Starring: Freya Mavor, Jamie Dornan, Joe Demspie
Director: Charles Martin
Heretofore the tendency in movies and TV has been to treat King Charles II kindly, as a jovial comedy toff (Rupert Everett spouting witticisms in drag in Stage Beauty springs to mind). This sumptuous four-parter, recently shown on Channel 4, presents a darker view of the Merry Monarch, as portrayed by Jeremy Northam with what is surely the sneer of the year.
Yes, if you thought the thing about Charles II was that he didn’t hold a grudge, think again. Here’s he’s shown relentlessly pursuing the last of the regicides who slew his father and stamping out any remnants of radical idealism among the common folk. Exactly what happened to these notions of liberty and the people who propagated them is the theme of New Worlds.
It’s unusual, daring even, for a TV drama to take an abstract idea as its subject, and perhaps for that reason screenwriters Peter Flannery and Martine Brant have wrapped it all up in what you’d have to say is a plot and a half, involving daring-do by moonlight, separated lovers, shipwrecks, sojourns among native American tribes and a whole brace of grisly executions. Embracing both sides of the Atlantic, the story concerns Beth (Freya Mavor), a sheltered aristo who falls in with the Robin Hood-like Abe (Jamie Dornan, to be seen next year in Fifty Shades of Grey), who happens to be the son of one of the aforementioned regicides. Through him, she comes to see that England is suffering under the yoke of tyranny. Meanwhile, in the New World, things are arguably even worse, under the sway of cheerless, beady-eyed Puritans who aren’t happy unless they’re grabbing land from the natives or accusing someone of adultery. Here decent, kind-hearted Ned (Joe Dempsie) struggles to come to terms with the predations of his father, one of the worst land-grabbers, while also harbouring a passion for gun-toting frontierswoman Hope (Alice Englert).
Joe Dempsie, who was so funny and engaging in Skins all those years ago, still appears to be struggling to make an impression in more conventionally heroic roles, but he is more than made up for by Jamie Dornan and Freya Mavor, who both manage to make their characters seem very dashing indeed – and this despite the fact that, thanks to their recklessness, a bloody swathe is cut through the older cast members by the end of episode two. Mavor, in particular, completely dominates the screen with her ethereal beauty and her wonderfully flouncy performance; you can’t take your eyes off her, whether she’s skipping around a stately home in a gorgeous gown or slumped outside a teepee with braids in her hair and a tattoo on her shoulder.
And that’s saying something, as there is plenty of other eye candy to look at in this lavish production which evokes both the old and new worlds surprisingly convincingly, despite being shot mainly in Britain on a tight budget. It’s just a shame that it’s available on DVD only, as it cries out for HD. With its ambitious scope and its fiendishly tangled story arcs, New Worlds inevitably has the occasional hurried transition and clunky plot beat, but as an introduction to an overlooked period of history, as a richly coloured, full-blooded romance and as a showcase for some fine young acting talent, it’s hard to beat.
The box set comes with four brief but jolly featurettes, which contains lively footage of the actors chatting about their parts on set and behind the scenes, interviews with various production design bods, and an insight into the digital wizardry that turned modern-day Bristol harbour into 17th century Boston.