There's a delicate balance between achieving classy filmmaking and missing it by a mile. The new Masterpiece Theater series MR. SELFRIDGE is an entertaining example of the latter. Based loosely on the biography SHOPPING, SEDUCTION, AND MR. SELFRIDGE, this light drama focuses more on seductions of various types as American businessman Harry Selfridge successfully introduces the American model of consumerism to staid London in the early 1900's.
Filled with the usual excellent stable of Brit actors, MR. SELFRIDGE has high ambitions. It wants to be the next DOWNTON ABBEY. The problem is that the characters and plot developments are not as interesting or as deeply drawn. The biggest drawback here is American actor Jeremy Piven, a multiple Emmy winner for ENTOURAGE. He lacks the verve, the pizzazz, and the apparent heart that would inspire London, especially its women, to swoon over him and his fabulous store.
On the plus side, there are winning performances from the women in the cast from variety star hoofer to Selfridge's long-suffering wife to a young lady sales clerk who manages to rise the right way. The costumes, sets, show windows are all splendidly displayed, but beneath all these attempts at classiness, there's not much of the real thing.
On a classier note, the Oscar-nominated Best Foreign Film for 2012 A ROYAL AFFAIR recreates a little-known affair between English-born Queen Caroline Matilda and King Christian VII's friend and mentor the German doctor Struensee. According to most accounts, Struensee was able to influence the mentally ill king to bring reform to the medieval rule of Denmark, rankling the court insiders and helping to bring about his downfall. Of course, his steamy affair with the queen doesn't help his popularity with the nobles either. All of this is played with proper spectacle, humor, and passion. Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (CASINO ROYALE) is a convincing reformist and lover, but it is Alicia Vikander as Caroline Matilda who dominates the film with her intelligence and beauty. Her desire for Enlightenment values and her desire for Struensee make an intriguing character conflict. A ROYAL AFFAIR is one of the more interesting costume dramas of late.