Desperate Romantics (2009) – A Review

6 May

I’ll start off this post by saying I absolutely loved ‘Desperate Romantics‘ – a period drama set in Victorian London which revolves around the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; their art, lives, loves and scandals.

WARNING This image may only be used for publicity purposes in connection with the broadcast of the programme as licensed by BBC Worldwide Ltd & must carry the shown copyright legend. It may not be used for any commercial purpose without a licence from the BBC. © BBC 2009***

First glimpse of Desperate Romantics, from left to right; Rafe Spall as a somewhat austere perfectionist William Holman Hunt, also known as ‘Maniac’, Aidan Turner as the dashing Byronic Hero, ‘half-Italian, half-mad’ Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Samuel Barnett as a child-prodigy, sweet and bewildered John Everett Millais, and lastly Sam Crane as the gentle, caring and ‘always-in-the-shadow-of-others’ Fred Walters; a composite character mainly based on Fred Stevens and several other historical figures who serves as a journalist and a diarist of the brotherhood.

I found the actors and actresses wonderful and perfectly suitable for their roles. Every character has an individualised personality and that is one of the main reasons this period drama is so brilliant. This emphasis on individual personality traits, be it good or bad ones, helps a great deal to understand the artworks they produced. Their choice of subjects seems so natural after understanding their characters. For example, the strong-willed and religious Hunt would never go on painting sensual women or characters from Roman mythology, and likewise it’s inconceivable that Rossetti would ever paint anything similar to The Light of the World.


desperate romantics 2

Brooding Rossetti and his sorrowful muse


I very much enjoyed how relatable everyone seemed. Their conversations and jokes in the pub sounded beautifully modern. Pre-Raphaelites smoked hashish, consumed opium, flirted with waitresses and visited brothels. In several scenes you can even see Charles Dickens himself entertaining the ‘ladies’. After watching this, I feel like the Victorian world wasn’t as grim and proper as presented, perhaps in the higher classes but not amongst artists and intellectuals.

In Desperate Romantics Featurette (you can watch it on YouTube) actors and actresses talk about their roles and opinions of the PRB. I found it especially thrilling how Rafe Spall connected the members of the Brotherhood to modern artists and writers. He made a parallel with the Beat Generation and compared Fred Walters to Jack Kerouac, Millais to Neal Cassady, Rossetti to Allen Ginsberg and Hunt to William Burroughs. Also, he compared the radical avant-garde quality of the brotherhood to Punk Rock, and he described the make-up and hairstyle of Annie Miller (Hunt’s girfriend and model) as being Vivienne Westwood-esque.


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Amy Manson as Lizzie Siddal


I’m afraid that costumes are a great factor for me, and in Desperate Romantics it was yet another source of enjoyment. As you can see from the pictures I’ve assembled here, dresses worn by Lizzie Siddal are very simple and romantic, made of printed cotton in earthy colours, no corsets or crinolines. Along with her long flowing coppery hair, she looks more like a Medieval maiden than a Victorian lady. Apart from a few bonnets, everything seemed historically accurate. Men’s attire was interesting as well, which is unusual because it tends to be boring and grey. Millais is a true peacock, usually wearing scarlet-coloured velvet jackets and lots of purples and greens. Rossetti is very flamboyant but more sophisticated, he wears loose, half-unbuttoned shirts and vibrant coloured scarves. Fred is all simple and proper, true mama’s boy and Hunt is dressed according to his reserved nature, but after his trip to the East, he starts growing a beard, smoking hashish straight from Syria and dressing with a touch of East just like The Rolling Stones when then discovered Marocco.


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First love couple: Rafe Spall as William Holman Hunt and Jennie Jacques as Annie Miller


I’ve read some complaints about the lack of art in the series and I highly disagree. Exhibition of Millais’ Ophelia, an important moment for the PRB, was well presented and so was the moment when Rossetti found his new direction in portraying pure womanly sensuality after an encounter with Fanny Cornforth. Millais, Rossetti, Hunt and Fred are often seen visiting the Royal Gallery, even objecting the mainstream Victorian art, Rossetti said: The Academy’s utter disgust is what gets us all out of bed in the morning‘, continuing Where is the naturalism, where is the life, the flesh, the blood, the nature?’ When Hunt comes back from his trip, he also showcases his paintings, and after Lizzie dies we see grief stricken Rossetti painting Beata Beatrix. We see Rossetti painting Jane Morris and the murals in a nearby church, and Lizzie painting as well. Is this not enough art?

In Desperate Romantics we are presented by something even more important than ‘art’, we see the background of their artworks and everything that went on in their personal lives and the way it reflected on their works. The series captured the mood of the Brotherhood and I think that’s not only more interesting, but more important. Anyone can simply google their paintings, but it takes a lot more to understand them.


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Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal as Victorian era Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull


“We are artists, we thrive on strong emotions.” (Elizabeth Siddal, ep 5)

“We cannot confuse our feeling about the artist with the art, that would leave us only able to admire works of those we like.” (John Ruskin, ep 3)

“I insists it’s the most noble profession there is. An artist only records beauty, but a model radiates it. If I were Millais, oh, I would paint you in a pure white silk dress.” (Rossetti’s opinion on modelling and words directed to Jane Burden)

“I find the modern world the most random and confusing place.” (Millais, ep 3)


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Love couple number 3: Millais and Effie as Victorian version of Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg

A only have a few objections. Firstly, I’d love to have seen Rossetti’s family because his sister Christina was a poet and his brother William Michael also belonged to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Secondly, no mention of Lizzie’s stillborn child and that was something that deeply saddened her and ultimately led to her death. Thirdly, too many sex scenes which was tasteless and unnecessary in my opinion. It’s obvious that Rossetti wasn’t celibate. Perhaps a hint of intimacy would be more interesting than seeing Rossetti jump on every redhead in London.

All in all, I loved Desperate Romantics – escapism into the bohemian circles of Victorian era London. It’s beyond inspiring, the story itself is enigmatic and interesting, actors were brilliant, thoroughly recommend it! There are six episodes, each is one hour long. If you can spare six hours of your life, I sincerely recommend you to do that.

5 Responses to “Desperate Romantics (2009) – A Review”

  1. Elliot 6th May 2016 at 9:02 pm #

    I was not aware of this – is it BBC? It looks great, I love period dramas and of course the Pre-Raphaelites are a great love of mine, I will definitely check it out – thanks for the post and the recommendation!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 7th May 2016 at 10:14 am #

      Thanks for the comment. It’s BBC two. I’m so glad you’ll check it out! I’d really like to know your opinion about it, so do let me know. By the way, all episodes are on YouTube, how great is that!? Though I recommend you to watch the ‘Desperate Romantics Featurette’ first –

      Liked by 1 person

      • Elliot 10th May 2016 at 5:47 pm #

        Well I am half-way through watching Desperate Romantics, I am enjoying it, though it is certainly not a docu-drama by any means, the tone of it, especially some of the soundtrack is a little off to me. The actors are all grand and obviously the costumes and sets are great, the whole era and their lives and how they went about doing their paintings is very interesting – it has awakened a desire to learn these artists histories in more detail, from a factually reliable source though! The actress who portrays Lizzie is just perfect. Ruskin is also very well played.
        On another subject I would like to recommend some music to you, I know music is very personal and subjective, I am not pretending to know what you like (apart from Sid Barrett obviously) so I will not be in the least offended if you hate this music. It is a recent discovery of mine and is a little quirky – Matt Berry’s album ‘Witchazel’, it can be found on youtube, the tracks ‘woman’ and ‘take my hand’ in particular I really like.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Byron's Muse 11th May 2016 at 11:12 am #

          I was pleasantly surprised by your comment, thank you, and I’m glad you watched it. I agree with you about costumes, acting and sets, as for the soundtrack, well, honestly, that’s not something I even thought about or even noticed. Lizzie and Ruskin are just perfect, I agree. As much as I adored the series, it is not a docu-drama indeed, but I think it captured the spirit and that’s, to me, more important than facts, I like things to be slightly romanticised. Of course, some things weren’t realistic, for example, Lizzie tells Hunt she enjoyed his ‘Eve of St Agnes’ when in fact that painting was painted in 1857! You said the series awakened a desire to learn more about these artists – I think that’s what they aimed for. What particular paintings are your favourites? Rossetti’s ‘The Annunciation’ is my recent favourite. And who would be your favourite PRB member (based on their personalities in Desperate Romantics), if you could decide?

          Thanks for the music recommendation. Honestly, I’ve never even heard of Matt Berry before. As for his music, I though the album cover was a bit dull, and the few songs I’ve listened sounded very soft, melodic, kind of groovy and 1970s inspired, I quite liked it, though it probably won’t be on my playlist. It definitely doesn’t sound like something from 2011, which is a huge compliment itself because most of contemporary music is rubbish in my opinion.
          Besides Syd Barrett, I’m an ardent fan of Manic Street Preachers, I don’t know if you ever willingly listened to them, but songs ‘From despair to where’ and ‘motorcycle emptiness’ are my all time favourites.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Elliot 11th May 2016 at 4:29 pm #

            Rather tricky to choose my fave Pre-raph paintings, there are so many! But top of the list would have to be Waterhouse’s ‘the Lady of Shalott’ and Millais’ ‘The blind-girl’ – which I actually saw at an exhibit in London a few years ago, along with others. Fave member based solely on the series would be Millais as he is so different in temperament from the others. Outside of the series Rossetti might be my fave – such a tragic life and some of the best pre-raph art overall.
            I am glad you at least liked Berry’s music, it isn’t groundbreaking but he’s got a good voice and I like his style. I am not familiar with Manic Street Preachers but I will have a listen on your recommendation.

            Liked by 1 person

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