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Television Review

‘Small Island’ weaves tale of hope and despair

In “Small Island,’’ Naomie Harris plays an optimistic and educated young woman from Jamaica who tries to make her way in postwar London. In “Small Island,’’ Naomie Harris plays an optimistic and educated young woman from Jamaica who tries to make her way in postwar London. (Steffan Hill 2009/Ruby Films)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / April 17, 2010

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The narrator of “Small Island’’ delivers momentous commentary about the notion of a “mother country’’ and how she ought to treat her children. Set in the 1940s, the new PBS “Masterpiece Classic’’ is loudly spelling out the fact that Britain was not a good parent to black Jamaicans, many of whom went to Europe to fight in World War II. As our guide intones in his voice-over, “Put the word ‘mother’ in front of the word ‘country,’ and you think of somewhere safe, where your potential will be nurtured and your faults excused.’’

But the truth is, he doesn’t need to tell us how shoddily the English treated Jamaicans. “Small Island’’ shows us far more effectively.

This evocative two-part miniseries has a lot going for it: rich period design, an engagingly twisty plot, performances with depth, intriguing racial and class issues. But the superfluous narrator? Like a few other melodramatic flourishes, including a heightened soundtrack and some inordinately sudsy dialogue about dreams and desires, he detracts. By insisting we recognize the vast import and intensity of the “Small Island’’ story that we’re watching, he only adds a kitschy veneer.

If you can sink into “Small Island’’ despite the kitsch, you will be rewarded with a piece of poignant historical fiction. The miniseries, which begins tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 2, is essentially the story of two couples. Hortense and Gilbert are from Jamaica, and they’ve made their way to England to fulfill life ambitions. Queenie and Bernard are Londoners leading grim, unsatisfying lives. As the narrative expertly jumps back and forth in time, and between Jamaica and England, we learn how their lives have intersected. Based on the novel by Andrea Levy, “Small Island’’ beautifully weaves together four unalike people and two radically different locations: the sunny, colonial atmosphere of Jamaica and the grayness of London.

Hortense and Queenie make great contrasting heroines. Hortense, played by Naomie Harris, is painfully naive, and thinks that England will welcome such a refined and well-educated young woman as herself. Queenie, so beaten down by disillusion, knows better, but still welcomes blacks into her London home after her husband goes to fight. Ruth Wilson is extraordinary as Queenie, as she resists making loneliness and yearning into weaknesses. Her Queenie gets stronger the more she feels, the more she shakes off her British shell.

The men in “Small Island’’ are equally well-drawn, particularly Gilbert, a man whose service to England has won him nothing but contempt from its white citizens. David Oyelowo makes Gilbert into both a buoyant fellow whose hope remains alive and a man struggling with self-annihilating rage. And, as Queenie’s emotionally bottled-up husband, Bernard, Benedict Cumberbatch is quite effective. Cumberbatch, from “The Last Enemy,’’ “To the Ends of the Earth,’’ and “Atonement,’’ has a way with British repression. But ultimately, the miniseries belongs to the risk-taking women, who come from small islands and yet wage fierce battle with huge cultural obstacles.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

SMALL ISLAND Starring: David Oyelowo, Ruth Wilson, Naomie Harris, Benedict Cumberbatch

On: PBS, Ch. 2

Time: Tomorrow night, 9-10:30