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Friday, 24 July 2009

Desperate Romantics, BBC2

The primary compulsion for contemporary Hollywood scriptwriters is not to compose an opus that cuts to the marrow of the human condition, or to compact so much action into 90 minutes that the film bleeds excitement from the cinema screen over the audience, drowning them in an ecstatic brew of liquefied car chases and haphazard bullets – it is to write a film that can convince a pretty, but ostensibly demure, actress to disrobe; and then for this ‘nude scene’ to be the focus of every single promotional interview, as Ben Shephard and his ilk gnaw licentiously at this ivory talisman to urge hordes of virgins to flock to the cinema.

And such a ruse could have been the compulsion for the commissioning of this superficially bawdy drama about a bunch of feckless, down-on-their-luck, middle-class artists aspiring to simultaneously forge beauty from the naked female form and weep indulgently at the consequent poverty and derision their futile efforts accrue.

However, each of the painters is smoothly sketched as being initially far more obsessed with their art than lusting after their models and this skilfully-written conflict between burgeoning juvenile instincts and artistic ambition forms the focus of the narrative as the characters grow from solipsistic delusionists to artists.

The meek Fred Walters (Sam Crane), the de facto manager of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – a suitably ostentatious and grandiose appellation – provides the human link to the rest of the Brotherhood who are at first so consumed by their lofty pursuit of art they sporadically appear as alien as the Daleks, but it’s this that makes them all the more beguiling and charismatic, and their subtle flaws all the more apparent.

Chief among them is Dante Gabriel Rossetti (the excellent Aidan Turner), a man who could cause a lady’s virtue to dissolve into carnal lust at 30 paces with a smile that accentuates the sideburns clinging to his cheekbones like a pair of holstered sex pistols.

Rather than employing his charm for the sensual purposes of seduction, Dante hunts down models that will enable him to unlock his talent and to satiate his burning desire of impressing the laconic writer John Ruskin (Tom Hollander), whose favour is akin to winning an Oscar.

And the repressed Ruskin is an exemplar of the impressive peripheral cast that neatly frames the central plot. A man so tormented by the guilt at the desire he feels for his younger wife Effie (Zoe Tapper) that he finds solace, and even joy, in dismissing her affection – she keeps a log of his sparse fondness – as proof of his pious purity, but ignorant that he is driving her into the arms of the effete, vain John Millais (Samuel Barnett).

Repression is a plague that afflicts one of the Brotherhood, too. William Holman Hunt (Rafe Spall) plays up to his nickname of Maniac with his vulgar masculinity of boxing until his body sweats genius or boorishly demanding first refusal of Lizzie, their collective muse, only to callously dismiss her as a model after Ruskin comments that her face looks “sluttish”, exhibiting his social insensitivity.

And when his bubble of sensual austerity is pricked by Lizzie’s replacement, hired from the local brothel, he reacts furiously to Dante’s mockery with a feral head butt in frustrated acknowledgment that he’s finally succumbed to temptation as though he were a less resolute, younger version of Ruskin.

Accordingly, it’s the analogy of the Brotherhood taking their first steps into the vivid adult world of love, jealousy and disappointment with their encroachment on the art establishment – personified by the scorn of Mr Stone (Phil Davis) – that makes their adventures so appealing. Their ascent to the zenith of the art world is hampered by their juvenile refusal to be immersed in the adult world, so that for every inspired portrait of Lizzie he paints, Dante is hampered by destitution; for each brilliant brush stroke of Maniac there is an hour spent fretting over invasive intimacy; and each compliment than tans the vanity of Millais provokes ten laments to his squandered precocity.

And it’s this way the protagonists oscillate between blinkered aspiration and inhibiting flaws that makes it such a bewitching watch.

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