Bridgerton Review: Sincere, unashamed romance

Shondaland’s first Netflix production is visually sumptuous and entirely captivating

Starring Adjoa Andoh, Lorraine Ashbourne, Jonathan Bailey, Ruby Barker, Sabrina Bartlett, Harriet Cains, Bessie Carter, Nicola Coughlan, Phoebe Dynevor, Ruth Gemmell, Florence Hunt, Martins Imhangbe, Claudia Jessie, Ben Miller, Luke Newton, Regé-Jean Page, Golda Rosheuvel, Luke Thompson, Polly Walker, and Julie Andrews

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that any human being having to endure the awkward period between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve must be in want of an infinitely bingeable, escapist universe to wrap themselves up in. That is precisely what Bridgerton provides, in eight gorgeously resplendent Regency-era instalments. Just what is it about the Regency era that serves as the perfect backdrop to so many Romance stories? After all, the epitome of the romance genre is Jane Austen, whose books were also based during this particular historical period.

It’s likely due to the huge focus of society at this point of the public spectacle of marriage: that being that there was a social season, in which the eligible would fraternise (with chaperones, of course) until they found a love match. Well, in reality, there was probably a lot more convenience involved than actual love, but within a Romance novel, love always seems to win out, with the handy caveat that both people are similarly wealthy. There’s also the delectable language, the politeness and the manners; the eloquent and educated way that the characters find to subtly one-up and criticise each other, or the disarmingly poetic nature of any sort of romantic declaration. The sexual tension in removing a silk glove, or brushing against each other’s skin. The tantalising anticipation of unbuttoning a corset.

Bridgerton marks the first output of Shondaland’s reportedly $150 million deal with Netflix. Adapted from the first in a book series by Julia Quinn, Bridgerton makes the wise decision to make the first novel, The Duke and I more of an ensemble piece that merely focussing upon the love story at play. Touted as “Gossip Girl meets Downton Abbey”, the entire series is narrated by the inimitable Julie Andrews as the enigmatic Lady Whistledown. A seemingly omniscient voice, Whistledown’s gossip rag delights in tearing down the rest of the Ton with reports of scandal. Forget the Queen (Golda Rosheuvel), Whistledown is whose opinion really matters.

The family at the centre of it all, of course, is the Bridgerton family. Led by widowed mother Violet (Ruth Gemmell), there is much to digest from this affluent, close-knit bunch. The eldest, and heir, Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) delights in shirking his responsibility and has a massive internal conflict over who he loves. Second-born Benedict (Luke Thompson) is starting to realise that there is much less pressure on him to conform to societal norms in the same way that his older brother must, while Colin (Luke Newton) is desperate to find a love match of his own. However, this social season is all about Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), who is set to debut that year. Incredibly aware of how much an entire family’s reputation rests upon being received well by Queen Charlotte, it is quite a relief when Daphne is known as that season’s “inimitable”, making her one of the most sought after debutantes that year. Unfortunately, Anthony’s overprotective nature as to the appropriateness of her match has disastrous consequences to his younger sister.

In contrast to the dignified and well-comported members of the Bridgerton family are the Featheringtons. With far less gluing them together, they are led by the manipulative and scheming Portia (Polly Walker), who strives to find good matches for all three of her daughters, all of whom are dressed in gauche, brightly coloured frocks. Philippa (Harriet Cains), Prudence (Bessie Carter) and Penelope (Nicola Coughlan), however, do not set the town ablaze in the same way that Daphne does. Their shine is similarly extinguished by their distant cousin Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker), whose beauty entrances all of court, though she harbours a dark secret of her own.

The society in which these privileged members of the elite exist is known as the Ton, where they inhabit the peers and gentry rung on the social ladder – considerably higher than those typically seen in Austen novels. In this world, reputation is everything, and much of the drama comes from the whispers of the unseen Lady Whistledown. Even the whisper of impropriety on a woman could completely ruin not only her, but her entire family. For men, however? Well, that’s an entirely different story.

This elite section of society historically did not include people of colour. However, Bridgerton goes beyond “colour-blind” casting and instead purposefully retools the society it depicts by including characters of colour. It’s contextualised within the show by King George having married Queen Charlotte, who is played by an actress of colour, and as a result led to a change in society where they could hold titles. Obviously, nobody goes into Bridgerton expecting historical realism, though this has been a point of controversy all over the internet. Ultimately, Bridgerton imagines a history that could have been, a sort of idealised version, if you will.

With the plot twists that come later in the series, even though Daphne’s love story finds itself pretty much at its conclusion by the end, there is still plenty of room to explore. With seven more books left to adapt, Netflix could have a multi-season hit on their hands, as we continue to explore the love lives of the other Bridgerton children. The revelation as to the true identity of Lady Whistledown is so shocking that it gives the future seasons plenty of room to grow with many other plot threads as well.

Bridgerton also makes tremendous use of sex throughout as a storytelling tool. It’s rarely for gratuitous purposes, and really advances the development of the characters. For Daphne personally, a lot of the sex involved comes from her coming into her own sexuality and taking ownership of it. And while many may think that this was a staunchly sexless society need be reminded that the connotations of sex and religion came much later, around the Victorian period, and while women’s virginity was highly valued, sex still had a huge role to play in this society. In fact, many historians credit the Georgian period, and not the hedonistic ‘60s as the true sexual revolution in England.

The tense drama throughout is added by the music. Kris Bower provides the dramatic strings, and also incorporates Regency remixes of modern songs, such as Thank U, Next by Ariana Grande or Bad Guy by Billie Eilish. It helps add a level of modernity and relatability to the show, even in the completely different society the audience finds itself in.

It’s with the sets, costumes and locations that one can really tell that Netflix has pulled out all the budgetary stops. Simply put, the scale is incredible and the aesthetic looks like a Hollywood blockbuster. Every gorgeously sewn costume is realised beautifully and is dazzling on screen, aided by the massive ballroom scenes with countless extras and gorgeous, gleaming atriums.

Bridgerton is also massively aided by the likeable and compelling characters. Dynevor and Regé-Jean Page perform their roles as Daphne and Simon absolutely perfectly. Their chemistry is spot-on, whether the characters are at odds or madly in love. Coughlan as Penelope also demonstrates that she’s just as adept at handling dramatic material as she is at providing comedy in Derry Girls. Penelope is a massively sympathetic character, and isn’t exactly the sort that one usually sees as a romantic heroine; something that is usually reserved for tall, skinny, conventionally pretty women. However, she demonstrates that her charisma and intellect and huge heart are more than enough redeeming qualities to make an audience root for her. Elsewhere, Adjoa Andoh is spellbinding as the no-nonsense Lady Danbury. Captivating throughout, she also manages to show both sides to her character, both a steely exterior, as well as a tremendously caring beating heart beneath that makes her a treat to watch.

Ultimately, there will be many who will dismiss Bridgerton purely because of its status as a Romance. It’s small secret that the Romance genre has faced a lot of unfair derision in the past. Words such as “fluff” have often been used to describe it, or “guilty pleasure”. Fortunately, Bridgerton is certain of what it is, and is unashamed to fully embrace its genre. There are many things wrong with the romance genre, of course, and even the period represented here conveniently glosses over anything gritty or unpleasant about the time, despite the tremendous lack of female autonomy throughout.

Bridgerton is fiendishly entertaining. A complete escape, with lavish sets and costumes, Bridgerton has the potential to run for many years to come, and here’s hoping that it does. A true gem to come right at the close of a very challenging year for us all.

Bridgerton is streaming now on Netflix.

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