What if you fought a war for civilization, and it turned out that your side didn’t consider you civilized? “Small Island,” a BBC/Masterpiece miniseries based on Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel, asks exactly that question as it follows the lives of two couples, one Jamaican and one English, as they become intertwined in postwar London.
Gilbert Joseph (David Oyelowo) is one of the first wave of West Indian immigrants to the UK, an ex-serviceman who finds postwar Britain even more hostile and narrow-minded than he expected. His wife, Hortense (Naomie Harris), is a teacher whose hopes and dreams have already been dashed too many times. The only consolation is the friendship of their landlady Queenie (Ruth Wilson), who takes in West Indian boarders to pay the rent since her husband Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch) disappeared during the war. Her ability to see beyond the color of one’s skin makes her a pariah on her street, but is there another story behind her willingness to reach out to Gilbert and Hortense?
In a way, “Small Island” is the wartime myth of plucky old England sent through the looking glass. Everyone comes together to win the war and to rebuild afterwards—or they would if it wasn’t for race with a capital R constantly coming between them. Gilbert, who enlisted to save his mother country finds himself shunned at every turn but those he fought to protect. Hortense, raised to exalt Britain as the best of all possible worlds and to see herself as part of an educated elite finds a harsher reality. Queenie and Bernard have their own troubled connections to the racial divide as well. The producers don’t linger on the story of the SS Empire Windrush and the arrival of the first wave of West Indians in Britain, but jump straight to the streets and the constant humiliations that they suffer.
The leads, Naomie Harris (28 Days Later, Pirates of the Caribbean) and David Oyelowo (MI-5, Last King of Scotland) as Jamaican immigrants struggling with English racism and Ruth Wilson (Jane Eyre, Luther) and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Last Enemy, Sherlock) as a white middle-class London couple struggling with their own demons, all turn in picture-perfect performances.
The script is mostly true to Andrea Levy’s fantastic novel, aside from the insertion of a voice-over narration and the inclusion of a final scene that converts the novel’s bittersweet ending into a confidently triumphant one. The miniseries softens a few sharp edges elsewhere as well, making the story more of a triumph of anti-racism than the muddling-through that it is in the book. Despite the changes, “Small Island” remains well worth watching. But consider the reading the book too.