Who would have imagined, when Alexandre Dumas published Les Trois Mousquetaires in 1844, that 170 years later his stories of swashbuckling sword fighting in 17th century France would continue to thrive. Dumas’ novel has been translated to stage, television and film (recently in Barbie and the Three Musketeers – considered by many to be the definitive edition) and yet, despite many memorable adaptations over the years, as the first episode of BBC1’s new series The Musketeers aired it was the infamous 1981 Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds that trended on Twitter – whatever you do, avoid watching any of it on YouTube; you’ll be stuck with the theme tune for days.
There’s a definite feel of the now defunct Ripper Street in the The Musketeers, from the bombastic soundtrack and sepia tones to the predominantly male cast and, sadly, sliding ratings. The Musketeers is better than Ripper Street, however. In the latter the drama was strong, but plots often felt as detached as its uncharismatic lead (Matthew Macfadyen), leaving the whole thing hard to follow or care about.
The Musketeers, on the other hand, suffers no such issues: the plots are much simpler and strikingly more fun and entertaining, while the leads are nothing if not charismatic. As d’Artagnan (our surrogate), Luke Pasqualino is fresh faced and very likeable; and while Charles and Cabrera (Porthos and Aramis) are fun additions, it’s Tom Burke’s Athos who stands out strongest as the enigmatic musketeer carrying a dark past. As a group they bounce well off each other with notable chemistry, making for very believable relationships.
The series itself started out very promisingly with a pacey, if safe, episode revolving around revenge, identity and stolen letters; leading to a progression of character development and increasing boldness as the weeks progressed. If critique is to be placed, it is notable that, while episodes are simple enough, there is a tendency towards plots that don’t stand up well under scrutiny.
Additionally, though there are more women here than in Ripper Street (where females were either victims or prostitutes – or both), at the midway point of the series there is still a significant gender imbalance. Tamla Kari (Constance) and Maimie McCoy (Milady) are good in their roles, but they’ve merely seemed to drop in and out of stories, while Alexandra Dowling’s Queen Anne has barely registered – to be fair, Louis XIII (Ryan Gage) has floundered along with her too. Though it’s true to say that Dumas hardly filled his novel with women, this is a drama presenting itself as modern and, frankly, one with little resemblance to the text anyway – why not take a leap? And a progressive one at that.
It would be remiss not to mention the acting powerhouse that is Peter Capaldi, who slinks around the King as the reptilian Cardinal Richelieu. His performance here is by far the most deeply layered, and he steals his scenes – as you would expect. The shame of the matter is that he’s only sticking around for the one series before he flies off in the TARDIS as Matt Smith’s replacement in some show called Doctor Who, whatever that is…
With series two already commissioned, replacing him is going to be a big task for the show, but a necessary one. His darker, more serious placing gives a much-needed balance to the exciting sword frolics and jokey banter. Ripper Street was cancelled for low ratings, and with the more successful The Paradise getting the chop as well, it’s a seemingly tough time for drama at the moment. You’ve got to impress to survive. That, and not be moved to Monday nights in the schedules.
For now though, The Musketeers is a winning alternative to the glut of early 20th century drama usually filling Sunday nights, and one that sees a romping hour pass by with a flourish of style and excellence. This is escapism at his best – a perfect distraction from the week to come. En garde!