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Must-See Miniseries: The Buccaneers

January 12, 2010

How much longer are we going to think it necessary to be ‘American’ before (or in contradistinction to) being cultivated, being enlightened, being humane, and having the same intellectual discipline as other civilized countries? “ -Edith Wharton

The Buccaneers, Edith Wharton’s last (unfinished at the time of her death) novel, has at its heart a simple question:  What makes Americans so unique in comparison with Europeans?  Why is it we struggle so much to fit in when we should value the very qualities that make us different in the first place?

At its center, the novel, as well as the miniseries,  is about a group of four American girls in the late 19th century on the hunt for rich (preferably titled) husbands in England.  Along the way to happiness, they experience many pratfalls and eye-opening life challenges. 

Ladies of luxury?

It was not until 1993 that Marion Manwaring completed The Buccaneers, with the Wharton estate’s blessing, and using Wharton’s original notes.    Once The Buccaneers was finally complete, the BBC comissioned one of its most enchanting and heartbreaking adaptations in the 1995 mini-series of the same name.

Nan St. George (Carla Gugino) and her sister Virginia (Alison Elliot) set off for England to enjoy the benefits of a social season.  In New York, their family is considered “new money”, but in London, broke gentry are more inclined to marry heiresses, despite their social pedigree.   Nan’s governess,  Laura Testvalley (Cheri Lunghi) gains them entry into the upper classes of British artistocracy, where they must navigate the often treacherous game of marriage.

Virginia, the eldest, easily captures herself a marquess, the cold Lord Seadown, but discovers that love may not be part of the equation.   Alison Elliot, who was so smoldering and daring in The Wings of the Dove, here plays the ice queen to perfection.  She is a tower of self-control, and she plays each moment perfectly.

Nan, the younger sister, is the true protagonist.  She goes from a wide-eyed, romantic idealist to an emotionally brutalized woman, torn between her duty to her duke husband and his tenants and her true love for a bankrupt politician, Sir Guy Thwaite.  Carla Gugino’s performance is charming and heart-wrenching.  It’s hard to believe this is the same actress who was so tough and calculating in Sin City

Mira Sorvino, as Virginia and Nan’s fiery best friend Conchita (later Lady Marable), is a delightful whirlwind of a character.  She learns along the journey that living only for love can have drastic consequences.

Carla Gugino as Nan St. George

Cheri Lunghi, as Nan’s former governess, Laura Testvalley, is the lynchpin of the cast.  She represents all that Nan values and respects, and is her true friend despite all the odds.  In the end, Laura  must herself choose between true love and doing what she knows to be morally correct.

The lives and loves of the characters in The Buccaneers are contrasted with the works of the Pre-Raphealites, that controversial and bohemian group of artists who transcended society’s values to create some of the century’s most compelling works of art.    Many of the characters in the story represent the same values the Pre-Raphealites treasured, including the need for love to eclipse all else in life.

Overall, The Buccaneers is a mini-series that is not to be missed.  Curl up with a copy, some tea and a blanket one of these cold winter days and escape!



 Unofficial trailer for The Buccaneers:


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