‘Dangerous Liaisons’ review: A Starz series version ratchets up the sexual politics while dragging out the story
For an 18th-century French novel, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” certainly got around, inspiring a play, the movies “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Valmont” in 1988 and ’89, respectively, and the twisted teen variant “Cruel Intentions.” Now comes a Starz series prequel, “Dangerous Liaisons,” which ratchets up the sex while dragging out (and out and out) the story.
Although the show features lesser-known Australian leads in Nicholas Denton as Valmont, the roguish seductor, and Alice Englert (the daughter of acclaimed director Jane Campion) as Camille, his initial love and eventual foe, they’re surrounded by higher-profile players in supporting and in some instances short-lived 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 again lustily captures a time where sexual adventures of all kinds were common but also potentially ruinous if exposed, and in the case of Valmont, deftly wielded like 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 counsels her to learn from the older woman’s mistakes, urging her to “Avenge 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 blunts the momentum of the story. Indeed, it’s not until the third episode that the plot truly begins to kick in, with Camille challenging Valmont to woo the seemingly chaste and unmovable Jacqueline de Montrachet (Van Houten) – calling her “The one woman in Paris you can’t seduce” – for motives that will come into view later.
Period melodrama has become a fertile field, which turns out to be a double-edged sword. Handsomely mounted, it’s nevertheless easy to dismiss “Dangerous Liaisons” (especially for those who lack a prior investment in the property) as being a somewhat edgier version of “Bridgerton” or less-comedic spin on “The Great,” both shows that scratch similar itches.
By contrast, anyone with a fondness for the movies (both the Glenn Close/John Malkovich and Annette Bening/Colin Firth pairings are worth the time), there’s a pallid quality to this rendition, less in the steaminess of the situations than the prolonged way they’re structured, even with surprising twists along the way.
Starz has wrung a fair amount of mileage out of costume dramas, with “The Serpent Queen” as the most recent example. In a vote of confidence, the network has already renewed “Dangerous Liaisons” for a second season in advance of its premiere, so those hoping for the finality that a limited series might have provided, be forewarned.
Given the identifiable title and international appeal, there’s perhaps a bit less risk in gambling upon 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 principals’ stated choices might be “conquer or die,” the series’ net effect lands somewhere in the less-than-wholly-satisfying realm in between.
“Dangerous Liaisons” premieres November 6 at 8 p.m. ET on Starz.