Who would have thought that Netflix would score so sumptuously with a Regency soap that flaunts colourblind casting like a form of rampant amnesia and takes off from Jane Austen the way that Game of Thrones might be said to take off from Shakespeare’s romances.
The gap between that Mozart of novelists who invented the romantic comedy in novelistic form and this exorbitant, ahistorical sex-fest is monumental, though the derivation is obvious enough. Germaine Greer has written of how Austen’s sexual intensity works with a stimulating degree of restraint whereas Bridgerton invents or invokes all sorts of Chinese boxes of sexual ignorance or moral anathema only to crescendo with torrid scenes of the hero, Regé-Jean Page, making a meal of the heroine, Phoebe Dynevor, on the stairs, no less, in a symphonic exaltation of oral sex and with a general explicitness that leaves almost all previous television in the shade.
It’s all lavishly made, with state-of-the-art American know-how and fairly extraordinary ignorance of how English people at the beginning of the nineteenth century — the Napoleonic war/pre-Victorian era — might be imagined to speak, even if a lot of the posh ones were black.
Some of the characters refer to Anthony, the eldest Bridgerton son, in the traditional English way (pronouncing it Antony), others go for the American or Australian practice of pronouncing the ‘th’, which seems an extraordinary degree of vagueness within the same family. At other points, the most alarming of American adverbs, ‘momentarily’ in the sense of ‘in a moment’ is used whereas in Commonwealth English it means ‘for a moment.’
Given the massive investment in British scenery and acting talent it’s a bit of a pity but lots of people who enjoy Jane Austen’s high comic sparkle and moral gravity are going to swallow Bridgerton whole and who can blame them?
Yes, it’s a preposterous romantic melodrama, exploiting the trashiest fictional contrivances but its sheer self-belief tends to pummel you into gasping acquiescence. The — black — Duke of Hastings has been so terribly abused by his evil father because of a childhood speech impediment that he swears — though we forget this because it’s such tosh — that he will never have children. Despite this, he ends up married to Daphne Bridgerton, who is, for an unbelievably long stretch, ignorant of the basic facts of life, and is therefore okay with His Grace pleasuring himself into the nearest handkerchief or whatever.
It would be wrong, however, to reduce Bridgerton to nothing but these absurdities, given the richness of the confusions on offer. There is a ponderously arch narration by Lady Whistledown, voiced a bit hammily by the great Julie Andrews, which palpably derives from Gossip Girl, even if the plotting of Bridgerton makes that New York teen soap look like Sophocles on a good day. There are also snatches of very fine acting, like that of Claudia Jessie as Eloise, the Bridgerton daughter who wants to find out the identity of the great, malevolent gossipmonger. There’s also veteran Polly Walker who plays Lady Featherington, the head of the dodgy other family. There’s a moving subplot about the beautiful Marina, Ruby Barker, who is pregnant to her absent soldier beloved. Barker is a sweepingly beautiful black actress and the diverse casting works best with the younger and more sympathetic characters as a kind of aristocracy of beauty and animal magnetism than it does with, say, Golda Rosheuvel’s somewhat hammy Queen Charlotte (bear in mind the Regency period is the period of the outright madness of King George III.)
In all of this Regé-Jean Page is a tremendous boost to Bridgerton even if his character is silly beyond belief. He sounds like a Duke, he has tremendous swish and polish. He has a great power of reserve, he can convey a nuance in an undertone, and this is the starriest possible performance in a spotlit series. He could make a superb Orlando in As You Like It and you can see why they’re already talking about him as a potential James Bond. He may not have the weight of an Idris Elba but he has stealth and grace and that most treasured of all histrionic qualities– danger.
Bridgerton swirls around vast engulfing representations of innocence and experience and will probably give everyone –even the boys– something to hang on to.
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