The BBC might have been inundated with complaints over Jamaica Inn’s inadequate sound, but for those willing and able to struggle through the occasional muffled sentence, there was little else to complain about as the three-part series played out. Taking the same refined yet confident approach that Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake adopted last year, Jamaica Inn was dark, brooding and beautifully shot – a masterclass in how to retain authenticity and build a dark, unsettling atmosphere.
As the latest retelling of Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic novel, Jamaica Inn tells the tale of Mary Yellan – a young woman who goes to live with her Aunt Patience after her mother dies. Life in the murky Bodmin Moors is less than ideal for a strong-willed young woman and Mary soon finds herself grudgingly embroiled in her uncle’s murderous smuggling activities. Sickened by her uncle’s violent nature and terrified of the dangerous life her aunt has accepted as the norm, Mary struggles against an existence she doesn’t want to be a part of and a future she knows will have awful consequences. Her only comfort is found in the open Cornish moors and the escape she finds with her uncle’s roguish brother, Jem.
Jessica Brown Findlay finally casts aside the shadow of Downton Abbey, as she steps into the shoes of Mary Yellan. A far cry from sweet and unassuming Lady Sybil, Mary is spirited but sullen; not content to just sit back and watch the smugglers murder and steal, but unable to do a thing to stop them. She starts and ends completely out of her depth and not a second goes by where she doesn’t know it. Brown Findlay is convincing for the most part but she waivers during the quieter scenes, where her blank expression fails to express the direness of the character’s situation.
Mary’s morals are constantly tested and, whilst it’s a shame that they unravel at the first sign of a dashing rogue, the way her relationship with Jem Merlyn develops makes for an endearing romance. She resists him as long as she’s able to but eventually their hearts entwine across the boggy moorland. The scenes between Brown Findlay and Matthew McNulty burn with intensity and theirs is an onscreen partnership you could keep watching for much longer than just three episodes.
Strong supporting performances come from Ben Daniels as Francis Davey – a man hiding behind the veil of religion – and Joanne Whalley as Mary’s long-suffering Aunt Patience, a woman whose loyalty to her husband is foolish yet admirable. These are well thought out characters, a real credit to Du Maurier’s writing. Sean Harris’s Joss Merlyn, however, is a character that really stands out, a man whose violence is matched only by his inner-torment. Paranoid and quick to react, Joss is haunted by his own actions and doomed to repeat them because he’s terrified of what will happen if he doesn’t. Harris has a quiet ferocity about him, a fiery stare that expresses Joss’s turmoil without him having to utter a word.
Emma Frost’s eerie adaptation comes alive through its camera work. The wide, sweeping shots of the gloomy landscape gives a sense of the extreme isolation of the setting, whilst the time-lapsed cloudy skies soaring overhead create an almost dreamlike feel, albeit a mud-soaked dream drenched in violence and terror.
Having gained the nod of approval from Du Maurier’s son, the BBC’s version seems to have succeeded where Alfred Hitchcock’s 1939 film did not. Du Maurier was famously unimpressed with the Master of Suspense’s adaptation, we can only speculate as to whether she’d have approved of this one. It certainly gets our support, even if the sound technicians went home early.