Based on Anthony Trollope’s novel of the same name, He Knew He was Right follows the courtship and subsequent marriage of Louis and Emily Trevelyan, as these two try to make a life in England. The union between these two appears blissful, a devoted husband and wife with a small son. Emily shares her home with her sister, Nora, and finds pleasure in the society of her husband and his friend, Hugh Stanbury. However, there is one person who Louis disapproves of, Colonel Osborne, Emily’s godfather and an old friend of her father’s. As Louis begins to suspect that there is more between Osborne and Emily than what would be deemed proper, he tries to forbid Emily’s continued association with that gentleman. When she refuses to give in to his demands, arguing that her relationship is innocent, Louis becomes threatening and irrational, sending Emily and Nora away with little Louis to stay with the Stanburys. Though Emily tries to make her husband see reason, Louis staunchly believes that his suspicion is right and that his wife has betrayed him and shamed him before society. His belief sets into motion a terrible chain of events that forever rends their union and destroys their felicity.
He Knew He was Right has to be the single most tragic period drama I have seen. I don’t think I have ever felt so miserable as a result of the turn of events in a period film, but Louis Trevelyan’s descent into madness as Emily tries to defend her honor and independence really try the viewer’s emotions and bring little satisfaction in the end.
However, while Emily and Louis’s tragic tale dominate the plot, there are several narrative threads that lend some comic relief to the otherwise bleak tale. The arc involving Hugh’s sister, Dorothy, and their rich Aunt Stanbury is sweet and endearing as Dorothy wins that lady’s heart and finds an unexpectedly happy ending with her aunt’s heir. The relationship between pompous parson, Mr. Gibson (played by a very harried-looking David Tennant), and the French sisters also brings some hilarity to the story.
Trollope’s treatment of women’s place and the laws of coverture are incredibly powerful and the film portrays that brilliantly through its depiction of the trials experienced by Emily Trevelyan, as well as Nora, the French sisters, Aunt Stanbury, and Dorothy. It is a great film, but definitely not light-hearted.
Random useless factoid: I had a moment of “Aha!” when I realized that music in the BBC drama promo that they play at the beginning of all the recent BBC video DVDs is from the opening credits to this series.