In a decadent new Starz drama, the two actors play young versions of literature’s most poisoned and poisonous power couple.
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By Alexis Soloski
It could never work between them, Alice Englert insisted on a recent afternoon, lounging in a corner banquette at Ladurée, a French spot in Lower Manhattan. In a relationship this toxic, she said, they would have no choice but to ruin each other, slowly or all at once.
Nicholas Denton, sitting beside her, draped an arm around her shoulders. “That’s the game of it,” he said, grinning.
The game is power. The field is pre-revolutionary France. And the contestants are the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, arguably literature’s most poisoned and poisonous power couple. Or not quite. Not yet. In “Dangerous Liaisons,” a decadent drama that debuts on Starz on Sunday, Englert and Denton play much younger versions of the characters introduced by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos in the epistolary 1782 novel.
In the book, these characters are aristocrats, with decades of conniving and debauchery underneath their wigs and powder, who conspire to corrupt a chaste woman. In the show, they are barely out of puberty, seducers in their youth. Even before its premiere, the series has already been renewed.
The couple — lovers who treat each other with anything but love — have fascinated readers and audiences for two centuries and counting, popping up in plays, operas, ballets, radio plays and movies, including the 1988 Stephen Frears film, starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich. All of which makes reinventing them a very tall order. The height of the wigs alone!
But Englert and Denton were willing to try. “We’re both quite rough and tumble,” Denton said. “We’re willing to get on the floor in this garb and try and really knock this out and go to hell for it.”
A television version of “Dangerous Liaisons” has been in development for nearly a decade, under the partial auspices of Colin Callender, a distinguished producer. Christopher Hampton, who wrote the screenplay for Frears’s film and the stage adaptation that is often revived on Broadway, was attached at one point. Then he wasn’t. When the writer Harriet Warner came on, she went looking for a fresh way into the material and she found it in one of the novel’s letters, which seemed to imply that the Marquise hadn’t been born into nobility, that she had clawed her way into it. She shared that insight with Callender.
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