Recently released in North America, season one of the BBC period drama, Desperate Romantics, follows the founding artist members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. William Holman Hunt (Rafe Spall),. John Millais (Samuel Barnett), and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Aidan Turner), are looking to cement their reputations as rising stars in the art world of mid-19th century London, and to turn that world on its head. Though they crave the recognition of the Royal Academy of Art, they simultaneously long to give a rude gesture to high Victorian art.
The action focuses on the artists’ struggles to find appropriate outlets for their, erm, youthful energies. Based on Franny Moyle’s 2009 book, Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites, the series portrays the struggle these young men go through, trying to balance their need to produce great art with their desire to repeatedly tangle with the women they encounter, from barmaids to shop girls to housewives.
Early in their careers and perpetually short of “tin” (cash), the three rely on Fred Walters (Sam Crane), a young journalist friend, to prop them up when funds run short. Fred uses the Brotherhood as fodder for his current events writings, painting the group in the best light possible, though with a different set of tools.
With his wistful looks and occasional (disruptive) voiceovers, Fred seems to at once wish to be a true part of the Brotherhood, and yet to want to reform his so-called friends. Fred has more of a gentleman-like background than some of the others, and their manners sometimes shock him, but he can’t seem to tear himself away.
Rossetti smolders with his Mediterranean good looks and Janus-like comportment. He’s not afraid to use every situation to his advantage, and can be incredibly charming right up until he combusts through a lack of self-control, the master of his own destruction. Millais, a former child prodigy, has the most early success of the group, but allows himself to be manipulated by Rossetti and his supposed friends, crushed by his own naiveté. The Brotherhood joke that Millais has yet to become a man, and Barnett does a convincing job of that.
Hunt is harder to pin down, as he is focused on working incredibly hard to achieve success, yet allows Rossetti to call the shots. Hunt does provide a good foil between Rossetti and Millais, as he understands more of the way the art world works than Millais, without possessing the smooth talking abilities of Rossetti to cushion his own way in that environment. Meanwhile, poor Fred the journalist tags along a step behind the group.
The trio of artists vie for the praise of art critic John Ruskin (Tom Hollander), who holds the power to make or break their budding careers. Ruskin provides an interesting side story, as his difficult marriage with Effie Ruskin prompts him to use the members of the Brotherhood against each other in a bid to force Effie into a humiliating divorce. Meanwhile Millais falls for Effie and all her complications, never anticipating how difficult a woman can make one’s career.
The historical Brotherhood sought to shake up the established art world, eschewing traditional religious poses and scenes from nature to attempt to better represent the sensuality present in everyday life. Using prostitutes and other unlikely women as models, the Brotherhood looked for remarkable beauty hidden in mundane corners. In the series, once they’d found an astonishing glory (Lizzie Siddal, played by Amy Manson with an incredible coppery mane), it’s not surprising that they fought over who she should model for. Nor is it any surprise to the viewer that it’s a woman, time and again, who comes between an artist and success. Each time, the situation is redeemed because the woman inspires the best work yet. Or at least that is the hope.
BBC costume dramas are generally well done and Desperate Romantics is no exception. The costuming is excellent, and the location shooting gives an excellent sense of the period in all its trappings. The soundtrack is surprisingly upbeat and not quite the same as the usual classical period accompaniment to BBC’s dramas. Music is used to punctuate scenes and to draw them to a close rather than to heighten emotion throughout a scene, but it works.
An extra feature on this two disc set is a half hour series of brief commentaries by the actors, in costume, and several producers and writers. It’s clear that those who worked on this project feel that the human relationships, messy as they often are, are the central point of Desperate Romantics. With the story based on the historical Brotherhood, any lover of 19th century British art will be familiar with the names and works of these men, and more than likely just a bit titillated by this adaptation of the sordid, lesser known side of their genius.