Warning! Spoilers follow
BBC’s new drama, The Musketeers, is yet another – very free – adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s famous 1844 novel, The Three Musketeers. The transition from book to ongoing series, of course, has required several changes, and the individual episodes’ plotlines stray quite far away from anything Dumas ever wrote. In 1630 Paris, three friends, Athos, Porthos and Aramis, serving in the King’s Musketeers, welcome among them D’Artagnan, a young Gascon with exceptional fighting skills. The latter is attracted to Constance Bonacieux, a sweet and clever woman married to a man she does not love. Their main enemy is the cunning, backstabbing (quite literally), powerful Cardinal Richelieu, helped by the evil and mysterious Milady de Winter.
The actors have great chemistry, and are all well chosen: Peter Capaldi’s Richelieu is the epitome of that singular oxymoron, the ‘likeable arch-villain’; Luke Pasqualino as D’Artagnan has the right mixture of cheek and cuteness, Tom Burke as Athos emanates leadership from all pores, Howard Charles’s Porthos strikes the right balance between comic relief and tough guy, and Santiago Cabrera, as Aramis, follows up his famous Lancelot interpretation (Merlin), demonstrating that he was born to play the ladies’ man. Ryan Gage stands out as a perhaps excessively idiotic, but strangely almost endearing in his spoilt cluelessness, King Louis XIII, while Alexandra Dowling is his sweet and wise young Queen. Maimie McCoy’s beautiful Milady de Winter is superbly wicked, and steals the screen from everyone else, but the true pearl of the cast is the pretty Tamla Kari, whose Constance Bonacieux possesses, in equal proportions, lovely innocence, mature wisdom and tomboyish cheek. It is only to be hoped that, since the scriptwriters have already taken great liberties with the novel, in her case they don’t decide to stick instead to its letter, given what the heartless Dumas did to her.
The Musketeers has no ground-breaking ambitions. It follows the recent tradition of more-or-less-historical (and less rather than more, I suppose) BBC productions, from Robin Hood to Merlin, which have kept families entertained in those long and dark weekends when Doctor Who was not on. Swashbuckling fun apart, however, it is not really appropriate for small children, as the 9 PM programming concedes. Although the violence is rather contained (especially if we think of what HBO has been producing of late), there still are dark themes, several characters, even main ones, murdered in cold blood, and a more grown-up attitude, overall.
The series’ main asset, of course, is the unbeatable charm of a period setting, even though the historical aspect is as usual one of the most controversial points. We have West-Indies slave traders, conspiracies with baby heirs to the throne, wannabe revolutionaries, the Court of Miracles (we can safely deduce that the series creators are into nineteenth-century French historical novels, and have had more than a passing look at those of that other giant, Victor Hugo…), Protestant and Catholic hatred, witch trials, international politics. All these topics, however, are treated with a thoroughly twenty-first-century and extremely Politically Correct mentality, which is projected onto the main characters. The four heroes, in order to be likeable, become ante litteram feminists, vocally speak out against the slave trade, and are remarkably indifferent to confessional matters. Rather than Thirty-Years’-War France, The Musketeers’ setting at times reminds of the following century, with democratic labourers conspiring to blow up their monarch and a diffuse scepticism regarding the existence of witches. From the point of view of the language, the scriptwriters, torn between the need to convey a ‘past’ aura and the fear to alienate modern audiences, sometimes slip into a terrible postmodern mixture, ranging from ‘I am D’Artagnan, please think kindly of my name’ to some actually cringe-worthy anachronistic turns of phrase, which stridently break the illusion: ‘You three! My office. Now.’, the Musketeer captain shouts to our three lads, suddenly bumping us into the middle of a NYPD buddy-cop movie.
In terms of storytelling, the plotlines have sometimes been rather predictable, although there has been a decided improvement as the series progressed. The pilot in particular was full of cheesy, derivative and less than convincing moments, with too many things happening too fast (and here the limitations of the tv format must be acknowledged), too conventionally, or in a pretty preposterous way: examples of this include D’Artagnan’s father’s death, and his sleeping with Milady de Winter within ten minutes of meeting her. Some of the other episodes also show the same tendency: for instance, in episode four, which up to that point had been very well-constructed and plausible, for no reason at all, except that he had nothing else to do, Athos is suddenly challenged to a duel by the Duke of Savoy. In general, so far the stories have frequently suffered from a lack of originality, affecting the characters’ introduction, their personalities and motivations, the flashbacks, and the romance, which includes a shooting practice sequence perhaps slightly too reminiscent of Torchwood. In an unashamedly planned way, in each episode one of the four protagonists is allotted a love interest, in turn, by rotation. Dialogues can be deep and brilliant, but at times also banal and unoriginal, echoes from hundreds of other ‘already-seen’ films (‘My name is D’Artagnan of Lupiac in Gascony. Prepare to fight, one of us dies here. You murdered my father.’: nerdy people, does this ring any bells?). Moreover, they don’t always succeed in escaping the trap of exposition, with King Louis often asking Richelieu about things he knows perfectly well, so that they can be spelt out at length for the benefit of the audience.
And yet, what I always say regarding review writers is that armchair criticisms are easy, while actual creative activity is not. For all its problems, The Musketeers still manages to be truly entertaining, and considerably addictive. It is action-packed, the characters have a sparkling chemistry, and the fact that they often act as twenty-first-century people in early-modern boots may be annoying historically, but ultimately does allow us to better relate to them. Murray Gold’s score is versatile, epic and excellent as usual, with a honorary mention going to the great opening credits. The series, following a certain adventure tv tradition, balances modern-style overarching storylines with more or less standalone episodes, where these are left aside for the sake of pure, unapologetic swashbuckling entertainment. Episode seven was a watershed, bringing to resolution one of the main unsolved threads, D’Artagnan and Constance’s romance, but of course this opens new avenues and even more interesting issues, not last the question of how a show like this will cope with adultery. If you are looking for some light entertainment, The Musketeers is definitely recommended, and if you like it enough to get as far as episode seven, you will undoubtedly be asking for more.
What do you think to The Musketeers? Good old fashioned fun or a historical bore? Let us know in the comments section below