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'Dangerous Liaisons' Review: Starz Update Loses the Thrills of the Glenn Close Classic

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“Dangerous Liaisons” is one of the great modern classic films — emphasis on modern. Though it was released more than 30 years ago, and concerns characters living their lives in 18th-century France, its interrogation of the carefully constructed performances people use to cover their basest desires and impulses feels as present-day as an Instagram filter.

Which makes an update of the property seem both intuitive and slightly wrongheaded. The film, based on a stage play that was adapted from Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel, is clearly mutable; however, to force onto it a self-conscious modernity is to over-prove the case. This is a story that was resonant in the first place — little adaptation needed.

But Starz and series creator Harriet Warner have entered the arena with a new adaptation that casts Alice Englert in the role Glenn Close made famous. In this prequel, Englert is not yet holding the powerful title of Marquise de Merteuil; the show depicts her Camille’s rise from poverty, and her toxic engagement with the rakish Valmont (Nicholas Denton). Their pas de deux has a sexual frankness and a directness of approach that would surprise the characters from the film; it’s also parceled out episodically, with each episode seeming to represent a new move forward on the gameboard.

The show is fun to look at and, in a welcome update, features an inclusive cast of game and capable performers, with Englert proving to be a resourceful lead. But the tone grows a bit exhausting; the show lacks the control or unified sense of its world of, say, the new “Gossip Girl,” a contemporary series clearly in thrall to the “Liaisons” legacy. Englert and Denton’s chemistry and hunger for salvation is real and powerful, but it feels unmoored on a show in which every other character seems to exist in aphorism or exaggeration. For instance, though the royal court is, in any work of fiction, a place for peacocking, this is taken to an and unpleasant unrealistic extreme once Camille ends up there. “Paris is a dangerous place for the unconnected,” a courtier tells her, adding, as if the point were not clear enough for us, “You are unknown!” She goes on, in what was clearly intended as a bit of camp fabulosity, “there is only one room for one fresh-faced pussycat in Paris, and that’s me-ow!”

When a line like that doesn’t land, it really does not. And “Dangeous Liaisons” is full of them — moments in which characters, exhibiting the subtext-free directness of approach of 21st century television, seem to forget they’re in a creative universe where veiling and subterfuge is actually the object of the game. Lesley Manville, at least, comes out unscathed; the actor, soon to be seen as the similarly icy Princess Margaret on “The Crown,” plays the current holder of the Marquise title, who finds herself in the unlikely position of tutor in the ways of power. “Men think they pluck us, Camille, when we are ripe and at our sweetest,” she declares, while completing the metaphor by peeling an orange with a knife. “Our skill is in letting them believe that.” The interplay between men and women, stated bluntly and punctuated with a somewhat garish gesture: That Manville sells it is proof of her power, and, perhaps, of the elemental intrigue of the themes at the heart of the story. “Dangerous Liaisons” is eternal — even if it might not fit the storytelling style of the moment.

“Dangerous Liaisons” will premiere Sunday, Nov. 6 at midnight on the Starz app.