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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Stiff upper lips meet dastardly deeds

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If you absolutely love your Downton Abbey but sometimes wish your PBS-delivered doses of proper English costume drama were a bit more on the dark and creepy side, this Sunday's lineup on the U.S. public broadcaster might be just what you're after.

In addition to the usual Downton doings in the Masterpiece Classic (8 p.m.) slot, PBS is also serving up a new 90-minute Masterpiece instalment, The Making of a Lady (9 p.m.), which puts a decidedly different spin (actually, two different and rather mismatched spins) on the oft-explored notion of upper-crust life in the staid and stately English countryside.

The Making of a Lady, which is based on a turn-of-the-20th-century novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden, A Little Princess), tells the story of Emily Fox-Seaton (Lydia Wilson), an educated but impoverished young Londoner who's eking out a living by working as a "lady's companion" to a stiff-lipped aristocrat named Lady Maria Bayne (Joanna Lumley).

She's good at her job, but her efforts could not possibly be more unappreciated -- in addition to being dismissive to the point of almost not recognizing Emily as a fellow human being, Lady Maria is also quite forgetful when it comes to timely payment of Emily's wages, making the poor girl's boarding-house existence quite challenging.

While in the well-heeled lady's employ, however, Emily meets Maria's wealthy widower nephew, Lord James Walderhurst (Linus Roache), who takes an obvious but very awkwardly expressed liking to the attractive young woman.

And when a misstep in organizing seating at a dinner party leads to Emily's dismissal, Walterhurst offers a proposal -- seriously, a marriage proposal -- that he believes will solve problems for each of them: he needs a wife, and eventually an heir to the family fortune, and she needs security.

It's a lot to digest for a girl who always dreamed she'd marry for love, but Walderhurst offers a gentle but blunt observation: "What are your options?"

And with that, a polite marriage of convenience is created, and the stage is set for yet another lavishly appointed English fish-out-of-water costume drama in which well-meaning but stuffy people from different sides of the class divide try to find a way to love one another.

Except... well, here's the creepy part.

When Walderhurst is called back to regimental duty in India, he leaves Emily behind to tend to their huge country estate. And not long after he leaves, his nephew, Alec Osborn (James D'Arcy) shows up, Indian-born wife Hester (Hasina Haque) in tow, declaring that the absent husband has ordered them to look after his beloved wife while he's gone.

Of course, there's chicanery afoot. Osborn, whose thin veneer of aristocratic gentility is unconvincing from the outset, is clearly a nasty character, and the motive for his visit to the estate quickly becomes clear: he's next in the line of succession for the family fortune, and if some convenient bit of misfortune should prevent Emily (who has announced, after her husband's departure, that she's with child) from delivering a Walderhurst heir, the whole great big pile of privileged wealth will one day be his.

And in no more time than it takes to snuff the only candle in a 19th-century English drawing room, The Making of a Lady transforms from gentle romantic drama to heavy-handed suspense thriller.

Scheming abounds. Sinister misdeeds -- perhaps even murder! -- unfold in rapid succession as the Osborns and their over-the-top-evil Indian servant, Ameerah (Souad Faress), move to take control of the estate and slowly poison Emily with the intention of ending first her pregnancy and then, hopefully, her life.

It becomes rather a macabre and predictable exercise, and there are also times when the caricatured portrayal of the south Asian characters -- Ameerah in particular -- feels more than a bit outdatedly racist.

But thanks in large part to Wilson's measured portrayal of Emily, The Making of a Lady's bizarre second half never completely goes off the rails. There'll be no spoiling here of whether the lady actually makes it, but it's safe to say that the resolution of the story will leave viewers satisfied that there's still a glimmer of hope left before the sun finally sets on old-fashioned British aristocracy.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2014 G3

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