Moonfleet sets itself only one goal: to be one of those “rollicking adventure films” that harken back to anything that starred Errol Flynn, filled with the familiar archetypes of the genre: the old sea dog, the wide-eyed youth, the feisty love interest, the aristocratic villain. As someone who was not familiar either with the original novel by John Meade Falkner or the 1955 film, it came as something of a relief to simply judge this adaptation on its own merits.
A rather slipshod opening introduces the gist of the story: in the bay of Moonfleet a troop of smugglers are going about their business when the new magistrate decides to crack down on their night time activities. With one smuggler dead and two arrested, a story that initially seems to be heading toward a Robin Hood-esque conflict between smugglers and soldiers (minus an understanding of why we should be rooting for the outlaws instead of the lawmen), eventually establishes its emotional centre in the bond that emerges between the leader of the smugglers and our young hero-worshipping protagonist, following them on their simultaneous run from the law/hunt for a priceless treasure.
The second half of the miniseries is infinitely better than the first, which takes a bit too long in assembling its pieces. Characters include Aneurin Barnard as John Trenchard, a youth who has glamorised the life of a smuggler, viewing it as a shortcut to fortune and glory, Grace Mohune (Sophie Cookson) as the initially insufferable Uptown Girl, with the usual cutting-remark-and-smug-smile routine, and Ray Winstone (whose mumbling is getting increasingly difficult to understand) as the tough but fatherly leader of the smugglers with the glorious name of Elzevir Block.
John Trenchard takes an instant shine to both man and girl, only for an obstacle to emerge in the form of Mohune, the new magistrate of the town, who in quick succession shoots Elzevir’s son and punishes Trenchard for having the gall to display interest in his daughter.
At this point my major (though thankfully, my only) issue arises, one that inevitably comes with the romanticizing of outlaws, smugglers, pirates and other unsavoury factions (in recent years, even the undead is getting in on the “I’m the good guy!” act). Here’s the deal: if you want me to side with the crooks of any given story – those that steal or swindle or break laws that are generally considered to be in place to protect society, then I simply ask for a good reason to do so. Make the outlaws desperate, make the law-enforcers corrupt, give it all such a whacky tone that no one cares about the moral ambiguity. But to simply coat your law-breaker in a sheen of glamour and announce “good guy” over his head just doesn’t cut it.
In Moonfleet we have a band of smugglers pitted against the king’s soldiers, but no concrete reason as to why we should side with one over the other beyond the fact that the smugglers are the protagonists. Throughout the entire running length, we never learn why they are in fact smuggling, what they gain from it, or even what the contraband is!
Meanwhile, Mohune has all the classic symptoms of a Designated Villain: a snooty voice, an iron grip, and a tendency to punish people who break the law. Regarding him in the context of his time and the fact that he’s honestly trying to uphold the law (and seems to be an affectionate enough father), the worst that can be said of him is that he does his job. His villainy is signposted by the death of Elzevir’s son (though we don’t see the boy’s death onscreen, making it debatable as to whether it was Mohune who pulled the trigger) and his arrangement of two public hangings to deter others from smuggling (one of the men who is executed clearly fired the first shot in a tavern brawl, aiming directly at Mohune’s men), but perhaps due to the restraint of the actor (Ben Chaplin) the character never actually crosses the line into absolute wickedness. Heck, he’s even given fairly decent justification for his actions when Grace tells John that: “a drunken smuggler took a pot-shot at my father and killed [my mother] instead.”
In comparison, John Trenchard is hardly a likeable protagonist, using the death of Elzevir’s son as an opportunity to join the smugglers and disregarding his aunt’s safety by continuing to see Grace after Mohune threatens to evict her if Trenchard doesn’t keep his distance. What saves this set-up is that it all leads to a fairly sophisticated climax when Trenchard, Elzevir and Mohune confront one another on the cliffs above the village. In the wake of Mohune’s surprising fate, Elzevir’s desire for vengeance and Trenchard’s subsequent obsession with a long-lost diamond are put under scrutiny, leading to the tried-and-true moral of practically all adventure stories: that vengeance is futile and ambition is evil.
The story shifts gears as the two men go in search of a missing diamond, said to have belonged to Captain Blackbeard. As MacGuffins go, the diamond comes complete with a curse that promises misery and bad luck to whoever possesses it. Over the course of his adventures, Trenchard is haunted by images of Blackbeard warning him off the treasure, as well as Elzevir’s admonitions that no stone is worth a man’s life. In an interesting twist on expectations, the story does not involve the young protagonist becoming disillusioned by the adulated father-figure, but rather the father-figure being horrified by the actions of the child and what he's willing to do to achieve his goals.
Having established that Grace is a descendant of Blackbeard, both diamond and girl are linked in Trenchard's mind, leading him to the conclusion that to have one he must find the other (thus securing his wealth and Grace’s hand), when clearly the choice is in fact to have either one or the other.
Sadly, Grace’s role is almost exclusively restricted to that of the forbidden romance, with little to do besides flirt and fret after Trenchard. More’s the pity, as the story puts her in an interesting position in regards to the way her boyfriend is implicated in her father’s death, and accords her a highly sympathetic scene in which her accompaniment of her father’s coffin through the streets is met only with the village-folk turning their backs. Yet after seeking out her Aunt Lydia’s guardianship in the city and presumably turning her back on Trenchard (symbolized by her decision to dowse the light in the window that she promised to keep burning for him) she simply returns to the manor house and relights the lantern without any indications as to how or why.
There’s a difference between a female character who exists in a story and has a romantic relationship with a male character versus a female character who exists in a story to have a romantic relationship with a male character. Grace is the latter.
Following in this vein, the ending is unmistakably trite, with various threads pulled into place by a series of rather shameless Deus Ex Machinas, from a freak storm off the coast of Moonfleet, to an easy solution to Trenchard’s “wanted” status, to the unexplained return of Grace after she’s apparently left to live with her aunt in the city, to the return of the diamond in the mail! After Trenchard finds himself in an utterly inescapable situation (a prison ship), it’s up to outside forces to bail him out again, only for everything to fall neatly into place with absolutely no consequences – for him at least, Elzevir is not so lucky. After all the trouble he’s caused, it’s hard not to feel as though he gets off easy, especially as two lives (one directly at his hands) are lost because of him.
It’s alleviated somewhat by Trenchard’s decision to return the diamond to the sea, but the attempt to imply that he and Grace live happily ever after struggles against the reality of them both being back where they started in terms of fortune: a fisherman and a gentlewoman (though the relative shallowness of the romance may leave you fairly blasé about their future anyway).
So...Moonfleet. It’s an entertaining bit of fluff, and occasionally tries to engage the viewer on issues of greed and murder and whether such things are truly justified, but for the most part exists as a light period piece. I would say that it needed a little more time to really explore the characters and their situation, but I can’t pin-point any particular scene that was in obvious need of expansion.
There are some good bits: the presence of a clergyman who is genuinely helpful and godly, a middle-aged spinster who admits “I never wanted a child; not my own and not my sister’s,” (and is not judged for this) and Aneurin Barnard, who miraculously seems to have lost a few years and passes easily as a teenage boy. It all results in completely inoffensive and diverting television.