When it first aired last year, The Village was described as the anti-Downton Abbey by a lot of critics. Whilst both Peter Moffat’s drama and ITV’s period piece focused on class warfare in the early 20th century the former was viewed as much bleaker than the latter. I was one of many critics who believed that The Village was a little too dour for its own good and I found it hard to sympathise with the characters, particularly John Simm’s angry patriarch John Middleton. However, over the course of the series, I began to warm to all the members of the Middleton family and the first episode of the drama’s second run sees the gloomy nature of the show change slightly.
Another difference between The Village and Downton Abbey is the way in which the upper and working classes behave to each other. Whilst the majority of the Crawley family have respect for their servants, The Village’s prestigious Allingham family treat the lowly commoners with disdain. At the same time, the Allinghams are primarily presented as lonely souls whose sole purpose is to manipulate those in power in order to advance their political aspirations. This wish is perfectly exemplified as the family’s elder son Edmund hopes to become Home Secretary by ingratiating himself with the bullish Lord Kilmartin. Kilmartin arrives in the village for the town’s annual horse and hare race in which the dignitaries chase a local lad in the hope of catching him. Predictably this year’s hare is our hero Bert Middleton who, since we last met him, has further grown-up and is now portrayed by Tom Varey. The idealistic Bert is hoping to outsmart the toffs and be the first ever villager to triumph in the race. Bert is able to goad Kilmartin into increasing the prize money to five pounds, an amount which will allow him to take up the photography scholarship that has already been offered to him.
I personally felt that the horse and hare race was the highlight of this first episode, with Moffat dedicating a large portion of time to the competition. I was initially sceptical of Tom Varey’s performance as Bert primarily as the younger actors who portrayed him in series one did such a good job. But Varey’s portrayal of Bert’s determination in the race really won me over as I began to root for him as the contest progressed. Moffat definitely did a good job of presenting a truly villainous character in Kilmartin which in turn made it a lot easier to sympathise with the wide-eyed Bert. The cinematography throughout the race sequence added to the frantic feel of Bert’s quest and he initially succeeded in outsmarting Kilmartin by swapping clothes with a friend. Bert’s final trick was to hide under the skirt of one of the village women and therefore becoming the first ever man to win the race. However there was a sting in the tale as Kilmartin and Edmund refuse to give Bert the money, accusing him of cheating as they claim he entered the old woman’s house. Kilmartin’s deceit continues as he presented as the only man who is able to floor a black boxer at another village event. Whilst not as thrilling as the race sequences, the boxing montage still provides another exciting moment which is well-edited. Once again Moffat makes you believe that Bert might succeed when he climbs into the ring, but he’s knocked out just before the end of the round.
It’s fair to say that most people were initially drawn to The Village thanks to the combined talents of John Simm and Maxine Peake. It’s odd then that this first episode see both of the drama’s big name stars are confined to a subplot involving the Middleton’s cow shed. As John learns that his latest calf is going to be cast out of the rented shed due to a late payment, Grace does all she can to try and change the landlord’s mind. This means that we get to see more from the wonderful Maxine Peake who absolutely excels every time she’s on screen. It helps that Peake and Moffat have worked together several times before and it appears as if the writer knows exactly how to bring out the actress’s strengths. Peake’s performance in the episode was at its best when Grace arrived at the Allingham’s house to demand the money that Kilmartin owes Bert. Similarly excellent in this scene was Charlie Murphy who, as the principled Martha, provides the link between the two classes due to her recently marrying into the Allingham family. This scene also demonstrated Moffat’s brilliant ability to write well-rounded female characters who are sometimes stronger than the men around them. The drama’s other brilliant female character is Lady Allingham who is gracefully portrayed as quite a lonely widow by the excellent Juliet Stevenson. Meanwhile the supporting cast work together to create a sense of community which adds to the realism of The Village as a whole.
Although I enjoyed this episode a lot more than some of series one, it wasn’t quite perfect. One of my pet peeves throughout this instalment was Moffat’s insistence in letting us know that we’re in the twenties now. From constant references to jazz music and electricity to Lady Allingham’s struggles to pronounce the word cocktail; Moffat appears keen to shoehorn every piece of 1920’s culture into the episode as he can. Whilst I have no problem with the writer establishing the time period, I felt that these references were awkwardly inserted into the script rather than feeling completely organic. Additionally I didn’t like the plot contrivance that linked boxer Ghana Jones to the Middleton’s late son Joe. Again this was Moffat’s way of signifying the family’s optimism about the future but to me it just seemed a little too coincidental to feel real. Finally, I felt that Julian Sands’ performance as the evil Lord Kilmartin was a little too over-the-top for a drama which mainly relies on subtle turns from its ensemble cast.
But, aside from a few narrative issues, it appears as if series two of The Village will be an improvement on the somewhat depressing series one. All of the cast seem eager to impress, with Maxine Peake particularly being on form throughout the episode. The Village also exceeds from a technical standpoint with the cinematography, costumes and editing all being fantastic during this episode. I have to admit that I was surprised how much I enjoyed this episode and I’ll definitely be returning next week to see what series two has to offer.
Did you watch The Village? Do you agree that it’s an improvement on last year’s series?
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