The miniseries Doctor Thorne (2016) — produced by ITV and Amazon, having aired in the UK and available for streaming on Amazon — was written by Julian Fellows and has naturally drawn comparisons to Downton Abbey. But aside from historical costumes and grand country houses, I think any of the reviews trying to draw parallels are really a stretch. This adaption of the Anthony Trollope novel is really just an old-fashioned Masterpiece Theatre style costume drama, down to Fellows trying hard to be Alastair Cooke with his fireside intro and wrap-ups for each Amazon episode (btw, those bits are pretty patronizing; I think British viewers were spared that nonsense).
Unlike the best of the old Masterpiece, Doctor Thorne drags out a fairly simple story across a sprawling 160 minutes when it could have been a shorter, jaunty, much more entertaining frock flick. It’s a pretty lightweight romp of a story about young lovers thwarted by class differences, predictable as all hell, and this glossy, indulgent production is a fine little diversion that would have really benefited from editing.
“..by golly did we have a lot of pointless and easily guessed plot to get through. Plinky-plonky waltz music topped and tailed this series finale as an orchestra went wild 99% of the time, diluting much of the dialogue. At every turn, the emotional response was dictated by the score, signalling what we should be feeling when. And all because there was no room for the actors to control that response themselves – which is wrong, all wrong. I hate to say anything against the actors who must do battle with Uncle Julian’s scripts. But, really. They all looked so bored here.”
Not sure I can say it better, and I agree whole-heartedly. So let’s just talk costumes, shall we? They’re awfully pretty at least!
Ailments in Doctor Thorne Costumes
Overall, costume designer Colleen Kelsall nailed the style of 1855 English fashion for the upper-crust families who are the main characters in Doctor Thorne. But there were a few things that irritated me, and because they kept showing up over and over again in every episode, I feel they’re worth mentioning.
1. Flower Crowns
In the very first scene, the sisters Lady Augusta Gresham and Lady Beatrice Gresham and their cousin Lady Alexandrina de Courcy are having tea out in the fabulous grounds of Greshamsbury Park. All the young ladies are wearing wreaths of flowers on their heads. Is it May Day? Are they enacting A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What’s up? It seemed a bit silly, but fine, it was a light-hearted picnic-y scene, so I let it go. Until those flower crowns turned up again at a ball. And again when the young women were outside. And even when they were just walking around inside their house during the day!
Sure, flowers were used as part of women’s head decorations, but more typically on a bonnet or hat. Or if flowers alone were used, this would be part of an elaborate ball coiffure, along with a fine netted snood or ribbons and braids. Just plopping a flower crown on an adult woman’s head — especially with indoor daywear — would be as weird then as it would be today. It’s a fine going-to-Coachella look, but it’s not for proper Victorian ladies. It’s a odd affectation for this series.
2. Mary Thorne’s Hair
Speaking of headgear, we need to talk about Mary Thorne’s hair. Our heroine usually looks just lovely … until she doesn’t. See, when she gets all casual, she lets her MODERN LAYERED HAIRCUT hang down to frame her face. While the back of her hair is pinned up. Folks, this is bad. This is not historically accurate in any way, shape, or form. I don’t know how she was allowed to leave the makeup chair like that (unless it’s another example of the Great Bobby Pin Shortage!). Btw, this is totally how some reenactors do their hair in an attempt to bridge modern aesthetics and period hairstyles — beachy waves + 1850s full hair covering the ears. But honestly, they shouldn’t be mixed if you want to get a historical look.
At some point, we’ll make a supercut for Snark Week of all the women in all the historical costume dramas who unattractively hike up their skirts. Because this irritates the whole Frock Flicks team, I can assure you. Both because it’s not pretty, but also because it’s almost always unnecessary. If you’ve practiced walking in long skirts, you’ll find that you have little need to constantly grab a handful of skirt and raise it out of the way of your feet in order to walk easily (it also helps if skirts are hemmed to the right length with the shoes you’re wearing). Women in period would have spent their whole lives wearing long skirts, walking over a variety of surfaces, going up and down stairs, doing all the ordinary things you do. Skirt-hiking is only really needed if you’re running or going up stairs, you’re walking on uneven ground, or you are a little bit infirm or insecure.
Yet in Doctor Thorne, many of the ladies are constantly grabbing at their skirts. Lady Arabella Gresham (played by Rebecca Front) is the worst offender, but the Countess de Courcy does it a lot also. I feel sorry for all that fine taffeta getting crunched up right in the middle of the skirt! Some of these actresses have been in multiple historical costume dramas, so you’d think they’d have learned how to walk in long skirts — or at least a director would have told them to stop clutching at their skirts like drowning men grab at life rafts.
4. Best Costumes on the Minor Characters
Specifically, Miss Dunstable, the American heiress, and the Countess de Courcy, a total busybody, have faaaaabulous wardrobes that totally upstage Mary Thorne (who, being penniless, of course has weak outfits) and the whole Gresham clan (who get way more screentime, but other than the flower crowns and skirt-hiking, have modestly nice but not spectacular clothing). I suppose I shouldn’t complain, except I wanted to see more of these costumes! Miss Dunstable pops in and out of the story, while the Countess is even more in the background. I kept getting mere glimpses of their amazing, detailed, and unusual outfits.There’s also one or two fantastic ensembles on Lady Alexandrina that you can just barely see. More, dammit.
5. Metal Grommets
Thankfully, just the one that I can see, but it’s down the back of Mary’s most often worn dress and quite an attractive one. I could be generous and suggest those are yellow handmade eyelets down the back of the dress, glinting in the sun, but that’d just be dumb. Repeat after me: metal grommets are the visible panty lines of historical costume.
Yeah, those are some relatively minor quibbles. The costuming in Doctor Thorne looks fine overall. It’s the story that’s a bit dull and slow to get where you can see it’s very obviously going. There are worse ways to spend three hours, but there’s better ones too!
Have you watched Doctor Thorne?