Generally, “Masterpiece” is easy on the soul, unless you really think about how it must feel to wear a corset. But the truth is that the series, currently in its 50th year, does feature challenging titles in its anthology format — the excellent and unsettling “Elizabeth Is Missing,” for example, which a few weeks ago gave us Glenda Jackson as an addled woman with dementia.
“The Long Song,” an adaptation of Andrea Levy’s 2010 novel, is another excellent and unsettling “Masterpiece,” as it takes on the last years of slavery in 1830s Jamaica. It’s hard to watch, and more essential viewing for it; the three-parter takes place from an enslaved woman’s point of view, and it looks straight at the violence, sadism, and moral depravity of the British plantation owners. It’s all here at varying levels of explicitness, including the abduction of the then-preteen July, our heroine, as she is impulsively torn from her field-slave mother by the plantation owner’s sister. In early parts of the series, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on GBH 2, word begins to circulate that the crown plans to grant freedom, making the slave owners ever more vicious and desperate to preserve their power.
July (Tamara Lawrance), who was conceived when an overseer raped her mother, grows into a young woman as a lady’s maid to Caroline (Hayley Atwell), a sniveling nightmare of loneliness, insecurity, and aggression. Caroline insists on calling July “Marguerite,” and she forms a dependence on her that is both pathetic and ironic. She’s a spectacle of privilege and need, but “The Long Song” always returns to the calmer July. The series is framed as July’s memoir, with the much-older July narrating each chapter of her past with sorrow-filled wisdom and, at times, wryness. The humor emerges when we glimpse enslaved people in quiet defiance or subtly rolling their eyes. At one point, after Caroline insists on throwing a party she can’t afford, July and an enslaved man, Godfrey (Lenny Henry), put a dirty bed sheet, rather than fancy linen, on the table as their playful secret. The stealth rebelliousness helps them maintain their own sense of humanity.
The tone seems to shift toward hopefulness when a new British overseer shows up, to aid in the gradual freeing of the slaves. Robert Goodwin, effectively played with barely hidden weakness by Jack Lowden, is all about being a white savior — but with no sense whatsoever of the volcanic rage and grief embedded in his “employees.” He arrives hoping to treat the slaves, and July in particular, with the same respect he shows to the lady of the house, in an obsessive need to please his liberal father back in England. But “The Long Song” doesn’t traffic in gloss; in her narration, July keeps reminding us that her tale doesn’t necessarily go where we might want it to. “If only my story were so simple,” she says. As the other central white character, Atwell is perfect — extreme, hard to endure, but never cartoonish enough to dismiss.
As the series unfolds, it becomes clear that Lawrance is playing July with a somewhat blank face, one July has cultivated from years of hiding her true feelings from her mistress. Like all the other enslaved people, she is treated as a contemptible object, and, in the midst of casual beatings, rapes, and hangings, she remains watchful. When July does openly express herself, then, it’s especially potent. She is smarter than most of the people around her, Black or white, and she wields her intelligence cautiously. Lawrance carries the series beautifully, July’s arc reflecting that of the rest of the enslaved people on the island — but still specifically July’s arc. Not merely the generic victim some slavery stories paint, she is very much an individual.
THE LONG SONG
Starring: Tamara Lawrance, Hayley Atwell, Jack Lowden, Jordan Bolger, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Gordon Brown, Ayesha Antoine, Leo Bill, Sir Lenny Henry, Madeleine Mantock
On: PBS, GBH 2. Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m.