On Christmas day Netflix gave us a gift in the form of period drama Bridgerton. The newest show produced by Shonda Rhimes, whose previous credits include Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, this raunchy Austenian piece promised romance, scandal and titillation.
The drama centres on the events of the debutante season of Regency London’s ton. While following an array of characters as documented by the anonymous Lady Whistledown in her newsletters, the eponymous family is a central focus as we’re indulged in the endeavours of the alphabetically named siblings (Antony, Benedict, Colin, so on until the letter H).
The eldest, Jonathan Bailey’s brooding Anthony, is determined as head of the family to control his siblings and keep them from impropriety, however the hypocrisy of the affections of his own heart, is never far from view. Luke Thompson’s Benedict is delved into a life of societal debauchery and Luke Newton’s Colin finds himself at the centre of scandal, but our real main character is the fourth sibling, Daphne played by Phoebe Dynevor.
Upon being introduced at court to Golda Rosheuvel’s Queen Charlotte, Daphne is favoured by her Majesty – putting her in the promising position of receiving many suitors. However, because of her overbearing brother, suitors quickly become scarce and she’s forced to enter into a scheme with the ever-so-handsome but damaged and rakish Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) in order to re-establish her position as the most desirable debutante of the season. Romance ensues.
Paralleling the Bridgerton household is the Featheringtons. Quite opposite to the Bridgerton’s pleasant blue aesthetic, the Featheringtons embrace the ugly-step-sister fashion as the matriarch, played by the fabulous Polly Walker, schemes to wed her daughters off as soon as possible. But her plans are soon disrupted with the arrival of a distant country cousin, portrayed by Ruby Barker, who arrives with a secret.
From the first episode it was clear this period drama was more in the style of Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 Emma, than the Austen adaptions that proliferated the 90s. While all period pieces cannot escape modern world influences, it’s the active embrace of modern aesthetics, fashions and attitudes that marks Bridgerton as different, almost to the degree that the world in it feels like a fantasy fairy-tale as opposed to historical fiction. This is no bad thing as, along with Emma, it gives the stuffy period drama a well needed visual reinvention – despite some rather dodgy looking CGI renderings of 18th century London.
However, one of the ways this infusing of modernity onto the historical setting comes unstuck is in the mixing of modern feminist attitudes while still pedalling pervasive patriarchal and heterosexual ideals that were prevalent during that era. Now that’s not to say I expect period dramas to defy the societal expectations of the eras within in which they are set, but I think if you’re going to maintain those old-fashioned ideals then the social commentary needs to be more subtle, especially for a modern audience. Everyone (well, hopefully) in 2020 knows women shouldn’t be property, so making some big statement about it seems slightly redundant.
This is really a small qualm that mainly refers to the first few episodes. Latter episodes offer insightful discussions relating to how women were prepared for marriage and sex. Still, if the show is going to make feminist statements, I long for it add even more weight and nuance to the difficulties of being woman in that world beyond the obvious.
The approach to race will also raise eyebrows. When I started watching, I presumed the creators had decided to go for a colour-blind approach to casting, which was very welcome in the face of the overtly white period-genre. However, what the creators decide instead is to try to explain the presence of POC in a throwaway conversation between the Duke and Adjoa Andoh’s Lady Danbury. Lady Danbury explains that because the King (George III) married a black woman, POC have since been integrated into high society.
The biggest problem with this is that it’s barely mentioned or referenced again. According to the story, this change would’ve happened in the last forty years or so – a fairly recent change – however, there’s no exploration of the implications this change had on society. The idea seems badly thought through – if they did want to carry the story that Lady Danbury and the Duke discuss, it should’ve have been treated with more consequence and could’ve been a very interesting reimagining of history.
In terms of the story itself, it does exactly what you want it to and keeps you engaged from beginning to end. There’s everything from unrequited love to mad Kings to dawn duels, but the story that anchors the show is the relationship between the Duke and Daphne. The chemistry is palpable, the gazing eyes, the touch of a hand – it bristles with electricity. Dynevor and Page’s performances are excellently balanced, showing the battle within each to maintain propriety whilst overwhelmed with emotion.
But I must say, the stand-out performances for me are from Barker and Walker. Walker is a pro, giving us evil step mother vibes, without the evil and with all of the charm, while Ruby Barker, a relatively unknown actress, gives a performance imbued with sincerity. She brings to her character, Marina, strength, vulnerability and intelligence and I expect that she’ll go on to do much bigger things in the future. A word should also be said about Andoh’s performance as Lady Danbury, a role filled with class and steel.
So despite the dodgy CGI, clunky feminism and race politics, Bridgerton wholly won my heart. During this time where the world around us feels like literal hell, Bridgerton offered the perfect means to escape a cold winter evening to place of pleasant frivolity.
Drama, Romance | UK/USA, 2020 | 15 | 25th December 2020 | Season 1 | Netflix Original | Phoebe Dynevor, Regé-Jean Page, Johnathan Bailey, Ruby Barker, Ben Miller, Adjoa Andoh, Julie Andrews, Golda Rosheuvel