Starz’s adaptation of Outlander, with Caitriona Balfe as Claire and Sam Heughan as Jamie, premiered last week with a free online episode available here. Outlander is a legend in the romance world and here at AAR, where it’s placed in the top five romances in every annual poll except 2004 (it “crashed” to seventh). I’m a fan of the books but not a die-hard, so I’m not troubled by minor plot deviations or additions as long as they’re in the spirit of Gabaldon’s book. I’m looking for something that captures the detailed, warts-and-all Highland setting, Claire’s confidence and competence, Jamie’s honesty and enthusiasm, and their marvelous, inevitable attraction. On the basis of the first episode, I’m optimistic that this series is going to deliver.
What I didn’t like:
The pacing. It takes over half an hour to get Claire to the past. Yes, this is faithful to the book, but I always skip that part in the book, too. (Come on. Nobody reads this book to see 1940s Claire and Frank.) Tobias Menzies playing Frank does do a good job, and you accurately get the feeling of Claire and Frank as compatible but in a rocky patch which Gabaldon gives us in the book. I’m not saying those scenes were unnecessary, especially for people who aren’t already fans of the book, but once you’ve read or watched them once, you’re never going to do it again.
Balfe’s appearance. Balfe is gorgeous, with a model’s long, lean figure that looks fragile and borderline fey. It clashed with the practical durability I associate with Claire. I always saw Claire as more of a young Emma Thompson type – beautiful, certainly, but also sturdy and down-to-earth, with looks that sneak up on you in the wake of your admiration for her good sense. Balfe acts well (more on that later) but her looks always catch your eye first. At least she wasn’t given heavy-handed and inauthentic makeup (of course, she doesn’t need it!) and her hair, like Claire’s in the book, is allowed to look a bit frizzy and unmanageable in the Scottish damp.
Claire’s voice-overs. This was probably intended to save time, capture the first-person voice of the novel, and avoid awkward exposition dialogue. However, the voice-overs were often unnecessary and intrusive, pulling me out of the scenes. The worst were unfortunately cheeseball. The last line of the episode is “So far, I’d been assaulted, threatened, kidnapped, and nearly raped. And somehow, I knew that my journey had only just begun.” Not even Balfe can do much with a line like that.
What I liked:
The music. Atmospheric and Celtic without being New Age radio. I think this is due to avoiding synthesized “woo-woo” vocals (which would have felt anachronistic) and supporting the vocals and higher-pitched instruments with vigorous, martial drumbeats. The music for the druidic ritual performed by the villagers is eerie but strong, the chase scenes are energetic, and the drumbeats emitted by the stone that transports Claire sound powerful and mysterious. The opening credits song, a version of Over the Sea to Skye, is a particularly good example of everything that works in the music; you can listen to it on Youtube here.
The clothes. I loved the color palettes, and the costumes from both settings look authentic. I wish I could say I loved them, but one thing just jumped out at me: nothing looked warm enough. This story is set across Halloween outside of Inverness. The average high is about fifty Fahrenheit at that time of year. Would you go out forty-degree weather wearing a light white dress and a shawl? Especially if, like Balfe, you have essentially no body fat? When Claire went splashing through a river later on, I kept thinking she was going to come down with pneumonia.
What I loved:
The production values. I already mentioned that they didn’t skimp on the music or costumes. The cinematography captures the stark grandeur of the Highlands and the timbre of the light peculiar to that location. The druid ritual dance scene is beautifully lit and very evocative. The supporting cast is good so far, and the props and sets are top-notch.
The acting. Balfe can’t control her looks, but what she can control, she did well. I loved her “nurse-mode” Claire: brisk, bossy, and no-nonsense. She went from tentative and uncertain in a strange new setting to demanding that a cottage full of armed and dangerous male strangers get out of the way and let her set a shoulder properly. Heughan has less to do in the first episode because of his limited screen time, but he manages to convey moments of all of Jamie’s key elements: physically tough, adventurous, confident, young, and with a sense of humor. The accents for both characters are great, although I’m not sure about Balfe’s delivery of Claire’s signature “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.” As mentioned, Tobias Menzies performed strongly as Frank, and his “Black Jack” Randall looks promisingly villainous. I’m also intrigued by Graham McTavish as Dougal.
Jamie and Claire. I will watch old 1970s productions with painted backdrops if the cast is strong, and all the lavish filming in the world can’t keep me tuned in to leads with no chemistry. So let’s get to what really matters: are Heughan and Balfe doing justice to one of the greatest romance couples of all time? From their limited time together in Episode 1, I’d say definitely. Their first meeting is quick and public, with Jamie’s injuries and the group on the run, but the actors make the most of small moments: eye contact while Claire sets Jamie’s shoulder, or touching when Jamie wraps them in his plaid. In one short, funny moment, Claire explains that she’s a nurse, and, as Jamie’s eyes drop to her breasts, she snaps “Not a wet nurse!” I can’t wait to see what they’ll do as the story progresses.
My overall verdict:
Give this show a try! The quality is high, and, once the first episode gets going, it’s engaging and interesting. Moreover, the strengths (especially Claire and Jamie) are going to get more and more screen time, which makes me optimistic. There are breasts and sex scenes, so this is not family viewing, but I think it will make for some great evenings in.
What do you think?
Have you watched the new Outlander yet? Do you agree with me about what is and isn’t working? If you aren’t watching, is it because you don’t plan to, or are you waiting to binge on the whole thing?