Roush Review: A Stirring ‘Song’ About the Long Arm of Slavery

Tamara Lawrance The Long Song July
Review
Carlos Rodriguez/Heyday Television

It’s rare these days for a series to feel like it’s not long enough, but Masterpiece‘s lively The Long Song, an unusually sensual three-part fable of slavery in 1830s Jamaica, is over before you know it. Maybe that’s because the story’s central figure and narrator, a slave born as July (Tamara Lawrance) and later rechristened Marguerite by her impossible mistress, is such good company.

The rare “viewer discretion” label gives early warning that this miniseries, adapted by Sarah Williams from Andrea Levy’s prize-winning novel, is a departure from the typically genteel Masterpiece period piece. July’s bold and saucy narrative voice is another, from the start telling the dear viewer to “be on your way” if expecting to hear of the trials and tribulations of a white mistress.

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We enjoy villains as long as there are brilliant minds to stop them.

July’s story is foundationally a sad reflection of an inhuman system. Born of rape, she is capriciously separated as a child from her mother, whose existence as a field slave is kept from her as “Marguerite” is raised to become lady’s maid to the ridiculous, spoiled and vulgar Caroline (Agent Carter‘sHayley Atwell in a mostly thankless role). But ultimately, July is a proud survivor, shown writing this tale in her older age (played by Doña Croll) and taking no prisoners.

Irreverent and impudent, July survives the tragic chaos of the 1831 Christmas
Rebellion uprising, which helped bring about the end of slavery in the British colonies. Still, she remains in service to Caroline, enjoying a promotion to housekeeper and welcoming the amorous attentions of Robert, the progressive and dashing new overseer (Jack Lowden).

“Let me whisper you a truth,” she gleefully confides after Robert loans her a book. “This is not the way white men usually behaved upon this Caribbean island.”

Tamara Lawrance Hayley Atwell The Long Song

Carlos Rodriguez/Heyday Television

What begins as a dangerous attraction evolves into a twisted triangle, further complicated by labor unrest on the sugar plantation ironically named Amity. When the insecure Robert begins to crack under pressure, July’s Cinderella story seems destined for an unhappily-ever-after ending.

And yet this exotic Song never loses its appeal.

The LongSong, Series Premiere, Sunday, January 31, 10/9c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)