Adaptation expert Julian Fellowes apparently likes nothing better than to sit down in front a of a roaring fire, Masterpiece Theatre-style, to tell you all about why you should be enjoying another one of his period dramas. The preview episodes of Doctor Thorne are all narrated by Fellowes, who quickly dives into his love for Anthony Trollope. The Victorian-era novelist was kind of a Jane Austen also-ran, who was derided by his literary contemporaries for being so prolific: He admitted to a regular writing schedule instead of waiting until lightning struck from some mystical muse. (Hey, even Dickens used to get paid by the word.) The most popular of Trollope’s 47 novels (a number that even makes a busy guy like Fellowes look like a slacker) belong to a series called The Chronicles Of Barsetshire, in which he included enough fully fleshed-out characters to make the fictional town feel charmingly real.
Doctor Thorne was the third in this series, focusing on the main character of the title (played by Tom Hollander) and his niece, Mary Thorne (Stefanie Martini), a plucky but penniless heroine in the Elizabeth Bennet/Elinor Dashwood vein. She is in love with her childhood friend Frank Gresham, who has basically been instructed by his family to marry money in order to get the clan out of massive debts incurred by his father. A plot like this one will feel achingly (perhaps even redundantly) familiar to fans of Austen, Edith Wharton, or George Eliot: Period-drama people know what they’re getting into here. If you like this type of ebb and flow among 19th-century British aristocratic classes, you’ll love it, and if not, you’re probably not reading this anyway.
Not to say that Fellowes doesn’t bring his trademark heart to this adaptation, aided by Trollope’s ability to add various insightful layers to surface heroes and villains. Even the characters the viewer might find the most disreputable (you can identify them because they’re usually the ones sipping constantly from tiny silver flasks) have understandable reasons for their actions. Newcomers Stefanie Martini as Mary and Harry Richardson as Frank try their hardest, but they unfortunately lack a love story as brimming with passion as Elizabeth and Darcy or even Lady Mary and Matthew; theirs seems better suited to a historical Lifetime movie. But a few familiar faces add some needed life to the proceedings, especially Alison Brie as an outspoken American heiress who’s quite aware everyone just wants to marry her for her money. Even though he’s playing a character that’s the polar opposite of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, Ian McShane’s rapscallion Sir Roger Scatcherd serves a similar purpose, as the person on screen so outrageous, he becomes the most compelling of all: a former convict/railway baron who, surprisingly, also has a soft side.
As do most of Doctor Thorne’s villains, even the worst of the lot, like Lady Arabella. Frank’s mother is determined to keep that trollop Mary Thorne away from her son, but mainly because she doesn’t want to wind up living in a ditch. Fellowes fans and other anglophiles will again by lulled by sumptuous estates, picturesque rolling hills (“That’s good-looking country,” notes one observer, as he gazes on a landscape so beautiful it belongs in a frame), period-appropriate outfits, and deciphering the heated emotions hidden behind a wall of stilted language.
Luckily, in this brief miniseries, (most) everything gets tied up in short order, with a particularly satisfying conclusion that involves everyone being shuffled into their proper places. At the end, Fellowes pops up again to remind us that money is important, but love is most important of all. It’s why these players in the world of Doctor Thorne mostly wind up doing the right thing, even if it may take them a while to get there. The fun part is how well Doctor Thorne’s various messages translate over a century later: how societal slights still hurt, unloved offspring still feel unloved, and star-crossed lovers always manage to find their way back to each other.