We history geeks sure do love a good costume drama, but these days *good* costume dramas seems harder and harder to find. It might have good costumes but a terrible plot; it might have terrible costumes and a great plot; it might have terrible costumes, terrible plot, great acting; or it might just be terrible.
I'll admit I'm picky. Nearly all of the period dramas I watch are European, English, or Canadian, each with their own cultural flavor in how they portray historical events.
One of my favorites is "X-Company", a World War II "behind enemy lines" spy thriller, and it's Canadian. The story follows a tight-knit unit infiltrating and sabotaging Nazi operations in occupied France while also helping Jews escape and training French resistance.
And it's awesome.
|Evelyne Brochu as Aurora, commander of the spy squad.|
1. Good Writing
X-Company is incredibly well written, with multiple story lines happening simultaneously. Some stories begin and end in one episode ("blow up the depot; steal the secret plans"), some are over-arching the whole season, and then within that there are the individual character's development. Since X-Company is an ensemble cast with no lead character, we the audience get insights and information about all of them, which humanizes these fictional people and adds depth to what could otherwise be a predictable show.
2. Good Costuming
Watching a costume drama can be painful (zipper up the back, are you kidding me!?), but the mark of a great historically-set show is when the costuming does not distract but supports.
In X-Company we see plenty of uniforms, both German and Canadian, but also French city and country clothes. Clothing plays an important role tied to what the spies are doing, whom they are meeting, where they are going, etc: commander Aurora wears a well-tailored suit for a specific mission in Paris; Tom wears a pin-striped suit to meet with a doctor; Neil and Harry are in tweeds and flatcaps to blend into provincial townships and not raise suspicions.
The clothes themselves are often real vintage and always well-patina'd. Nothing is too new, shiny, or bright. The color palette uses muted, natural tones that extend through to the locations, lighting, and post processing of the film. Everything visual works together.
|Aurora (Evelyne Brochu) targets Sabine, Nazi wife, in an effort to turn her.|
No episode of X-Company allows me to drift off to my smartphone. It's just too exciting. Things are blowing up, people are captured and then escape, there's peril at every turn.
But you know what isn't happening? Nobody is flying through the air in a slow motion kung fu kick. Nobody's is bending over backwards dodging bullets with otherworldy yoga positions. Nobody is wearing leather pants.
It's not silly, which makes it believable. I genuinely believe these events could have taken place and I care about the characters. It's good acting, complicated human emotions, relatable and realistc action that glues me to the screen, not an excess of blood, out-of-place sex scenes, or superhuman MMA fighting skills.
|Aurora and Oberfuhrer Franz Faber (award-winning German actor Torben Liebrecht) come face to face after a season and a half of parallel storylines.|
As an American, I love this aspect of X-Company because I know *nothing* about Canada's role in WWII. Nothing. Naturally, I have the American perspective. I know the American history. I know the before, during, and after of America in the War.
But Canada? Not a bit.
X-Company is a dramatization, sure, but what we can take away from it as American viewers is as much about how the current Canadian culture thinks of this period of history as the story itself. (Think about how WWII is portrayed in American TV shows and movies...what does this say about our culture/entertainment/storytelling/expectations/view of history today?) I notice a pretty big difference between the Canadian shows (Bomb Girls is another one you might enjoy) and the American ones, and it reminds me that though we speak the same language and share a border, Canada is an entirely different culture with its own history, pride, beliefs, struggles, humor, and identity.
|Harry (Connor Price), Neil (Warren Brown), and Alfred (Jack Laskey) scoping things out in the bushes|
X-Company deals with three different languages - English, French, and German - which are cleverly used to sculpt the story and characters. When the spies speak as themselves, it's in their normal accents (flat Canadian/American sound), but when they're posing as French nationals, they speak English with a French accent.
However, the German characters speak subtitled German, and when our valiant spies are speaking to the Germans....yup, they're speaking German. My theory on why the show runners did this is to create a feeling of division in the audience between the good guys and the bad guys - the good guys are like us, they speak English, we understand them; the bad guys are "alien."
It's subtle but has a profound psychological impact on the viewer. For instance, the first time we hear one of the German characters speak in English (with a French accent) is when daring spy Aurora begins to turn her. I'm willing to bet that the first time we hear Oberfuhrer Franz Faber speak in English will be when he starts to turn to the good guys too (at least that's what I hope is going to happen!).
|The Germans speak German. What a revelation!|
Seriously. I don't think I've ever seen a cast this big that looks this good. Evelyne Brochu (Orphan Black) opposite Francois Arnaud (The Borgias); English super-talents Jack Laskey (Endeavor) and Warren Brown (Good Cop, Luther). Torben Liebrecht, Connor Price, Dustin Milligan. Crikey. Even if you watch it on "mute," it's worth it.
|Tom (Dustin Milligan) and Neil (Warren Brown) doing secret spy things on Parisian rooftops, and looking lovely in waistcoats.|
I don't think I need to convince you further. If you'd like to learn more about X-Company, check out the CBC website, and follow @xcompany on Twitter. Season 1 is available on DVD on Amazon. Enjoy!