The first installment of a miniseries that never got made, Poldark relies heavily on its audience knowing the characters from the original series. For someone like me, who comes in unawares, it's excessively difficult to follow, choppy in places, and doesn't give a satisfactory ending. There's nothing terribly wrong with it content-wise but other than the opportunity to glimpse some pretty faces, it offers us nothing either. The film opens with Jeremy Poldark (Ioan Gruffudd) rowing a boat to shore. A skiff has come around the point bearing two passengers, one dead, the other barely living. The survivor is taken to his modest home in Cornwall, where Mrs. Poldark (Mel Martin) carefully nurses him back to health.
The man is Stephen Cravenson (Nicholas Gleaves) and his boat was lost in a storm, forcing him and fellow crewmen to evacuate. The dory overturned and most of the crew were lost. With no way to row themselves to shore, the few survivors perished. Both charming and worldly, Stephen makes an influence on lovely young Clowance Poldark (Kelly Reilly). She is naturally drawn to him and he's quite willing to take advantage. In the meantime, their father Russ (John Bowe) is working hard in Parliament to convince the lords to sign an agreement ending the war with France. Because of the expenses and loss of men, England lies in dire straits. Most of Poldark's own tenants in the village have been forced out of work because of a halt in excavation of his mines. But the court is under the control of "Mad" King George III, whose interminable son is attempting to undermine. Working against him in his ventures is Poldark's sworn enemy and neighboring countryman, George Warleggan (Michael Attwell), who seeks to expand his profits and purchase up land while it's cheap.
A twist of fates also brings beautiful Miss Cuby (Amanda Ryan) into Jeremy's life, but his love is unrequited due to her family's prejudice against their lack of fortune. After being sorely used and offended by Stephen, Clowance attends a ball in London and meets the charming Lord Edward (Nicholas Rowe). The match is highly approved of but she cannot be certain of her feelings: they are torn between Edward, a man of great promise, Stephen, a rogue with questionable motives, and Ben Carter (Hans Matheson), one of the local boys and a friend from childhood. Because of these elements, Poldark actually manages to become interesting in the second half. The film plods along in the beginning without laying any groundwork. They assume we already are familiar with local rivalries and family history, which is a discredit to their scriptwriters. There are huge leaps in logic, taking us first to one event and then racing ahead to the next without explaining what must have happened in between. This makes the film even harder to follow and it only calms down in the last half hour.
The characters would be more engaging if we knew more about them. Stephen in particular is a hard one to figure out. He seems to be out to get whatever he can. We never figure out if Russ stays away from the country on purpose. Worst of all, the film leaves us hanging... we don't know which of the three men Clowance will choose. There's no explanation for a silent shift in her affection for Lord Edward. Jeremy makes progress on the mine but we never get to see if it's finished. Based on how bad this first movie was put together, I'm not surprised they failed to continue it. They should have done it right or not at all and saved us the torment of such a wretched cliffhanger ending. It was so unexpected I fast-forwarded through the credits in the vague hope there was a part two! Thus said, it's really a pity because the cast is charming. It was nice to see Nicholas Rowe (Young Sherlock Holmes) play the romantic lead for once. I also really liked Kelly Reilly, who is not only very beautiful but has an innocent charm to her acting. Ioan does well with what little there is to work with but is much more likable as Horatio Hornblower.
Content isn't a major issue. Men are shot at while fleeing a crime scene and a few fistfights break out among mine workers. A man struggles with a woman and kisses her forcefully. Another man dashes a girl's flowers to the floor and yells at her to get out. There are two profanities. Stephen passionately kisses Clowance in the garden and unties her bodice but she stops him and they part in anger. Most of her gowns are very low-cut. A man kisses his wife in bed and remarks that he likes it when the candle goes out. There are some mild general remarks -- a man says that a woman has a fine flank; George's uncle accuses him of "imagining Lady Harriet naked" and losing his good sense as a result. Stephen tries to flirt with Mrs. Poldark. It's rather a pity this film wasn't more carefully constructed. It would have been engaging with more character development and a proper ending.