New Worlds episode 1 review
Peter Flannery's ambitious follow-up to The Devil's Whore gets off to an uneven but promising start...
This review contains spoilers.
“We’ve not forgotten the Devil’s Whore” said villainous Judge Jeffreys in a much-needed exposition scene in the New Worlds opener. With any luck, neither will have the viewers because tonight’s hour cut little slack for anyone dozing at the back.
More historical water had passed under the bridge between the 2008 Civil War drama and its follow-up than could comfortably fit onto a single context-setting slide, hence New Worlds providing three of them (a ‘previously on’ montage of the original’s knobbing and beheadings, while useful, wouldn’t really have been the done thing). Two decades of Restoration wig-wearing, colonisation and prole-subjugation had gone on since Angelica Fanshawe was left holding Edward Sexby’s baby at the end of The Devil’s Whore, and here we meet the titular rebel in a very different guise.
Fanshawe now has a new face (Nurse Jackie’s Eve Best plays the older version of Angela Riseborough’s character), a new husband (a Papist. Doomed), and her baby daughter, Beth, is fully grown (and played by Skins and The White Queen’s Freya Mavor).
Mavor, Joe Dempsie, Jamie Dornan and Alice Englert are the four young actors given the unenviable task of living up to comparisons with The Devil’s Whore’s Riseborough, John Simm, Peter Capaldi, Michael Fassbender and Dominic West. Unfortunately, this opening hour gives them scant opportunity to stand out against the episode’s Atlantic-hopping action. Fingers crossed that a character or four will emerge out of the quartet’s bland beauty in the remaining episodes, but right now, they’re wisps speaking in irritating riddles, overpowered by their period surroundings.
Englert’s Massachusetts-based frontierswoman - a seventeenth century precursor to Calamity Jane - emerges as the most interesting of the four leads. Hope Russell is the sort of robust, modern period heroine audiences enjoy watching gut and scalp her enemies, but even she’s overwhelmed by a disorientating first hour and leaves more blood-stains on set than she does an impression on the viewer.
Blood certainly isn’t something New Worlds is squeamish about. From the corpses piled up in the visceral opening assault on the Hadley frontier town to the black magic manicure in the neck-juice of that deer to Colonel Goffe’s squelchy landing from his mountaintop dive, world-forging, we're reminded, is a gory business.
The deer scene in particular was characteristic of the episode’s dream-like tone. Perhaps it was the lighting, or pace, or the presence of ethereally pretty girls in white dresses, but a sense of Peter Weir’s arty and unnerving Picnic At Hanging Rock pervaded the Oxfordshire-set sequences. Beth’s home, fittingly for the self-described fairy-tale character, was shot through with folkloric symbolism. A raven led Beth to uncover the secret of her Leveller father (the original kind, not the early-nineties-dreadlocks-and-patchwork-trousers variety), she locked eyes with Robin Hood figure Abe over a pool of blood, the midsummer’s feast became a murder scene...
New Worlds clearly aspires to be more than just another swords and ripping-bodices historical romp, but presently, its ambition is more appealing than either its story or characters. With the handsome stage set and many of the introductions out of the way now though, there's every reason to expect more from Peter Flannery's unusual, politically charged drama in the coming weeks. Until then.
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