Here's the thing about this miniseries; Gillian Kearney is a really good actress. She worked her ass off in The Forsyte Saga, and I really love the sort-of-documentary biopic she did on BBC, and – she's not the poor soul who played Cissie Brodie, is what I'm saying. She has genuine charisma, and you root for her.
The problem with The Tide of Life is that while she seems perfectly sweet and capable of making normal-person decisions, she agrees to go steady with any dude who enters the frame, so you end up wondering if she has a concussion. Also a problem: the title sounds like a tampon ad. (Not Cookson's fault; just saying.)
Era: early 1900s
Heroine: Emily Kennedy, housekeeper and concussion victim
Siblings that require looking-after: One sister, also a concussion victim
Illegitimate (Self or sibling): Shockingly, all the major characters are legit.
Asshole Father?: Nary a dad in sight.
Romantic interest(s): Sep, her first employer; Larry, her second employer; Nick, who wanders into frame in the last twenty minutes.
Bairnsketballs: One for our heroine, one from an extra, plus a tumor everyone thinks is a bairnsketball. (Nobody in this movie is very bright, come to think of it.)
Fistfights: Hell yes. Also, murder, pistol-whipping, chasing someone into the ocean, and lighting a houseful of stuff on fire.
Assaults: Two (attempted)
In the opening scenes, the lady of the house where young Emily Kennedy is working kicks the bucket, which is lucky for Emily, apparently, since the widower proposes to her after about a week.
Despite not seeming to like him much, she agrees, probably because it's hard to turn down this hot slice of beefcake.
He promises her a grand life in their house overlooking the…someplace (maybe the sea, but what the hell do I know). He promises to shower her with presents and treat her like a queen!
To be fair, he's a sweetie even past Catherine Cookson standards into Normal-Person Land. When Emily finds Lucy about to get molested by her family's boarder, she smacks the crap out of him and brings Lucy home with her, and as soon as Sep gets word of that, he and his moustache are on the case of Show That Guy What's What!
Also, Sep and his moustache are immediately killed.
Emily seems genuinely sad about this, even if most of her sadness seems to be of the "What will become of me?" ilk and not really grieving Sep. Sep did, however, leave her a token of his affection:
A bitchin'-ass watch. I mean, what? It's nearly as big as her hand and has a tiny, useless face, and weighs, like, eight pounds! Sep, you suck at presents.
After Sep's grumpy sister kicks the two girls out on the street, Emily is quick to find a new job. He's a hot farmer – that's good! But he's Ray Stevenson, everyone's favorite ineffectual carpenter – that's bad. He'll take Emily and Lucy both – that's good! But the villagers near his farm hate him because a girl caught a case of bairnsketball and they blame him – that's bad.
At this point, the urban-squalor drama gives way to what, in Cooksonland, must pass for Gothic mystery, as we meet the farm-dwellers who will make Emily's life a nightmare for the next ninety minutes. ROLL CALL!
He's the farmer. On his days off, he's a newsie. (It's a fine life!)
He's the addle-pated young farm helper! Also, he's doomed. And I'm glad, but we'll get to why that is in a moment.
Random Creepy Farmhand!
He works the dairy. He also works that apron. You go, sir.
And, This Lady!
She's a darling.
She's also ostensibly bedridden, and so we get the Jane Eyre "Who knocked over all the dining-room china during our incredibly awkward good-time jig party in the kitchen?" thing for a while during the scenes of Emily Making the Best of Things in a house where the ruggedly handsome farmer is constantly going in for a smooch and clawing her ass.
At least Con is a sweetie, even though he's not all there, and he and Lucy the Useless Sibling get along like a house on fire - so much so that when Lucy stars to get a suspicious bump and the lady of the house freaks out that she's pregnant by Farmer Ray, Emily knows better and is instantly up in Lucy's business: "Did you let Con have a chance?" (Have a chance at what? Is Lucy the Northeast Lottery suddenly?)
Then, in one of the best twists in a Cookson movie, it turns out Lucy is not pregnant; instead, she has a buttermilk tumor. The doctor is like, "Well, tell her not to drink so much milk and she won't look so knocked up. Also, her consumption isn't so good." Wah-wah-waaah!
Farmer Ray, not missing a chance to get young Emily alone, offers to send Lucy to a hospital where she can recover, and where pervy dairy-pushers can't find her. Sold!
Of course, since it's a buttermilk tumor and not a bairnsketball, Con's off the hook for getting Lucy into trouble, but the villagers didn't get the memo about that, and when Ray sends Emily and Con into town with the dairy buckets, the villagers drag Con down from the wagon and chase him around the moors. Emily rushes to the front of the fray and shames the men into calming down - that's good! However, Con, who's already freaked out, decides that he's had enough and takes a header off the cliff into the rocks below - that's bad!
Except it's not, because the actor, Justin Chadwick, is a director now. And you know what he directed? The Other Boleyn Girl. So I won't lie; when he took that header, I was rooting for the rocks.
Anyway, everyone's crestfallen, and the crazy lady dies, and the farmer can't live there because of…something. Look, I was laughing too hard at poor Justin Chadwick to pay attention, and I'm not going back to check. Let's all assume she had a malignant buttermilk tumor.
So, Ray has to move out to the random cottage on the edge of the property. And you know what Emily's going to do? Well, she's going to move in with him!
"I'm not going to marry you," he handsomes. "I'll never marry."
"I know that," she chirps. Then they move in.
Dear Emily Kennedy,
How are you? I am fine. I have been following your adventures, and I like you quite a lot. You seem very sensible and kind. I do not understand why you want to live with Tongue-kiss McGroper outside of wedlock. Can you please explain?
So, when the lawyers come she hands over her big-ass watch to him to sell for money to support Farmer Ray. Then it's off to the cottage!
Then they have the best love scene in the history of cinema, where they make love to the sound of the tide, except the foley guy had had enough of all this BS, and instead they make love to the sound of a low-flying jet. I don't know how nobody else noticed, but it makes it sound like they're moments away from a fiery death, and at this point I approve.
Life goes on; everyone quietly shuns Ray, so Emily has to go and cute her way through the grocer and whatever else. During one of her trips, she makes the acquaintance of the gent who took over the big house. He's James Purefoy!
In case you can't tell from the Clint Eastwood impression, he's been in America.
He takes a shine to Emily, like every other male in this entire series, and of course they keep running into each other. When she sees that the lawyer who sent her a check for thirty pounds sold her watch to some antiques dealer for four hundred pounds, he comforts her. When she's fifteen months pregnant with Ray's bairnsketball, he drives her to the cottage and pistol-whips Ray until Ray agrees to get a doctor.
(Please note that Catherine Cookson has basically two romantic set-ups: When You Were Nine and Decent Guy. The first one is self-explanatory. The second one, evidenced here, is where the heroine meets a series of dudes and ends up marrying the one who is still alive, not already married, and/or least loathsome. It's awesome.)
The bairnsketball dies, which is Cookson shortcut for "not going to end up with Ray." (I would have said that when Ray attempts to rape Emily when she's pregnant that it would be Cookson shortcut for "not going to end up with Ray," but clearly that's not always the case, CATHERINE.) And by God, not two scenes later Ray has left a note on the table for Emily.
"I didn't want to hurt you by telling you in person," it begins, so you know how this is going to go. He's marrying a rich lady he's been seeing on the side - that’s bad! But Emily can live in the cottage - that's good! He assures her that someone will "pick her up" in no time - that's good! "Picked up" is prostitute slang - that's bad! She can keep most of the furniture - that's good! But his other girlfriend wants the nice French table, so Emily can't have it - that's STONE COLD, holy crap.
And then, Emily wins back the audience's love, because she drags all the furniture out into the yard, piles it up, and lights it on fire. Then she just takes a seat and waits for Farmer Ray to come running from wherever he was. He does, along with a few other dudes whose job it is to witness the best scene in this entire show.
As always for Cookson men, he pulls a, "What is your DEAL?"
She gets totally up in his face, which is technically impossible since he's about six feet and she seems to be about four feet tall. She calls him on the prostitute slang by pointing out that at least whores get paid, and meanwhile she's been a sucker taking care of Ray's sorry ass for "nowt."
"Aye," she snaps, as he gapes at her, "an' that's what you are – NOWT." Get it, girl! What's loooove got to do, got to do with it!
So, triumphantly, she goes home to her mother/random friend/glorified extra, where there's a letter waiting for her from James Purefoy, with a big-ass watch inside!
(Production note: Apparently under the assumption that since the heroine has a concussion, the audience also has one, every letter-reading comes with a bonus character-it's-from superimposed, like so:
So, just to be clear, this letter is from James Purefoy. Or, Clint Eastwood. You decide. With that screencap, it could be anybody.)
Touched, Emily sells the watch back to the same antiques dealer and gets enough money out of it to buy the house that Sep lived in, which apparently she swore to come back to and I totally forgot about, so whatever - everyone clap for Spartacus Kennedy, who finally made it back to the modest townhouse where she first started agreeing to live with any dude who wandered into the frame!
And of course, even though she's set up as a boarding house, the only boarder who's getting into her downstairs rooms is James Purefoy, if you get me. And I think you do. I mean they're going to get married.
Gillian Kearney is so cute I end up being happy for Emily even though she has confused the shit out of me for three hours, and it turns out that I am not the only one who is happy for her, because as we pan away, THIS HAPPENS:
And then the movie's over, because let's face it, once your first fiancé has appeared in a mirror to bless your second marriage from beyond the grave, there's really nowhere else to go.
This movie makes the least narrative sense of any of them, as if three short stories got cobbled together at some point, and the production values are painful - except when the jet flies past them mid-sex, and then it's hilarious. Yet somehow (I suspect wholly due to Gillian Kearney), large portions of this one are watchable, though it contains two bairnsketballs, attempted rape of an underage girl, attempted marital rape, one stillbirth, a nice guy jumping off a cliff, and a nice guy getting bludgeoned to death. Oh, Catherine Cookson, you can always be counted on for a sweet story!