first novel, the bulk of the action takes place after the British have lost the war, with Poldark returning to Cornwall and discovering the life he thought he had upended.
His betrothed, Elizabeth (Heida Reed), fearing him killed, is now engaged to his cousin, Francis (Kyle Soller), and Poldark’s father is also dead, his only legacy an ill-maintained estate house and a neglected tin mine. This is hardly anything to base a living on, but the stubborn Poldark perseveres through all manner of challenges, and the first episode packs in plenty of them.
When Poldark isn’t disciplining his estate’s two derelict servants or fending off his manipulative uncle (Warren Clarke)—who would like nothing better than to see his brooding nephew completely out of his daughter Elizabeth’s life—he’s single-handedly digging out his tin mine (with his shirt none-too-discreetly unbuttoned) from under piles of rubble. He also nearly lets Francis drown, fully copping to the fact after rescuing him; gets into a fight that leaves him with an artfully blood-stained face that only increases his fainting-couch allure; and broods libidinously during Elizabeth’s wedding. (If seething stares were aphrodisiacs, his would be bottled and sold for a king’s ransom.)
But Poldark’s most fateful action in the premiere is his rescue of the destitute waif Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) from her abusive father. As book readers know, Demelza plays a major role in Poldark’s life, and the images of the duo galloping on a horse through the lush Cornwallian landscape hint at some rolls in the hay to come in future episodes. The sheer blissful goofiness of their burgeoning romance (with swelling music, furtive glances, and Harlequin romance novel compositions) encapsulates the pleasures of the series as a whole. This is trash done ecstatically well.
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