In BBC One’s new Sunday night drama series, which we have been fortunate enough to see the first episode of, adapting the book isn’t quite the game. As writer Adrian Hodges (Survivors, Primeval) explains, ‘I think it’s very clear that we’re not doing the book. But the book is all over the series. Certain things appear in different ways.’
That doesn’t mean that viewers can be treated to a radical reimagining, however. On the contrary, the setting is eighteenth century; the characters both familiar and faithful. It is, in every respect, the swashbuckling Musketeers of literature and legend, just repositioned slightly to allow for the possibility of a long-running adventure series, after this initial run of ten, should the viewers take to it.
So: is it a case of derring do or derring don’t?
Well, truthfully, it falls somewhere between the two: accomplished enough to have been made well, but not so inspired that it will make converts of those for whom family-friendly adventure romps are not their thing. Ultimately, how much you love it will depend on how much you like your buckle to be swashed.
If the series fails, it certainly won’t be the production values that are at fault. As historical(-esque) dramas go, The Musketeers looks very different from the usual Jane Austen fare, thanks in part to the less familiar period setting, and in part to extensive location filming in the Czech Republic.
At times, there is a Gallic rusticness to the visuals – a nonchalant peasant chic – that not only feels instinctively right for the period, but also gives the programme the air of a European production. The whole series feels gift-wrapped in velvet and brocade. There is certainly the risk that this won’t work – Georgian England plays well for a reason – but credit is due for trying something different.
As for the story itself, things feel rather more predictable. Two storylines converge: one in which D’Artagnan seeks revenge for a family tragedy and the other in which there is a threat to the Muskeeters’ reputation. It is a contrivance to ensure that things don’t get too cosy too soon – that the inevitable bromance is not overheated – but it fails at the level of characterisation.
Great care is taken to ensure that each of the three musketeers has his individual character quirks. The trouble is: the quirks are virtually interchangeable. This one is the gambler, this the lover, this the fighter. Every one is bearded and swarthy, with the kind of assertive-yet-volatile masculinity that suggests hidden vulnerability – a conceit that sounds sexier on the page than it appears on the screen.
Luke Pasqualino’s D’Artagnan, in being both beardless and less stocky than his three soon-to-be companions, has at least the virtue of being physically distinct, and, truthfully, he is the main attraction here: the one (honorary) Musketeer who lives up to the star billing of the title. Maybe ’twas ever thus with D’Artagnan – in being the outsider, he always manages to steal the show – but there is always the hope that Porthos, Athos and Aramis will give him a run for his money.
Here, they don’t quite – yet. But it is early days, and there are certainly glimmers of potential, not least from Peter Capaldi’s Cardinal Richelieu; slightly limited in both screen time and cunning majesty in the first episode. Still, if anyone can bring a note of cruel cynicism to proceedings, it’s him.
First episodes are difficult to get right, and inevitably they tend towards the generic, especially when introducing an ensemble cast. The Musketeers may yet flower into greatness; but for now, it is an honourable and enjoyable attempt.
Watch the trailer…
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