‘Renegade Nell’ on Disney+: A woman’s winning fight against toffs

Sally Wainwright, creator of the much-admired crime drama “Happy Valley” and the historical lesbian romance “Gentleman Jack,” has cooked up a winning supernatural period feminist adventure comedy, “Renegade Nell.”

The series, which premieres Friday on Disney+, is the second in just over a month, following “The Completely Made-Up Adventures of Dick Turpin” on Apple TV+, to have as its hero an early 18th-century British highwayman, or woman, as the case may be. (Each has a female highwayman named Nell, for that matter.) They’d make a sweet double feature, if such a thing may be said of two multi-episode television shows.

The shape of the series follows a familiar template: An ordinary person finds herself with superpowers and will have to confront an enemy who, in their final battle, becomes more formidable than ever, like the dragon at the end of “Sleeping Beauty” or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in “Ghostbusters.”

A wiry, wonderful Louisa Harland (“Derry Girls”) plays self-possessed Nell Jackson, who is riding home in a military red coat and three-cornered hat from the War of Spanish Succession, where she had followed her late husband, “blasted in half at the Battle of Blenheim.” Set upon by brigands, she dispatches them all — to her own amazement and delight — with superhuman strength and speed and the usual repertoire of martial arts twirls, kicks and dodges.

The source of this sudden ability, it will soon be revealed, is a sort of winged pixie, Billy Blind (Nick Mohammed, from “Ted Lasso”), who flies into Nell’s mouth as a Tinkerbellean ball of light whenever Nell is threatened. Neither she nor he have any idea why this should be or what he is doing there, or Billy just isn’t telling. But the viewer will come to look forward to those moments when Nell powers up, as when Popeye eats his spinach and turns the tables on Bluto.

At the pub run by her widowed father, Sam Trotter (Craig Parkinson), Nell finds her younger sisters, teenage Roxy (Bo Bragason) and little George (Florence Keen). A run-in with Thomas Blancheford (Jake Dunn), the abusive wastrel son of the local Lord (Pip Torrens), leads to Sam’s killing, and to Nell being framed for another murder on the false witness of Thomas’ sister, Sofia (Alice Kremelberg). On the run, with her sisters in tow — along with Rasselas (Enyi Okoronkwo), a disaffected Blancheford retainer, and Charles Devereaux (Frank Dillane), whose gang she dismantled at the top of the series — Nell turns to highway robbery to survive as she seeks justice for her father. This is also, it occurs to me as I write, the plot of the Jane Fonda movie “Cat Ballou.”

As a wanted woman with a price on her head, which is to say, good copy, Nell’s character and exploits are twisted and exaggerated in the turn-of-the-18th century tabloid press, personified by the Fieldingesque publisher Lady Eularia Moggerhangar, played by Joely Richardson. (I don’t know whether its representation of a 1704 newspaper office is accurate, but it looks right, and I wanted it to be.) One episode begins with a seller of broadsides, the musical Twitter of its day — the series was originally titled “The Ballad of Renegade Nell” — that blossoms into a production number, tossed from singer to singer in a London street scene. It’s very good.

The villains are genuinely loathsome. Prime among them is the Earl of Poynton (Adrian Lester), a high-placed politician who more than dabbles in the dark arts and has Thomas under his spell, and is the boss of the series’ truly frightening final level. Nell is out front in this confrontation — she’s the one with the powers, or the pixie — but the point of the series is that teamwork makes the dream work. You’ve got to have friends, especially in a world where “the law is made for the toffs by the toffs.”

Murders, sundry lesser crimes and a tense climax aside, “Renegade Nell” is light-hearted, cheeky and something short of high-toned in that peculiar British way. Yet it has some things to say about social and sexual inequality and the entitled rich versus the exploited poor along the way. There is political intrigue, involving Jacobites and Queen Anne, which will be less mysterious to U.K. viewers who have had that history thrown at them, but you can always look it up if you need more context (and you really don’t). Broadly speaking, it’s a matter of authoritarianism versus what might turn into democracy — so, you know, very 2024.

The production looks as good as any serious period piece, and the comedy is all the better for the persuasive richness of the setting. To borrow a word from the highwayman’s infamous greeting, “Nell” delivers.

First appeared on www.latimes.com

Leave a Comment