As period dramas go, it’s more Austin Powers than Jane Austen, but is the BBC adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers any good? As the aforementioned Powers might say, “Yeah, baby, yeah!”
France, 1630. D’Artagnan (Luke Pasqualino) arrives in Paris vowing revenge on his father’s apparent murderer, the musketeer Athos (Tom Burke). Instead he is drawn into a web of deceit in which King Louis XIII‘s (Ryan Gage) scheming advisor Cardinal Richelieu (Peter Capaldi) has been employing mercenaries to impersonate Musketeers and embark on a criminal rampage to discredit them and solidify his power base.
D’Artagnan teams up with Porthos (Howard Charles) and Aramis (Santiago Cabrera) in a race against time to save Athos from a firing squad and uncover the real identity of his father’s killer.
A different beast
The Musketeers proclaims itself as based on Dumas’ characters rather than his books, and creator Adrian Hodges has fully embraced that freedom, producing a heady mix of dashing heroes, swashbuckling fight scenes and leather. A lot of leather.
Hodges toys with viewers’ expectations from the outset. Before the opening credits have even rolled, we witness Athos (actually a hired mercenary) committing robbery and killing a middle-aged Alexandre D’Artagnan (his father, taking Dumas’ first name).
While some characters and story elements remain from the original book – such as Richelieu, Captain Treville (The Full Monty‘s Hugo Speer), Athos’ historical relationship with the dangerous Milady (Maimie McCoy) and D’Artagnan’s brief dalliance with her – there are also some clear departures. For instance Constance Bonacieux (Tamla Kari), originally the queen’s seamstress and confidante and D’Artagnan’s landlady is now merely the latter and, to his benefit, a decent shot too.
A procedural in leather
Visually The Musketeers is a treat, with high production values and big action setpieces featuring both authentic-looking 17th century firearms and fast-paced swordplay. There’s also plenty of humour which knowingly sits just the right side of winking to the audience. Porthos’ early duel using just a fork is played for laughs, but stops short of outright parody.
Underneath the leather there’s plenty of substance too, with the three musketeers nicely differentiated, if not entirely faithful to their original characterisations. The brooding Athos is a natural leader with a dark past. Porthos is more of a wise-cracking bar brawler than the book’s fashion-conscious dandy. And Aramis, unlike his devoutly religious literary counterpart, is very much the ladies’ man, sleeping with Richelieu’s own mistress Adele.
The main storyline surrounding some missing musketeers, the king’s stolen letters and the plot to frame Athos is really just standard procedural drama fare dressed up in leather and the intrigue of the French royal court, but it’s all done with such style and verve that it doesn’t really matter.
Capaldi’s Scottish-accented French is reminiscent of Sean Connery’s Russian submarine captain in The Hunt for Red October. But by the end of the episode, as he poisons Dujon and ruthlessly has Adele executed for her unfaithfulness, there’s no question that Richelieu makes for a suitably evil arch-villain who would have fitted in well in Game of Thrones.
Overall, the hour flew by without ever allowing itself to get bogged down in plot and character exposition. The Musketeers may be a very different beast to its predecessor in the Sunday night prime-time slot, but in its own way it’s just as good as Sherlock in providing a shot of escapism to help us forget about the cold wintry nights. A promising start.
The Musketeers is on BBC1 on Sundays at 9pm.