“The Long Song” is aware of what an viewers may anticipate from a interval drama airing on the BBC, because it did within the UK in 2018, or underneath the PBS Masterpiece banner, as it should within the US beginning on January 31. The digital camera, helmed with a gentle hand by director Mahalia Belo, pans throughout nonetheless life scenes of porcelain curios and rumpled silks in a manse surrounded by gently swaying palm bushes. “The lifetime of a white missus on a Jamaican plantation,” a narrator (Doña Croll) intones, “be certainly stuffed with tribulation — from the shortage of beef to the need of a modern hat.” Inside seconds, the piercing screech of that “white missus” shatters the idyllic scene, and the acidic streak of sarcasm laden within the narrator’s phrases comes extra clearly into focus. “If that be the story you need to hear, then be in your means. Go,” she says, voice snapping with brittle anger. “Be in your means! For the story I’ve to inform is sort of a unique one.”
That the tragic heroine of this story is Black slave July (Tamara Lawrance) reasonably than her corseted white mistress — performed by interval drama veteran Hayley Atwell, no much less — instantly marks “The Long Song” as a really totally different form of Masterpiece sequence. Exterior of one thing like Andrew Davies’ 2019 “Sanditon” adaptation, which forged Crystal Clarke as a Jane Austen character born within the West Indies, there actually haven’t been any PBS Masterpiece dramas that highlight Black characters, not to mention have them steer the whole sequence. “The Long Song,” an adaptation of Andrea Levy’s 2010 novel, not solely facilities a really particular Black character and expertise, however intentionally dares any skittish viewers anticipating one thing fairly totally different to look away. (That this primary Masterpiece sequence to prominently function Black folks is a slave narrative is unsurprising, and worthy of additional examination in and of itself.)
Born into slavery on a sugarcane plantation, July will get taken from her mom as a toddler just because the proprietor’s sister Caroline (Atwell) spots her out within the fields and thinks she’s cute. There are a lot of painful scenes but to return, however this one is especially crushing in its simplicity. Her kidnapping, which alters the course of her life and devastates her mom (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), is nothing greater than an informal whim from individuals who don’t have any consciousness of their very own cruelty. This sample repeats itself over and over all through the sequence, every time simply as wrenching because the final. As an illustration: Caroline’s insistence on calling July “Marguerite,” the higher to gas her fantasies of being a elaborate girl of the manor even in a damp nation she doesn’t perceive, is a stabbing indignity each time. (Atwell, an actor who sometimes radiates heat, does a exceptional job of curdling the ambiance of each room unfortunate sufficient to have Caroline in it.) Significantly fraught is the heel flip from Robert Goodwin (Jack Lowden), a white Brit who initially sweeps July off her ft with guarantees of constancy and honest wages for all of the just lately freed slaves on the plantation. And but he sours the second the Black folks in his make use of get up for themselves, twisting into a tough, gnarled model of the idealistic man July fell for.
With simply three episodes to inform the parallel tales of July, the so-called “Christmas Rebel” of Jamaican slaves rising in opposition to their masters to catastrophic losses, and Robert’s transformation into precisely the form of violent racist he as soon as decried, “The Long Song” leans onerous on its narration to hurry issues alongside and tie all of it collectively. (The sequence was co-written by Levy and “Turning into Jane” scribe Sarah Williams.) This by and huge works nice, with the notable exception of July and Robert’s whirlwind romance. Their relationship is such a vital spine for the remainder of the narrative, particularly as Caroline grows extra jealous and July watches in horror as Robert resorts to ever extra drastic measures to maintain his Black staff successfully enslaved to do his bidding. Its basis might’ve used a bit extra consideration to ensure that Robert’s inevitable, terrible betrayal to land most successfully.
By the tip of the ultimate episode, it’s clear that the sequence’ key uniting component is Lawrance. Taking part in July from a sly teenager to a younger mom to a totally bruised girl, Lawrance instructions the display screen in each iteration of the character. As befits a slave narrative, July is after all deeply traumatized, enduring and witnessing violence that might be unspeakable if its perpetrators weren’t distinctly bragging at their lavish dinner tables about it. As acted by Lawrance and written by Levy and Williams, nonetheless, July can be wry, humorous and delightfully impolite. She is, regardless of one of the best efforts of the white folks continuously dismissing her as collateral, a full human worthy of starring in her personal story.
“The Long Song” premieres Jan. 31 on PBS.