Beau Brummell is one of those iconic historical names that a lot of us have vague notions about without really knowing the person to whom it was attached. The 2006 British television film Beau Brummell: This Charming Man does a fairly convincing, if abbreviated, job depicting the man who changed the fashion habits of Regency England forevermore, establishing male dressing patterns that exist relatively unchanged to this day.
Brummell came to prominence in the very late 18th and early 19th centuries, a time when fashion was still largely in the French style, with men adorned in powdered wigs, wearing an equal amount of powder (and often lipstick) on their faces, and in pantaloons. Brummell adopted a more modern, classic and simplified style of dress, espousing trousers as more naturally masculine and also establishing the nicely tailored shirt and often extravagant cravat as the preferred "top half" attire. He also touted such then new ideas as daily baths and teeth brushing, opting for some real hygiene rather than just slapping some perfume over the grime. Brummell does a neatly efficient job establishing the status quo of British dressing habits and its title character's then revolutionary thinking in a series of quick opening scenes that also introduces his relationship to the Prince Regent, the future King George IV.
What quickly becomes apparent is that Brummell is, not to state the obvious, a man of appearances, and in more ways than one. While he quickly becomes a cause celebre for his fashion statements, with people coming from miles around to watch him dress each day, he also is living far beyond the means of a sizable, but rapidy diminishing, inheritance, saved from creditors only through the largesse of the Prince Regent. I couldn't help but think of Billy Crystal shouting "You look MAHvelous" as I watched the bulk of this piece, as it makes crystal clear (no pun intended) that Brummell had little or no interior dialogue going on, let alone a conscience. He was a man who lived entirely in the moment, usually an extremely hedonistic moment that paid little attention to any societally dictated consequences.
Brummell's unheeding relationship with the smoldering Lord Byron makes tongues wag, and jeopardizes his relationship with his royal protector, a relationship that finally snaps beneath the weight of Brummell's increasingly desperate behavior as his debts mount. Without the Prince Regent's aid, Brummell quickly finds himself a pariah, and the film ends with a mysterious disappearance to France, without lingering on the actual historical details of his impending insanity due to syphilis, not to mention the impoverished state in which he would live the bulk of the rest of his life.
The fact that all of this is wrapped up in little more than an hour gives you an idea of the brisk pace of Beau Brummell: This Charming Man. Despite its tendency to quickly gloss over historical issues, there's a surprising amount of depth to most of the characterizations, notably a superb James Purefoy as Brummell, Hugh Bonneville as the Prince Regent, and especially Philip Davis as Brummell's long suffering manservant. While there are some clichéd moments (Brummell loses his last bit of money--actually some he has stolen--playing roulette when the ball lands on black 13) and some passing strange tonal inconsistencies (his showdown with his servant toward the end of the piece almost plays like something out of Monty Python), director Philippa Lowthorpe gives Brummell a perfectly apt contemporary feel that subtly underlines the modern sensibility that was being sown by Regency's fashion guru. Production values are quite high in this piece, with some nicely detailed costumes (as might be expected).
If Brummell the man was hollow at the center, as this film certainly depicts him to be, it doesn't really trip the film's message up and indeed is probably part and parcel of that message. Beau Brummell is a cautionary fable, based in history, that that old adage "looking good is better than feeling good" (or one might add "being good") just might not be as funny as some take it to be, and, if taken to heart, can lead to irreparably tragic results.