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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Vicky Jessop

Renegade Nell on Disney+ review: Sally Wainwright's historical romp sags under the weight of its own whimsy

As far as pivots go, it’s a strange one: what on earth possessed Sally Wainwright, the creator of famously gritty cop show Happy Valley, to pen a whimsical tale about magic, fairies and Georgian England?

Perhaps she’d had enough of Tommy Lee Royce. Perhaps she wanted a break from all the bleakness. Either way, Wainwright has gone about as hard as she possibly can in the other direction on Renegade Nell, her new eight-part Disney+ series.

Louisa Harland (most famous for her turn as Orla in Derry Girls) is Nell. She’s blessed with an oo-er Cockney accent thick enough to cut with a knife and she’s just returned home from war (the soldier she ran off with has died) in possession of some magic powers that make her pretty much invincible.

But once back in leafy Tottenham (how times have changed) things go dramatically wrong. Her father dies, she’s blamed for the murder of the local Lord and soon enough she’s on the run with her two little sisters in tow. Magic powers or no, Nell is now a wanted woman, and soon she’s tangled in a conspiracy that threatens the future of England itself.

It’s all rather a lot to be getting on with, and that’s before we’re introduced to Billy Blind (Nick Mohammed), the fairy providing Nell with those same magic powers. He seems to have been put on this earth solely to whine “It’s not right, Nelly!” at her every time she tries to do something morally dubious. He’s annoying.

Joely Richardson as Lady Eularia Moggerhanger (Disney+)

This might already be clear, but people coming to Renegade Nell expecting more of the brilliance that gave us Catherine Cawood are likely to be disappointed. Wainwright has lost none of her flair with dialogue – it’s just that the dialogue is required to tackle stuff like dark magic and ghosts alongside the more prosaic stuff like character building, and the resulting exposition does tend to weigh things down.

So does the plot. At times, it’s hard to tell who the show has been written for: children, YA audiences, adults? I would suggest the former, because in addition to some horrifyingly cringe scenes (including Nell attempting to impersonate a Scottish noblewoman), Renegade Nell is also subject to some truly eye-rolling moments of ‘fancy that’ coincidence that stretch credulity to breaking point.

This applies not only to the murder for which Nell is framed (requiring her to be conveniently alone with both murderer and murderee), but the consequences, as she spends most of the series trying to find a trustworthy magistrate (those being in short supply in Georgian London). One duly found, she eventually tracks him down… only to have him die on the spot and her blamed for his death by heart attack. Sorry, what? It’s all just bit weak.

The thing is, the cast is good (watch out for the scenery-gobbling Joely Richardson in later episodes). Harland gives it her all as the cheerfully androgynous Nell, and it is great fun seeing her don a noblewoman’s dress one minute and beat up spectral phantoms (or, worse: sexist men) the next, though the theme tune that comes on every time her magic powers make an appearance gets old fast. And Adrian Lester gives excellent baddie as the Earl of Poynton, who also possesses magic powers, though of the decidedly more evil variety.

Whenever either of them are on screen, their charisma keeps us invested. Whenever they’re not, the show immediately sags under the weight of its own whimsy: perhaps a little bleakness wouldn’t have been a bad thing after all.

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