Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Confessions Of Frannie Langton’ On BritBox, About A Servant In Georgian England Falsely Accused Of Murder
It feels like every 19th Century era in England has been picked clean as far as steamy costume dramas are concerned. In a new series on BritBox, we visit the city in the Georgian era, and the steam has more to do with a former enslaved person who becomes a servant, and starts a torrid romance with the house’s mistress.
Opening Shot: “17 February 1826.” A woman embraces the sleeping woman next to her.
The Gist: Frannie Langton (Karla-Simone Spence) slept often next to her home’s mistress, Madame Marguerite Behnam (Sophie Cookson), as the two had become devoted to each other in the year Frannie had been working at the Benham estate. But on this night, Linux (Pooky Quesnel), the house manager, busts in with police officers, and throws back the blanket. It turns out that both Marguerite and her husband, George Benham (Stephen Campbell Moore) are dead, and Frannie is accused of their murders.
As she sits in a cell, a solicitor named William Pettigrew (Henry Pettigrew) comes to visit; he says “the Society” is interested in her case. She tells him that she’s sick of people like him telling her who she is. Her story isn’t a story of murder; it’s a story of love. And it’s not a slave story by a longshot.
After her meeting, she drinks the sedative he gave her and we hear her narrate her story. Twelve months earlier, she chose to follow her master, John Langton (Steven Mackintosh) from Jamaica to England after his estate burned down. She knows him better than anyone, and when they arrive at the Benham estate, she’s alarmed when Langton decides to leave her behind to work for the family as a servant. Linux calls her “impudent” and locks her up in the scullery the first night to keep her from leaving.
Langton and Benham worked together on experiments in human anatomy and behavior, and Frannie was one of the subjects. But at this point Benham is looking to distance himself from Langton and only reluctantly agrees to help him get back on his feet. However, Frannie knows more about his involvement in the experiments than he realizes, and being in his presence, working in his home, “was almost too much to bear,” she says in voice over.
As she discusses her fate with her visiting friend Sal (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), we see that almost right away Frannie and Marguerite had an attraction to each other, with the house’s mistress giving Frannie access that irked Linux. Also, the Benhams’ marriage was more or less a sham, and when Marguerite wanders into the kitchen late one night, she encourages the servants to dance, bonding her connection to Frannie.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? The Confessions Of Frannie Langton seems like a British take on Dangerous Liaisons, at least as far as how both shows feel.
Our Take: Sara Collins adapted The Confessions Of Frannie Langton from her own 2019 novel, and like most historical dramas, it looks great. It is also boosted by the lead performance of Karla-Simone Spence as Frannie Langton, who communicates Frannie’s strength in the face of a society where she’s supposed to be submissive.
She comes to England as a slave who somehow became devoted to her owner, then became a servant who never accepted the place she was put in, despite various humiliations, like George Benham ordering her to let down some of her hair so he can clip it “for science.”
The way the story is constructed for television, though, isn’t particularly cohesive. For instance, when Sal comes to Frannie’s cell, we don’t have any idea who she is or why she’s allowed an extended visit with Frannie as she’s locked up. It feels that the story could have been told in a more linear fashion, without Frannie’s voice over, to show what her life with Langton was like in Jamaica, through her torrid romance with Marguerite.
It would even have been fine to start with the deaths of the Benhams then go back; this would have been one of the cases where an in media res opening would have worked well. But to jump back and forth and stitch things together with a voice over that doesn’t have any particular anchor to what’s on the screen just feels disconcerting.
Sex and Skin: Of course, there’s going to be a lot of romance between Frannie and Marguerite; we see a snippet of the two of them bathing together. But there’s no overt nudity in the first episode.
Parting Shot: Frannie stops at Marguerite’s bedroom door late at night; Linux looks on in anger.
Sleeper Star: Pooky Quesnel is appropriately menacing as Linux, and we wonder how much she has to do with the Benhams’ deaths.
Most Pilot-y Line: “Please don’t ‘mom’ me,” Marguerite tells Frannie as she says she’d rather be referred to as “Madame,” not the title Brit servants give their mistresses.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Confessions Of Frannie Lanington succeeds because of the performance of Karla-Simone Spence, despite some disjoined storytelling that leaves viewers in the dark about some aspects of the story..
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.