I had never heard of the book Small Island or author Andrea Levy until PBS scheduled the film as the last presentation for Masterpiece Classic this season. The story follows two couples, one from London, England and the other from Jamaica, whose lives intersect at crucial moments. Against the backdrop of World War II and post war England, we learn about the dreams and ambitions of Queenie, Bernard, Hortense, and Gilbert.
The story is about the reaction of the British to the 492 men from the British Colonies who bought passage on the Empire Windrush in 1948 and emigrated to England. Prior to that event, 6,000 West Indian men had volunteered for the RAF during World War II. After the war, they wanted a better life and sought it in the motherland.
As the story unfolded I was struck by the Jamaican islander’s view of their mother country. Their attitude towards England was loving, deferential, and loyal. While the Jamaicans learned everything they could about English customs and history, the British knew or cared very little about the people they had exploited. Reality sunk in for the young Jamaican men who had signed up to fight alongside the British in WWII. They dreamed of fighting as pilots, but were assigned menial jobs, some not even at the front. Worse, they encountered racism designed to squash their pride and put them in their place.
David Oyelowo plays Gilbert Joseph, a wonderfully optimistic and cheerful man, who aims to find a better life in the motherland. His dream was to become a lawyer, but in reality he became a postman for the Royal Mail. His scene on the park bench after being humiliated by other postal workers broke my heart. I think I fell a little in love with Mr. Oyelowo then.
Hortense (Naomi Harris) dreams of becoming a school teacher in London. An orphan, she pursues her teaching degree in a Jamaican school and learns how to conduct herself properly. Her ambition prompts her to betray a friend and finagle her way into a marriage of convenience with Gilbert, whose passage on the Empire Windrush she finances. Their deal is that he will send for her as soon as he finds a nice place for them to live in London.
Queenie (Ruth Wilson)dreams of a more exciting life than on the pig farm that her parents own. We first meet her with her aunt in London, practicing elocution lessons – “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”. Queenie’s dreams are squashed when she makes a compromise after her aunt’s death and marries the dull colorless young man who has fallen in love with her. Her existence becomes lackluster and uneventful, and she chafes under her boring routine. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bernard in the unsympathetic part of Queenie’s husband. Sadly, Bernard has already realized his dream, which was to marry Queenie, who does not love him. He must confront his disillusionment and resistance to change if he is to hold on to his marriage to Queenie.
Then the war begins and suddenly life changes for Queenie, whose path crosses with Gilbert and Hortense, and a mysterious man named Michael, who (coincidentally) Hortense has loved all her life. Rather than spoil the plot, I encourage you to read a lovely synopsis at this PBS link along with an interview with the author, which I recommend highly.
These days we do not often encounter black ladies of the old school. Do you remember them? Their postures were ramrod straight. Their neat clothes did not allow for a single crease. Their hats were proper and decorous, and their purses were held just so in their gloved hands. Their language was grammatically correct, old-fashioned and Victorian, as if they had been taught from a 19th-century grammar book. I volunteered with such a lady, Miss Edna, who had been a school teacher since the 1930’s and who volunteered as a tutor well into her 90’s. Hortense reminded me of Miss Edna. I thought that Naomi Harris captured every aspect of Miss Edna, including her unassailable dignity.
To my mind, Queenie, is the tragic character of this tale. As Andrea Levy said “She is a warmhearted person, a kind person, an open person.” Yet she is not perfect. None of the characters are. The author explains, “With all my characters, I never want them to be perfect, they have faults, just like us all.” Despite her imperfections, Queenie is the heroine who, when faced with a King Solomon decision, does not flinch from choosing the right course.
The acting is superb. There were scenes that caused me to hold my breath, they were that good, and there were times when I literally ached for the characters. When I cried, it was from sympathy, not from a contrived plot. Like real life, this drama is sprinkled with humor, which cuts the tension. At the end of the film, I wanted to see more. Rarely does this happen. PBS will air the first part of Small Island tonight, April 18th at 9 p.m., and the second part on April 25th. I highly recommend that you see it.
If you have missed the first part, you can watch it online at this link starting April 19th through the 25th.