Family sagas have an appeal all
their own - probably because we're all part of a family, and so we
can relate (at least in some way) to the struggles of parents,
children, and siblings over the course of many years. Make the family
saga a historical one, and there's the added appeal of getting an
insight into a different era (in which people seem to be, well,
people, just like they are today...). Not to mention the fact that
historical fiction generally has a healthy dose of intrigue,
adventure, and other interesting goings-on, and there's a recipe for
success. Assuming, of course, that all the pieces of a good story are
put together. The 1999 BBC miniseries Aristocrats is a decided
success, because not only does it have a historical family saga, it's
a nicely done and intelligent program.
Aristocrats, set in England
in the 1700s, tells the story of four sisters: Caroline, Emily,
Louisa, and Sarah. Along with the other members of their large
family, these sisters were brought up in an environment of privilege
and leisure, being great-granddaughters of a king and intimately
connected through family and marriage to important politicians and
lords. As women of their day, they had little direct influence on the
political and larger social realm, but the reverse is not true: their
lives were shaped (often dramatically) by the fortunes of their
husbands and the shifts of social and political fortunes. How much
they could shape things for themselves, and how well they sailed
their family and individual ships in the winds of society, is the
subject of Aristocrats.
The miniseries is presented in six
45-minute episodes, each one packed full of storytelling. Events
always move briskly along, with new developments coming around every
corner. Since we get to see a substantial chunk of the sisters'
lives, time often passes in fairly large chunks as well; this is
handled well, so that we always get a sense of the sisters developing
over time and in response to the various influences in their lives.
The four sisters themselves are nicely drawn characters, each with
her own distinct personality; the secondary characters are usually
fairly well drawn, but occasionally some of the more tertiary figures
do get a bit lost in the shuffle, since this is a series with a very
large overall cast.
The story has a somewhat soap-opera
feel to it, in the sense that it is concerned largely with
relationships (and all the various things that can go wrong, it
seems), but that shouldn't be taken as a negative at all: the tone of
Aristocrats is always serious and dramatic, with a good sense
that these events and relationships are part of the lives of real
characters whom we are interested in. I haven't said anything much
about the plot, because I don't want to spoil it for anyone;
Aristocrats has an interesting story with some unexpected
twists of fate for the characters.
One of the pleasing aspects of
Aristocrats is how lovely it looks: the costumes, sets, and
locations are all absolutely stunning. It takes no effort whatsoever
to imagine oneself in the 18th century right alongside the Lennox
sisters; Aristocrats brings that odd and slightly stylized era
to life in a vivid and natural way.
Aristocrats is a three-DVD
set, with two episodes on each disc. The discs are packaged in
ultra-thin cases inside a glossy paperboard slipcase.
The episodes are all presented in an
attractive anamorphic widescreen transfer. It's quite pleasing to the
eye, with good colors and contrast, and a nice level of detail
throughout. I'd say that the widescreen presentation is a huge plus,
as it gives the episodes a more filmlike feel that helps make them
The stereo soundtrack is
straightforward and clear, with no problems at all.
A reasonably interesting 30-minute
"making of" featurette is the main special feature. There's
also a text biography of Stella Tillyard, the author of the biography
that Aristocrats is based on, and cast filmographies.
I enjoyed Aristocrats very
much, and I'd say that anyone who enjoys historical drama will do the
same. It's an engaging story with interesting characters, set in an
intriguing historical setting with lavish attention to detail in
costumes and sets. What's not to like? Highly recommended.