Review: ‘The Musketeers’ captivates in swordplay, intrigue on BBC America

The three musketeers are back, with Athos (Tom Burke), Porthos (Howard Charles), Aramis (Santiago Cabrera) and young D’Artagnan (Luke Pasqualino) crossing blades, foiling plots and delivering period appropriate one-liners in fine sword ‘n’ doublet fashion in “The Musketeers” on BBC America. The only proper reaction is: What on earth took them so long?

In the pantheon of multi-use literary icons, Alexandre Dumas’ musketeers rank nearly as high as Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, all of whom have been reinvented in virtually every genre for every generation. Oliver Platt and Kiefer Sutherland have been musketeers, as have Gene Kelly and Barbie. (The durability of a literary character is, however, best tested in mice, and while Holmes translated well to “The Great Mouse Detective,” who can forget Tom, Jerry and Jerry’s nephew Nibbles in “The Two Mouseketeers”?)

With Dracula and various vampires crowding the shadows of the television landscape (most recently in “Penny Dreadful”) and two versions of Holmes going strong (CBS’ “Elementary,” the BBC’s “Sherlock”), it seems only fair that the musketeers have a chance to leverage our current obsession with period drama and flashing steel.


Which, in this case, stops mercifully short of spilling entrails and bifurcating skulls.

Adapted by Adrian Hodges (“Primeval”), the world of “The Musketeers” is very much late 17th century France, down to the straw-stuffed mattresses and communal towel of a Parisian inn. But if the body count is high, the gore is most often limited to the requisite bloodstained hand clutching a suddenly pierced doublet.

The sex too is more romantic than savage and depicted with surprising discretion, given the nature of period drama these days. (The musketeers actually visit women in beds as opposed to shoving them onto table tops or against walls. Imagine.)

So here we have a family-friendly depiction of the musketeers, as it should be, with an emphasis on political intrigue and, it must be said well in advance, very few ties to the original story beyond the main characters.

In this version, D’Artagnan and his father are ambushed by a group of masked men claiming to be musketeers; when his father is killed by the one calling himself Porthos, D’Artagnan comes to Paris seeking revenge.

There, Cardinal Richelieu (Peter Capaldi, about to become the latest star of “Doctor Who”), is using tales of rampaging musketeers to regain control of the foppish King Louis XIII (Ryan Gage) and, more important, silence Queen Anne (Alexandra Dowling), who (correctly) has more faith in the musketeers than in Richelieu and his guards.

As in most tellings of the tale, D’Artagnan first fights the musketeers then joins them, but not before winning the attentions and affections of two beautiful women bright and dark: Constance Bonacieux (Tamla Kari) the clearly bored but faithful wife of a cloth merchant, and the scheming, not-so-faithful Milady (Maimie McCoy).

The four episodes sent out unspool something like a political intrigue procedural, with the musketeers thwarting all manner of nefarious plots and revealing their own complex back stories.

Refreshingly realistic in some ways (there is much jumping out of high windows, but the jumper is often actually injured) and soothingly romantic in others, “The Musketeers” is a captivating balance of spectacle and story, true enough to the essentials of the original, modern enough to understand the necessity of humor and self-reference. (“He knows our motto,” says one musketeer to another in an early episode. “Every man for himself.”)


‘The Musketeers’

Where: BBC America

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)