Dangerous Liaisons premieres November 6 on Starz, with one new episode a week on Sundays.
Of the bending of time Foreign to an array of queens, Starz has cornered the historic frolic market. A spin on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ popular 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses is right in the wheelhouse of the network’s passionate period. Thankfully, the adaptation from Dangerous Liaisons creator Harriet Warner doesn’t just retread old ground and offers a reason to look at this release beyond its opulent aesthetic and attention to detail.
The 18th century story became an incredibly successful stage production in the mid-1980s, quickly followed by the Oscar Dangerous Liaisons starring Glenn Close (among a very stacked cast) three years later. Next comes the delicious contemporary touch of adolescence in cruel intentions with Sarah Michelle Gellar. All that to say, it’s a well-known story of lust, manipulation, sexual politics, and power games. Opting for a prelude to the novel gives Warner’s version room to breathe – even if it takes a few episodes to emerge from the long shadows cast by Close and Gellar.
We are in 1783, and Paris is a city divided between extreme wealth and poverty. The revolution is less than a decade away, and the difference between those who live lavishly and everyone else is stark. A title is everything in this world. Before becoming the infamous Marquise de Merteuil and Viscount de Valmont, Camille (Alice Englert) and Valmont (Nicholas Denton) use everything at their disposal to mark the elite circles they will later reign. Tweaks have been made to their origin story, ensuring that this series doesn’t attempt to emulate the unforgettable performances that came before it.
It’s hard to put a price tag on the titles these characters covet in a society with so many rungs on the ladder. Camille and Valmont’s ongoing entanglement is at the heart of this story, but it is only at the nascent stage of their dance to games steeped in seduction. Idealism and cynicism are in a constant tussle as trust is also hard to come by for passionate young lovers who fight for whatever they can pull off. The tension increases whenever they’re on different sides of a fight, meaning they’re as likely to issue a declaration of war as they are fiery intimacy. Englert is particularly adept at switching between vulnerable and hardened to the cruel Parisian environment, and she’s excellent at navigating this story from the jump.
Of the pair, it’s Camille who initially wins our sympathy in part because of the specific world she’s trying to escape. Meeting the current Marquise de Merteuil (Lesley Manville) at the premiere gives her an unparalleled opportunity, and the presence of a titan like Manville elevates the material even further. This savvy casting is a fun nod to the original 1985 RSC production of Dangerous Liaisons in which Manville played Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman and Selma Blair in the 1988 and 1999 versions). Whenever the Oscar nominee is on screen, it’s hard to look away.
Manville’s introduction to the opera sets the lavish backdrop and highlights the appetite for gossip shared by the noble crowd. The talkative audience talks about the rumors around a certain empress and her relationship with a horse, and viewers of Great will be more than familiar with this alleged scandal. Unlike the Hulu series starring Elle Fanning, Dangerous Liaisons stays in its period drama lane even as it indulges in the trending scam themes portrayed in Invent Annastall, and We crashed. Not that the tech world invented the rich money scam. Not to mention, it would be awfully boring if every show tried to put an overt contemporary twist on aesthetics, tone, and dialogue. While this prequel marries modern ideas with its past setting, the finer details lean toward precision rather than satire.
Lavish locations such as gilded opera houses, country estates and glamorous urban dwellings juxtapose the city’s festering underbelly. Some of the latter depictions tip into cliched caricatures, and the story does best when it exposes the hypocrisy of those who aspire to be in the royal court. The Czech Republic does an excellent job of dubbing for France, and I would be remiss if I did not mention David Roger’s. exquisite production design and how candlelight bounces off these different rooms.
There is often a high expectation for lavish dresses and sharp menswear in a costume drama. Considering James Acheson won the Oscar for his work on the 1988 film, that sets the bar high for Starz’s prequel. Good news! Costume designer Andrea Flesch more than rose to this challenge. Flesch recently wowed audiences with the memorable floral dress worn by Florence Pugh in Midsommar and drawn from French history with Colette by Keira Knightley. Whether it’s Camille playing dress-up, Valmont using his closet to match his ambition, or the never-ending stream of nobility, there’s more than enough peacock to fill Versailles.
I can’t go into detail regarding Carice van Houten as the mysterious Jacqueline de Montrachet, other than to say that she changed Melisandre’s signature red look to game of thrones for an all-white closet – with one exception later in the season.
Madame Berthe’s clothing boutique isn’t just for picking up the latest fashions; a little like Bridgerton, it is an anthill that Camille takes advantage of. This factor reaches its peak in the sixth episode, which takes costumes to glorious new heights with a fun play on a masquerade ball. Sure, not everything breaks the wheel like other recent period dramas have, but there’s something reassuring about how Dangerous Liaisons sticks to the classics.
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Inclusive casting has become more common in shows like The Great, Bridgerton and Dickinson. Dangerous Liaisons continues that welcome practice of avoiding an all-white cast for a period effort. There are still stumbles as Camille’s best friend Victoire (Kosar Ali) is stuck as the voice of reason, which is sometimes a thankless role, and the show would benefit from showing more of her story. Ali is excellent in this role, especially during a few daring and dangerous scenes, but she does not have enough to work with outside concerning Camille. However, Valmont’s mother-in-law, Ondine (Colette Dalal Tchantcho), has a lot of bite and could be a formidable opponent if given the chance.
So what about Ondine’s stepson and the big John Malkovich shoes he has to put on? Denton is a chameleon who looks like Eddie Redmayne in Wretched when he’s not wearing full makeup and a freshly powdered wig. Not that it’s anything to blame him for, but the levels of intrigue increase when he delves into all the cosmetic trappings of that era – perhaps because it’s often toned down for the males in other sequel productions. taking place in this pre-revolutionary era. Camille isn’t the only one navigating the various rules of French nobility and trying to take a slice of the pie using every tool at his disposal. The duo is entertaining when they combine these elements.
When the story falls more into love, not war, the pacing slows, but Englert and Denton certainly have warmth and chemistry. While it can’t touch the heights of Close and Malkovich, there’s a naivety to the way they use their survival skills that hardens and softens as the episodes progress.
Seduction and deception are integral to Dangerous Liaisons, as is the way gossip becomes a cudgel to inflict on those who stand in the way. Camille and Valmont both have lofty goals, and it’s less about sport via manipulation and more rooted in personal history. Parts of Camille’s story are drip-fed at a reasonable pace, and while the reveals aren’t entirely unpredictable, we don’t feel chained either. However, some information is sometimes withheld from other characters because they need a reason to cause a rift; it sounds hollow and artificial.
Even when Warner’s adaptation stumbles, it’s still entertaining with deliciously passionate moments that tick Starz’s historical boxes while providing escapism and a playful twist on an old favorite. It takes a beat to get going but picks up the pace over the six episodes available for review (out of eight total). Starz has already renewed it for a second season and with an excellent reliable twist from Manville and Englert’s captivating performance, it’s a bond to keep.