Belgravia. Epix. Sunday, April 12, 9 p.m.
Spoiler alert: Practically every damn word of this review gives away some whopping twist or turn in Epix’s new costume-drama-soap-opera Belgravia. Not because I’m mean—well, not just because I’m mean—but because it’s not exactly the most intricately or unpredictably plotted bit of writing in television history.
Suppose I tell you, for instance, that the dashing young army officer, Lord Edmund Bellasis, about to gallop off to the battle of Waterloo, cheerily explains to his commoner sweetheart Sophia Trenchard that there’s nothing for them to be worried about: “Nothing can happen to us! We’re the luckiest couple alive!” To which she giddily replies: “And the most in love!” And you will add: “Why, they’re deader than doornails!” And so they are—he a few hours later, she a few months. But the class-conscious mischief they’ve made will plague their families for decades.
But while British melodrama—Belgravia is a co-production with the UK’s ITV—is mustily predictable, that doesn’t mean it’s always bad. Though Belgravia has its share of red tunics and bearskin hats and kilts and bagpipes and sword dances and all the rest of that continental dreck that Thomas Jefferson warned us about, it’s also got a generous supply of cutting dialogue, withering glares and a cast of Brit television actors that know exactly how to deploy them. It glows with Dickensian villainy. Against all odds, Belgravia is both interesting and entertaining.
Produced and written from his own novel by Julian Fellowes, the man behind both the challenging murder mystery Gosford Park and the just-plain-challenged Downton Abbey, Belgravia starts off in Brussels in 1815, where the British army is waiting for Napoleon’s marauding army. The eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die atmosphere has turned the city into a romantic hothouse (“Danger is glamorous when you’re young,” observes one character, not entirely referring to Napoleon’s troops) where class-crossing romances that would never remotely have been tolerated in London are being conducted openly.
That includes the one between Lord Bellasis (Jeremy Neumark Jones) and the lovely but naïve Sophia (Emily Reid). Her father, James (Philip Glenister), a civilian logistical aide to the army, has encouraged his daughter’s liaison to clear the way for power-drive social climbing. Her mother, Anne (Tamsin Greig), is more cautious about the risks—particularly for a young woman—of flying too close to the social sun.
Yet her oblique but stern warning to Sophia not to sleep with her aristocratic soldier boy only provokes a fight. “I wish you could give me credit for a little sense,” Sophia complains. Agrees her mother: “I wish I could,” the double-entendre clear and cutting. The couple proceeds to its all-to-familiar wartime tale of doom, but leaves some secrets behind that will fester for a quarter of a century before blossoming into emotional nightshade when Anne has a chance meeting with Edmund’s mother.
The entire cast of Belgravia is extremely capable. The best performance is given by Greig, one of only a couple members to have recent American television experience, as a going-seriously-daft screenwriter in Showtime’s weirdly funny Friends spinoff Episodes. She doesn’t get the same invigorating dialogue in Belgravia, but Greig’s quiet recognition of the injustice and cruelty of the British class system—and the futility of resisting it—is a thing of beauty and pathos.
Belgravia debuted in England last month to a slapfest by the London critics, one of whom called it “a six-hour snobathon.” (Viewers, perhaps longing for a glorious past when unprovoked bitch-slapping of the peasantry was not only tolerated but encouraged, were a good deal more impressed.) Leaving aside the intention behind that description, it’s not inaccurate.
The contempt with which the upper crust characters utter the words “Mister” or “Mrs.”—as opposed to “Duke” or “Duchess”—is palpable. Even the belabored servants glory in the arrogant hauteur of the royalty toward the emerging mercantile class. “Gentlemen don’t earn their houses,” declares one of James Trenchard’s domestics to another, demeaning their boss. “They inherit them.”
It is precisely this contempt, this notion that money and success and even human decency connote nothing, that bloodlines and not individual effort are what separate the worthy from the unworthy that gives Belgravia its fascination and its value, a reminder that monarchies are much more—or, perhaps, less—than tiaras and crushed-velvet gowns, just as there was more to it than taxes when we threw all that tea in the harbor.