There’s not enough Lesley Manville to give this TV adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons the life it needs
“Conquer, or die”
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ immortal epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses has had quite the helping hand in maintaining that status over the years with film and stage adaptations aplenty. Harriet Warner is the latest to take a journey into this world with her 8-part TV series Dangerous Liaisons taking inspiration from the book to imagine a prequel world for amoral and amorous adversaries the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont.
Thus we meet prostitute Camille and penniless mapmaker Pascal as they inhabit the fringes of the French aristocracy at the height of its Marie Antoinette-led exuberance. His secret life as a libertine, shagging his way through the lonely society women and securing letters of devotedness to be used as bargaining chips, offers a way up for the ladder for them and as they both become increasingly skilled at scheming, they reach dizzying heights.
The opening episodes focus on Lesley Manville’s Geneviève de Merteuil, one of Pascal’s ‘victims’ – indeed the show opens with her getting it on with him, a Manville sex scene! – whose letters end up in Camille’s hands. Playing on Geneviève’s terror of losing her reputation, Camille parlays them into an invitation into society, complete with wardorbe, room and board and lessons on how to survive, the perfect springboard for her masterplan of targeted vengeance which soon unfolds.
Alice Englert and Nicholas Denton are fine as the leads, relentless in the pursuit of her ambitions to target Carice van Houten’s Jacqueline de Montrachet, but Manville really does elevate the material as the voice of wearied experience passing on – as it turns out – the Merteuil torch. Once she departs, the show devolves somewhat, lost in a tangled mess of inconsequential subplots that barely register, apparently there to fill the running time as much as anything.
There’s only so much scandal that can effectively work in such a limited space and I’m not sure that Warner justifies the endeavour here, certainly not for 8 episodes. There’s something else missing too in the essential amorality of Laclos’ characters, here she feeds a contemporary need to give rationale and reason for behaviour that diminishes their effect. A watchable show with the likes of Paloma Faith, Clare Higgins, Lucy Cohu, Maria Friedman and Fisayo Akinade lurking in the company but far from essential.