Joy and Hope

by Viorica

Viorica is impressed by The Devil's Whore
Historical accuracy is a tricky thing. It gets bandied around a lot, especially when historical fiction turns out badly. To me, the exact dates and times are less relevant than what makes history important, and that's the people themselves. Rome could have been slavishly accurate, and would've lost all the appeal with a dull, matronly Atia and no Pullo and Vorenus. The Tudors frequently stages scenes word-for-word from the history books, but that doesn't change the fact that the characters are hollow and the writing is crap. The Devil's Whore is never going to be lauded for being an English Civil War documentary; that was never the creator's intent. What it will be lauded for is being an intelligent, thoughtful study of both character and time period.

The story follows Angelica Fanshawe, a young woman living in the last days of Charles Stuart's reign. At the beginning of the story, she's newly married to her cousin, a staunch Royalist, and just beginning to catch glimpses of the problems facing England. One thing that immediately struck me was that her personality is quite clearly defined from the beginning; she's headstrong, passionate, and she understands very little about the world she lives in (she is, after all, a sheltered noblewoman) but is compelled by instinct to help people in need. Of course, the war turns her life upside down, and the four-part series shows her carving a life in the new world she finds herself in.

Andrea Risenborough plays the title character (a nickname given to her after she knifes a would-be rapist) and she does it exquisitely, with just the right balance of fragility and resilience. John Simm plays the other main character, Edward Sexby, and although I disliked the character (more on that later) I can't deny that he did a good job with what he was given. There are several other recurring characters- "Honest John" Lilburn and his wife, Oliver Cromwell, Joliffe (the main antagonist), and Charles I. All of the actors are given some heavy lifting - Angelica goes from being a clueless noblewoman to a freedom fighter, and deals with innumerable trials in between. Life pummels her so often, you have to wonder if she kicked a cat in a past life or something. But even though she grows and strengthens, her personality remains intact, even as she develops. It's an arduous role, and Risenborough shines in it. The actors who play Charles I and Cromwell both manage to make their characters likeable, even when they do some not-so-likeable things. Because, as Angelica tells us, they are all shaped by the times they live in - the measure of them as people is what they make of themselves.

But, as always, I have gripes. Specifically, they're related to Sexby. He's a real-life figure, although I take it they altered him considerably for the series - for instance, the real Sexby didn't commit suicide moments after failing to assassinate Cromwell. He's introduced in the first episode, and intended as Angelica's main romantic interest, although several others come and go. Unfortunately, this is slightly undermined (for me at least) by the fact that he's extraordinarily creepy. On Angelica's wedding night, he snags one of her garters, and spend the rest of the series with it tied around his arm. It sounds sweet, until you realize that she spends 3/4ths of the series with no romantic interest in him whatsoever. So, instead of a soldier going into battle with his love's token around his arm, he's an obsessive pervert who fixates on a woman who refuses him. Charming. He also attempts to rape her (!!!) in the third episode, though he backs off before actually doing it. For the record, this is moments after she told him that she could never love him. In the next episode, she retracts this statement after he saves her from another would-be rapist (they seem to be attracted to her). So . . . saving her from one almost-rape redeems him from being an almost-rapist? I don't follow the logic. Of course, fans of the series seem to love him - partially because he's played by John Simm, and partly because he's a "bad guy redeemed by love" fantasy they can project themselves onto. I despair. The other relationship constant of the series is between "Honest John" Lilburn, a rabble-rouser who's constantly getting tossed in jail for his inflammatory pamphlets, and his wife, Elizabeth. This was no great romance either, mostly because John never actually considered the effect his actions had on his wife and children. Elizabeth rather awesomely smacks him down for it, but it didn't redeem the character for me, especially since she went back to tending for him right afterwards.

Relationship problems aside, it's a fabulous series. As I've said, the actors are all excellent, and the people working on the "look" of the show obviously cared about their jobs (the costumes are gorgeous) All in all, it's an intriguing look at a historical period which rarely gets explored but more importantly, the people who lived in it.

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 14:40 on 2009-10-01
I feel like a fool - I watched about 20 minutes of this on Channel 4 catchup when it first came out, failed to get immediately into it and then forgot it existed. I love the Civil War as well.
Dan H at 15:05 on 2009-10-01
First off: hehe "Sexby" hehe.

Sorry, I'm really juvenile.

I'm always deeply depressed when people completely without irony cast creepy stalker guys as romantic leads. It's just wrong on so many levels. I get why it feels romantic (to both men and women) but it basically sends guys like me the message that women aren't capable of deciding for themselves who they want to be with and that's seriously, seriously problematic.
Rami at 16:14 on 2009-10-01
it basically sends guys like me the message that women aren't capable of deciding for themselves who they want to be with and that's seriously, seriously problematic.

Amen to that!
Jamie Johnston at 21:41 on 2009-10-01
... the real Sexby didn't commit suicide moments after failing to assassinate Cromwell.

Argh! You'd just persuaded me to watch it, but now I'm going to have to wait until I forget that fairly-important-sounding plot-point.

In the mean time, I'll mention that Andrea Riseborough is indeed awesome and has even achieved, in another rather good historical (if I can call it that) drama called The long walk to Finchley, the astonishing and frankly disturbing feat of making Margaret Thatcher both admirable and gorgeous.
Viorica at 21:33 on 2009-10-02
@Kyra Don't feel too bad- it took me a few tries to really get into it too.

@Jamie Sorry! I'm not as well-versed in the ECW as I should be, so whe I cast about for a major inaccuracy, it was the first that came to mind.

I get why it feels romantic (to both men and women)

I . . . don't, really. Maybe it's because I, personally don't find it romantic, but I just can't see how stalking could be seen as a loving gesture- especially when it's a real-life problem. And that's my main problem with it- not that it gives the "women don't know what they want" message (though that is also a problem) but because it's romanticising a real-life problem, and in the case of books like "Twilight", it conditions young girls to see stalking behaviour as worthy of approval. I mean, I heard one fan exclaim "If a guy as hot as Edward Cullen snuck in my window, I wouldn't mind!" which ARGH, NO. at 18:38 on 2009-10-03
Randomly weighing in here: I can't really judge those who fall for the "bad guy redeemed by love" trope because, if I watched the show, I'd probably fall under the category of people who loved Sexby because he was played by John Simm. The real question is whether the fans think the trope applies in real life or not; much as I loathe Twilight, there's a difference between saying, "If a guy as hot as Edward Cullen snuck in my window, I wouldn't mind!" and actually believing it to be true. Similarly, I begrudingly admit that I wouldn't actually want John Simm to walk around with my garter on his arm, but that doesn't mean I feel bad fantasizing about it.

So, do people forgive Sexby's creepiness because he's (sort-of) fictional, or because they don't recognize stalking and attempted rape as creepy? You can certainly condemn the character to hell and back either way, but if it's the former, I wouldn't despair for humanity too much. (At least, not on that count.)

Also, Hi Ferretbrain!
Wardog at 12:09 on 2009-10-05
Hey Ptolemaeus, welcome to Fb :)

I do get the bad guy redeemed by love trope - I read a lot of romance so I'm generally rather happy to accept all kinds of fucked up shit in the name of fantasy. I think the problem is the bleed over - and that's nearly impossible to quantitify.

The problem with Edward Cullen fantasy is as a fantasy for mature adults it's a pleasurable return to the excesses and indulges of intense teenage romance - I think for a lot of Twilight fans, who are themselves teenagers, it is presented and interpreted as straight up wish fulfillment. And that's where it gets problematic.

I haven't seen the show so I'm truthfully casting a bit from Viorica's article, the issue for me seems to lie in the fact the heroine is going "No, John Simm, stop walking around with my garter on your arm, that is seriously not okay, stop it" and we're not meant to interpret of evidence of derranged creepiness or the fact that in the 17th century if men decide they want to walk around with your garter on their arm there's not much you can do about it ... but as evidence he really really really really wuvs her.
Viorica at 03:09 on 2009-10-07
Pretty much exactly what Kyra said. In the third episode, she says- and I'm not paraphrasing here- "I can never love you. I pity you." and his response to this is to throw her down on the bed and shove her skirts out of the way. And the weird thing is, they do use this as an opportunity to point out that she has no say in what he does (they're in a marriage of convenience)- she snaps that he might as well go ahead, the law says he can, and this is what makes him back off. So in the next episode, when she calls herself "a fool" for not realizing that he really really really really wuvs her (and she him) it left a bad taste in my mouth.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in October 2009