"Caroline is clever, Emily is a mother to me, Louisa is an angel and Cecilia is a child. I am a disappointment."
That line (uttered by Sarah Lennox) sums up the tumultuous "Aristocrats," a sumptuous, glittering miniseries about the famous and/or infamous Lennox sisters, who were the great-granddaughters of Charles II and his mistress Louise de Kérouaille. Solid acting and a wonderfully soapy storyline make this a great historical drama, but it spins way out there in the last episode.
The Lennox family splinters when the eldest daughter, Caroline (Serena Gordon) falls in love with an older, ambitious politician, Mr. Fox -- and scandalously elopes with him. Emily (Geraldine Somerville) takes a different approach when she falls for the lusty Lord Kildare (Ben Daniels), and eventually her parents agree. They marry, have seemingly dozens of kids, and are happy despite Kildare's frequent infidelity.
But then Lord and Lady Richmond die, leaving their next three daughters Louisa, Sarah and Cecilia in Emily's care. Louisa (Anne-Marie Duff) gets happily married to a dim, loving husband. But when Sarah (Jodhi May) catches the eye of the timid Prince of Wales, the Foxes desperately maneuver to make her the next queen -- which naturally destroys her chances.
So she marries a very cold, inattentive man, and soon starts gambling, has an affair with a sexy Frenchman -- and elopes with a volatile Harlequin hunk, after having his illegitimate baby. As the family struggles with her disgrace and the brewing war in America, they face new losses and new scandals... and in the years that follow, the family is again thrown into turmoil when Emily's fiery son becomes involved in an Irish revolution...
"The Aristocrats" is kind of like a soap opera from the 1700s -- and it's even juicier when you consider that this stuff happened for real. Multiple adulterous affairs, deaths, feuds, scandals, revolutions, elopements, illegitimate babies, and a king dropping dead on the toilet. And it all more or less happens to one family, over the course of a generation.
And the adaptation wraps the entire era in lush sets and costumes -- big billowing dresses, powdered wigs, sumptuous furniture, opulent mansions, crumbly castles, and the prettily overgrown greenery of their gardens. Frankly, you could get drunk on the scenery alone in this miniseries. David Caffrey does an excellent job soaking the atmosphere into the scenes, whether it's the poignant loneliness of Sarah's "exile," or the sexy interludes between the women and their lovers/husbands.
Problem? The last episode shoots us forward twenty-plus years, and the focus shifts from the remaining sisters to Emily's son Edward, and the "serious" storyline rushes by way too fast. It's not bad, but it feels like an entirely different story was tacked on at the last minute, with all different actors and a totally different focus and "feel."
The actors are good all around: Somerville's brittle yet loving Caroline, Gordon's dutiful yet slightly wicked Emily, and Duff adding a bit of sorrow into the ever-good Louisa. May gives the most astounding performance -- she puts real desperation and sorrow into Sarah's rapid downward slide, and her genuine desire to do the right thing. Lots of frustration, anger, sorrow and finally love in there -- it's simply brilliant.
But the other actors put in good performances too -- Daniels does a great job showing how Kildare loves his wife even if he isn't faithful, and his final scene with Gordon is heartbreaking. George Anton is charming, Alun Armstrong is abrasively interesting, and Tom Mullion is cute in a dim way.
"The Aristocrats" is a solid, sumptuous costume drama with a befuddling final act, but some brilliant acting and direction carry it on through. Sexy, dignified and -- at one time -- scandalous.