Posted: 04/14/2010


Small Island

by Del Harvey

Airing April 18 & 25, 2010 on PBS. Check local listings for actual showtimes.

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Born into a broken home and an impoverished life in Jamaica, Hortense (Naomie Harris) longs for a fulfilling life in England; one with a fine house and a doorbell. The door of opportunity swings open, and Hortense is married and on her way to the promised land of post-war Britain.

Steadfast dreams are soon tested by hard realities as Hortense and her husband Gilbert (David Oyelowo) face racism and poverty. In the small-minded country, their only saving grace is Queenie (Ruth Wilson, Jane Eyre). But Queenie faces her own disillusionment, married to the kind but dull Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Last Enemy). Bonded by high hopes and broken dreams, these four lives fuse together in a powerful and hopeful story of love and fulfillment.

Small Island is based on the award-winning, bestselling novel by Andrea Levy. (Two episodes; 90 minutes each; TV-MA, S.)

In Episode 1, Hortense Joseph arrives in London at Queenie Bligh’s house to live with her new husband Gilbert Joseph; a man she only married to fulfill her dream of leaving Jamaica to live in England. Dismayed by Gilbert’s dingy attic room, she pauses to remember Michael, her first love in Jamaica, and his betrayal that led them to be banished from their childhood home on the eve of war.

Queenie, meanwhile, reflects on her own unsatisfactory marriage to dull Bernard and a passionate meeting with a Jamaican Royal Air Force airman during the Blitz. Gilbert remembers his desperation to leave Jamaica and fight for the mother country, and then his meeting Queenie in Yorkshire, and the tragic shooting that separated them. Now in 1948, their lives converge in London and their long-held secrets threaten to derail their already fragile marriages.

In Episode 2, Hortense begins her new life in England and soon learns it is not the golden land she had hoped it would be. She and Gilbert suffer racism and ignorance, but in adversity come to discover new qualities in each other. Queenie witnesses firsthand the travails of her tenants, but is soon drawn into a consuming situation of her own, one that will alter the lives of all involved and force unthinkable sacrifices.

Small Island stars Naomie Harris, who was raised by her single mother, a television writer. Harris followed her mother’s footsteps into the entertainment business early — landing her first professional acting job at age 10. Trained at England’s Bristol Old Vic Theatre School after studying at Cambridge University, Harris first gained wide recognition in 2002 for her role in Masterpiece’s White Teeth. She made her big screen breakthrough that same year in 28 Days Later and is probably most well known to American audiences for her roles in two Pirates of the Caribbean films and the film version of Miami Vice.

Filming Small Island prompted Harris to contemplate her own family history. “Hortense and Gilberts’ story is very similar to that of my grandparents and while playing the part I couldn’t help but empathize with what they went through — all the hopes and dreams they had, and when they got to this country they experienced such ignorance and hostility,” Harris said.

Small Island airs April 18 & 25, 2010 on PBS.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.

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