For an 18th century French novel, “Dangerous Liaisons” it certainly inspired a stage play, the films “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Valmont” in 1988 and ’89, respectively, and the twisted teen variant “Cruel Intentions.” Now comes a prequel to the Starz series, “Dangerous Liaisons,” which ramps up the sex while dragging (and out and out) the story.
Although the show features lesser-known Australian leads in Nicholas Denton as Valmont, the rascally seducer, and Alice Englert (the daughter of acclaimed director Jane Campion) as Camille, his initial love and eventual nemesis, they are surrounded by high-profile players. in supporting and, in some cases, short-term roles. That cast includes “Phantom Thread’s” Lesley Manville and “Game of Thrones” alumni Carice Van Houten, Michael McElhatton and Tom Wlaschiha.
Set in Paris during the 1700s, the show soulfully recaptures a time when sexual affairs of all kinds were common, but also potentially ruinous if exposed, and in Valmont’s case, they skillfully used weapons of war as tools of blackmail.
Camille learns that the hard way before being taken under the wing of the wealthy Marquise de Merteuil (Manville), who advises her to learn from the older woman’s mistakes, urging her to “revenge our sex,” and that in this iteration of the battle of the sexes, the stakes are “Conquer or Die.”
Adapted by writer-producer Harriet Warner (“Call the Midwife”), for all its juicy bits, the episodic format dulls the story’s momentum. In fact, it’s not until the third episode that the plot really gets going, with Camille challenging Valmont to woo the seemingly chaste and unmovable Jacqueline de Montrachet (Van Houten), calling her “The only woman in Paris who doesn’t you can seduce.” – for reasons that will be seen later.
Period melodrama has become a fertile field, which turns out to be a double-edged sword. Very well put together, however, it’s easy to dismiss “Dangerous Liaisons” (especially for those with no prior investment in the property) as a slightly grittier version of “Bridgerton” or a less comedic twist on “The Great “, both samples that scratch similar itches.
Conversely, anyone with a penchant for movies (both the Glenn Close/John Malkovich and Annette Bening/Colin Firth pairings are worth the time), there’s a pale quality to this performance, minus the steaminess of the situations that in the prolonged form. they are structured, even with surprising twists and turns along the way.
Starz has gotten a fair amount of mileage out of costume dramas, with “The Serpent Queen” being the most recent example. In a vote of confidence, the network has already renewed “Dangerous Liaisons” for a second season ahead of its premiere, so those waiting for the finality that a limited series could have provided are on notice.
Given the relatable title and international appeal, there’s perhaps a little less risk in betting on this concept, with its premium TV sexuality filtered through the prism of 18th-century decadence.
That said, not everything is worthy of its own cinematic universe. And while the directors’ stated choices might be “conquer or die,” the net effect of the series lands somewhere in the less-than-entirely-satisfying realm in between.
“Dangerous Liaisons” premieres November 6 at 8:00 PM ET on Starz.