18th-Century Quest: The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant

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The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005) stars Romola Garai in an adapted-from-real-life story of a British woman who was sent to the first penal colony in Australia and escaped. Don’t read this review too closely if you don’t want to be spoiled on what happens!

The story itself is really fascinating, and from my cursory research it appears that they got the general gist correct: Mary Bryant (née Broad) was a Cornish woman in her 20s who was transported to Australia as part of the first fleet, in 1788. She had a child en route, and when she got to Australia, she married William Bryant, and the two had another child. After a few years, as the colony was failing, Mary and William decided to escape… and that’s where the adventure begins!

It seems like the main difference between the historical record and the TV version is that in reality, Will died of illness on the return voyage to England, not by being shot; and that Mary and company were sentenced to time served, not pardoned.

It’s a very entertaining series — I watched it a number of years ago, and it’s stuck in my mind for its strong female lead and the adventure she undergoes. In particular, I quite enjoyed seeing a story where the lead female character wasn’t afraid to use her sexuality to her advantage. I don’t mean that I think it’s such fun that Mary had to have sex with someone she didn’t really want to, but that the reality is that such things happened all the time. The usual trope is that our pure heroine will get close to being raped/having unromantic sex, but then somehow gets out of it at the last minute — which just perpetuates the myth that good girls don’t.

Romola Garai is, as always, a strong actress and her performance is really wonderful, even if she does get a little bit crazy-eyes occasionally. The supporting cast is strong, although Sam Neill as the governor was a bit wasted.

Costumes in Mary Bryant

At the time the TV miniseries was made, it had the largest budget for any Australian mini-series. Which was lucky, because according to the series’ press kit, the costume design team — led by costume designer Louise Wakefield — ran into the same problem that Outlander did: no rental costumes were available!

Literally hundreds of costumes were created, down to the tiniest details of buttons and leather accessories, under the supervision of costume designer Louise Wakefield.  Louise initially travelled to London to hire costumes and to do research but found that very little was available due to a number of period dramas filming in the UK at the time.  Most of the costumes, therefore, had to be made at the production’s Sydney warehouse headquarters.  Louise had a team of dozens of seamstresses, tailors and cutters making costumes with other special effects costume makers making leather and moulding buttons and badges, and finishers for dyeing, ‘stripping’ costumes to age them, making holes and darning (Press Kit).

We first meet Mary, briefly, when she robs a woman. She and her family are starving, so she’s not doing too well:

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

Mary wears a worn blue dress that’s very dirty and stained.

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

Over it she wears a brown “bodice” thing that sort of confused me, but okay.

Next we have the journey on the prison ship to Australia, during which most of the convicts are in dirty, torn, and ragged clothes — many of the women are in shifts and stays. According to the show’s press kit:

Breaking down and ‘stripping’ the costumes to make them look aged is a fascinating process, which begins with the choice of fabric and involves over-dyeing, chemical stripping of colour and stonewashing. “Natural fibres will usually age more quickly than man made fibres.  Much of the stripping we did ourselves but certain things, because the sheer volume, such as the mole skins waistcoats and breeches, we sent that off to an industrial stone washer; also quite a lot of costumes for the convicts,” Louise says.  “Then our work room finishers would do things like sanding, make holes, spray on make-up dirt, burn, or over-dye to get the correct look.   We used a chemical dyeing process to fade uniforms or create stains, then paint sprayed colour back in.  It’s a kind of layering process and the final grubbiness happens on set.  There’s quite a big team on set who have costume dirt, grease sticks and the powder to grind into the clothing” (Press Kit).

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

I was glad to see real 18th-century-styled stays (corsets) on the women, and I didn’t notice any metal grommets either! Hallelujah!

While on board, Mary befriends a few people, one of whom is Lieutenant Clarke (Jack Davenport of Pirates of the Caribbean) who has Issues. He’s attracted to Mary, but he’s married and noble and conflicted and screwed up, so he tries to reform her. While Mary’s under his care, he dresses her in his wife’s clothes (his wife ditched the ship at the last minute):

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

The main dress Mary wears is this sheer white cotton gown, which I really liked — sheer cottons were hugely popular in this era, and also would be a practical thing for the absent wife to have packed … except for the weird puffed sleeve cap, which I’ve never seen in the 18th century. Otherwise, I like how it’s sort of styled like a chemise dress, except with a fitted bodice.

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

And since the dress wasn’t made for her, it makes sense that the neckline doesn’t fit well … except then it shows off the fact that Mary is wearing her stays without a shift (chemise) underneath. Ouch!

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

Mary also tries on this green shot silk taffeta robe à l’anglaise, which made me happy that it DOESN’T have back-lacing!

I don’t know enough about military uniforms to be able to comment on these, but they looked good to me and it appears the costume designer tried hard to get them right:

There was an enormous amount of research to be done, down to details such as the arrangement of the buttons on the military uniforms. “I did a massive amount of reading and trawling through websites and museums, but I did get to a point where there are certain details I just couldn’t find – such as the detail of the braid on Lt. Clarke’s epilate.  Fortunately I was able to speak with John Mollo, the costume designer for Hornblower, who since the ’60s has written books on military dress and he was able to give me final details of tiny things,” Louise says (Press Kit).

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

Lieutenant Clarke in what looks like a nicely done British uniform. Notice how they’ve bleached and aged the shoulders of his jacket — this shot is from late in the series, and I loved that detail.

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

Lieutenant Clarke less formally attired.

Once they’re in Australia and Mary isn’t doing so well, she’s back in her blue dress, sometimes with bodice and sometimes without:

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

We also get to spend some quality time with Will Bryant (Alex O’Loughlin), who it appears a lot of people online have the hots for:

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

Will — cute enough, except the hair ruined it for me (more on that in a moment).

And although they were super minor characters, I was glad that some indigenous people were included in the story.

Costume designer Louise Wakefield: “The first-contact Aborigines were naked apart from a belt of human hair, but unfortunately for television that would not be suitable so we had to create something which is believable.  The Yappa people are quite traditional and very relaxed about presenting their bodies, so we have these wonderful thin, strong men and beautiful dark silhouettes holding spears on the headland as the First Fleet approaches.”

Makeup designer Deborah Lanser: “I was able to find drawings from the period so that our people are absolutely accurate to the time.  They were quite different to desert tribe people with very specific curved scarification done by shells.  The scars were done both for initiation and for beautification.  They rubbed their bodies in fish oil and they used the sap from trees, shells, feathers and animal bones in their hair,” Deborah says (Press Kit).

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

Look, Banished! Aboriginal people existed!

Near the end of the show, Mary and company end up in the Dutch colony of Timor, where they get to dress up all fancy:

A challenge was the shooting schedule which demanded that a lot of different costumes be ready in a very short period of time.  The first week of shoot was set in Timor where the cast wore elegant and colourful silk colonial period clothes; at the same time, the costume department had to be ready for the second week of filming with convict outfits and military uniforms. “Creating the costumes for the Timor scenes was obvious in stark contrast to the rest of the shoot.  It was a Dutch colony so the clothing was quite different to that worn by the British.  I particularly looked at the different cut of sleeves and the treatment of necklines.  We also introduced some Timorese influences, such as earrings worn by the Governor’s wife.  It was delightful to be able to make the beautiful clothes.  I chose very detailed fabrics which were often pre-embroidered to save time and chose strong, clean colours to make the Timorese scenes stand out from the rest of the locations.  Mary, Will and the others arrive in Timor dirty and bedraggled from their years in the colony and then the boat journey; when they arrive in Timor we see white and strong colours for the very first time (Press Kit).

Mary gets a couple different dresses in these scenes, including this pink silk robe à l’anglaise:

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

And a floral cotton print anglaise:The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

I liked pretty much everything worn by the Dutch colonists in Timor, minus 1% for slightly weird trims for the era on some of the ladies:

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

The Dutch governor and his wife. The front of her bodice has these weird (for the 18th century) fabric flowers, but whatever.

And then back in England, Mary gets a new dumpy dress:

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

Mary ends the show in a really cute red redingote with cutaway-shaped bodice:

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

Love the wide lapels, very 1790s.

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005) The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

Of course, I gotta talk wigs and hair! Overall, I give things a solid B:

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

I liked Mary’s turban-y wraps, which have a basis in 1790s styles and also were practical … except the fact that her hair would stream out underneath drove me crazy, because IT’S HOT. YOU’RE DOING MANUAL LABOR. YOUR HAIR IS ANNOYING.

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

Mary also had bangs throughout the entire series. I was glad they were pushed out of her face (no War & Peace or Keira Knightley horrors here), but there would be no reason for a late 18th-century woman to have bangs.

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

And when Mary dressed up, she wore these super late-1860s low chignons with center-parted hair, which is TOTALLY not an 18th-c. aesthetic. I know they’re trying to make her look nice but also tasteful, but…

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

And clearly they had an idea what late 18th-century hairstyles should look like, given the fact that the governor’s wife had a nice style.

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

Luckily for you, I can’t find a super clear shot of the back of Will’s hair, but trust me: he had an all-over short cut with a long tail at the very bottom. Which is wrong (read more in my review of The Scandalous Lady W, where I mock the same problem) and just reminds me of boys’ haircuts in the early 1980s. And not in a good way.

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant

THE HORROR.

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant

Ugh.

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

The rest of the boys looked good, however. Pay attention to Lieutenant Clarke’s sideburns, btw. The longer they are, the less sympathetic he is.

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

Governor Philip was pretty much the only wig-wearer. His style was basically good, even if they missed the toupee (the short and/or rolled under portion around the face) — almost nobody gets that right.

So, if you haven’t seen The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant, it’s definitely worth a watch! And if you have seen it, it might be time for another spin.

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

11 Responses

  1. Kathleen Norvell

    If you have not encountered Alex O’Loughlin before, may I recommend the TV series “Moonlight,” on DVD. He’s quite yummy there.

    Reply
  2. SarahV

    I think it is high time to bring back the redingote! It’s so fricking FABULOUS!!!!!!

    Reply
  3. brocadegoddess

    Ooh, I hadn’t heard of this one before somehow, I’ll also have to check if the local library has it. Romola Garai is totally one of my girl crushes. I love that she plays such a wide spectrum of women characters – and that she’s in so much historical stuff! She + her costumes were my favourite part of Daniel Deronda.

    I am a little curious about this penchant to make 18th c neck and sleeve ruffles look all wispy to the point of tattered, especially when they’re supposed to be new/nice. Or maybe they just get that way over the course of filming and dressing/undressing multiple times?

    Reply
  4. Mel (@estelsgirl)

    Oh. Thank you for that “less formally attired” picture of Jack Davenport. I love him.

    I had no idea this existed. I really like everyone involved here. Will have to check it out.

    Reply
  5. Sabine

    Is that a barbed wire fence behind Mary in the picture where she’s standing on a hill? Good grief. That’s worse than metal grommets.

    Reply

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