British period pieces offer fresh takes on love

Stiff upper lip - the British are famous for it. It signifies an unrelenting dignity and a level head in the face of crises. Two exquisite miniseries recall just why the starched demeanor has had its uses - even when it seemed most eccentric.

"Victoria and Albert" (A&E, Oct. 21 and 23, 9-11 p.m.) is a vivid, strong-minded dramatic biography of perhaps the most renowned marriage of the 19th century. "The Cazalets" (PBS, Mondays, Oct. 22-Nov. 19, 9-11 p.m.) takes Masterpiece Theatre into the 1930s and '40s with a large and loving family who harbors secrets, sorrows, and sins.

The two minis complement each other. And it's not just because they are both about the English gentry, or even because they are both about family relationships. Each explores character in the face of different kinds of temptations, and the reasons why all kinds of virtues do matter - the difference courage, love, kindness, and honesty make in the face of suffering.

As a teenager, Victoria was required to share a bedroom with her manipulative mother, who wanted to control her day and night.

Victoria and Albert points out that when she became queen at 18, Victoria made some radical changes right out of the gate - choosing to follow the advice of Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (played with rich layers of intelligence and affection by Sir Nigel Hawthorne) rather than that of her overbearing mum.

When it comes to her marriage, her German cousin Albert is her mother's choice. And despite the manipulations of her Belgian uncle, Leopold (Jonathan Pryce), and the general persistence of her mother, Victoria really does fall for the dashing Prince Albert.

For several years, the young queen keeps her gorgeous husband around like a pet, refusing to let him read state papers or help make even household decisions. But eventually she comes to trust his judgement as much as she loves him, and he becomes king in everything but name.

He proves himself a remarkable administrator, a man of vision, and a moral philosopher who never sinks into hypocrisy. Best of all, he actually falls in love with his own wife - after nine children and a lifetime of working side by side for the good of the state.

Albert died in his prime, and with him, some of Victoria's good sense. Victoria mourned for him for 40 years - she spent nearly 65 on the throne.

Without Albert's steadying presence, the series says, Victoria became stuffy and turned to empire-building. And though she enjoyed more privilege than any other woman of her time, she thought feminists deserved a whipping, she was tough on her own children, and she ignored the plight of the poor. But there was greatness about her, too. And she left her name on a fascinating era.

In a star-studded cast, including Jonathan Firth as Albert, Diana Rigg as Victoria's governess, and John Wood as Wellington, Victoria Hamilton as Victoria glistens brightly.

Her Victoria begins as a timid girl and evolves into a giddy lover, a strong queen, and finally, a tender wife, putting up with as much as she has ever dished out. Nuances of growing affection overlie a developing political savvy and independence - producing something greater in emotional wisdom.

And it is a lesson that's hard to deny. If Albert had been king and Victoria his mere consort, none of the issues of equality and partnership would ever have arisen. But because we see Albert trying to find relevant work under his wife's reign, the wisdom of equality and partnership becomes clear. It is the very basis of lasting love.

In order to describe a marriage that resembles a work of art these days, filmmakers almost have to look at an earlier period. That's because love between husband and wife is treated too often as a cliché or a joke on TV. So The Cazalets, a study of one loving family of brothers and their marriages, is surprisingly meaningful.

The eldest brother, Hugh (Hugh Bonneville), has been wounded in World War I. He and his wife, Villy, love each other and their children with such honest respect that Villy's sudden illness comes as a cruel blow. Meanwhile, youngest brother Rupert (Paul Rhys) has lost his first wife and remarried - to the dismay of his teenage daughter and young son.

The one bad apple in the bunch, a soft-spoken womanizer named Edward, actually loves his wife even more than he loves his mistress. But he loves his teenage daughter a little too much. The libertine mentality can't quite grasp where the line is located that no man should cross.

The parents' strengths and shortcomings are sometimes mirrored in the children's behavior. And, while nothing vile ever happens, it's clear that the children are as capable as the adults in bringing about change for the better. It is Rupert's daughter, Clary, who helps his vain young wife cope with his disappearance during the war and grow up emotionally.

Children are often this wise and this good in real life. And part of their strength in this enthralling family drama comes from the spirit of endurance - that famous stiff upper lip.

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