cast: Mia Sorvino, Rya Kihlstedt, Carla Gugino, Alison Elliott, Cheri Lunghi, James Frain, Greg Wise, Mark Tandy
Our rating: 2 out of 5
Authoress Edith Wharton never finished her final novel, for she passed away before its last chapters were written. Another writer went on to complete the story and publish it. This novel was The Buccaneers, transformed into a lavish miniseries by the BBC. It has gorgeous costuming and unfortunately, a moral center that goes rapidly astray in the second half.
The four young daughters of recent New York socialites are inseparable, despite the differences that set their families apart. There is the exotic and flirtatious Conchita, who likes to sneak cigarettes and hopes to one day marry a fortune. Only slightly less mischievous is Lizzy, whose mother prides herself on the fact that she has the smallest waist of all the girls. And then there are Nan and Virginia St. George. Nan is the youngest and most wild, her greatest ambition to be a wealthy man's mistress rather than a wife. Fearing Conchita may be a negative influence in Nan's life, her mother arranges for an English governess to join them in their town house. At first, Nan rejects the careful attentions of Miss Testvalley (Lunghi), but soon comes to regard her as an intimate friend and confidante.
It does not take Conchita long to snag the attentions of the second son of a wealthy English estate. Lord Richard (Ronan Vibert) has quite a reputation with the ladies and something of wandering hands, but has married her to spite his aristocratic parents and in hopes of getting his hands on some of her money. Believing that the girls will find advantageous marriages overseas, Mrs. St. George agrees to allow Nan and Victoria to visit London in the hopes of entering elite society. But the men they encounter there may not be all they appear. If there is one thing to be said about The Buccaneers, it is that no expense was spared in bringing such a sumptuous world to life. The gowns alone had me in love within fifteen minutes, from the bright colors and lavish tapestries to the bustles and delicate tea cakes. To say this is one of the most gorgeous productions I have ever seen is an understatement; I just wish more morality had been involved in the telling of the story.
Edith Wharton is not known for her happy endings. More often than not, her characters conform to what society expects of them and this means that they cannot have their heart's desires. That this film has a "happy ending" therefore is out of character, as is the fact that it glorifies an adulterous relationship as the means to that contentment (despite the fact that they will never be welcomed into society again). That being said, it is a complicated story in which a few characters in particular stand out gloriously. Most of the men are lacking in the honor department. Richard is a notorious philanderer who may have seduced Miss Testvalley (at the time, his younger sisters' governess) at some point; he certainly shows a familiarity with her in an early scene. His immorality later leads to him coming down with syphilis. Conchita has several lovers as well. Richard's elder brother Seadown keeps a mistress. There are some flirtatious scenes between them. Nan's husband Julius is a closet homosexual (one major deviation from the book, where the marriage was a disaster because of their youth), and she finds him asleep in bed with one of the stable boys.
Nan goes on to have an adulterous affair with the man she actually loved early on in the series, but whose prolonged absence from London prompted her to marry elsewhere. The consequences of this action have a negative impact not only on her family, but Miss Testvalley as well, whose budding romance with a local landowner (Michael Kitchen) is threatened through their associations with the couple. It astounded me that so much immorality could be dealt with in so subdued a manner, and then filmmakers chose to give us a prolonged scene of marital rape that was both revolting and horrific. At one point, one of the girls obtains enough money for an abortion from a friend. There is one use of GD. It is an interesting story, and the costuming is beautiful, but that does not make up for the immorality that is condoned and expressed through many of the main characters.