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Franklin review – Michael Douglas is absolutely compelling in this period drama
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Franklin review – Michael Douglas is absolutely compelling in this period drama

You have to admire the chutzpah of Apple TV+. They’ve chosen to make an eight-part miniseries out of the towering intellectual-slash-action figure of Benjamin Franklin – the son of a Boston candlemaker, who ran away to Philadelphia at 17 and rose to become one of the US’s founding fathers, via polymathic stints as a printer, publisher, inventor, writer and scientist. And they’ve based it on what was surely one of the least televisual accomplishments of his entire storied career.

Franklin (whose eponymous hero is played by Michael Douglas) is adapted from the historian Stacy Schiff’s 2005 book A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America. It tells the story of the then 70-year-old statesman’s unofficial eight-year-long series of negotiations with the Gallic great and good, beginning in 1776 as America’s losses in the revolutionary war looked set to crush the young nation before it had fairly begun. Over to Paris hops Benjamin in the hope that the – well, let’s call them longstanding contretemps – between the French and the English would help him persuade the former to provide money, weapons and other supplies to the beleaguered seekers after independence.

His teenage grandson Temple (Noah Jupe) accompanies him – not his son, William, because he is a wellknown loyalist (and the less charming Frenchmen Franklin meets like to bring this shame up from time to time). Temple learns a lot about diplomacy and even more about fashion and fornication as he is taken under the wing of the Marquis de Lafayette (later to become a hero of révolutions américaine et française and more importantly, a star in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton), played by Théodore Pellerin. Metaphors about seduction and chess abound as grandfather tries to keep the boy’s focus on their real mission.

Unfortunately for the viewer, that mission is composed mostly of meetings. Some more clandestine than others, but mostly in virtually indistinguishable chateaux with virtually indistinguishable French ministers and rich men. Those we do learn to pick out – such as the secretly sympathetic foreign minister Comte de Vergennes (Thibault de Montalembert) and the wealthy merchant Chaumont (Olivier Claverie), who decides to help fund US independence for the trading opportunities that would result – too often get sidelined by lesser characters. We spend too much time with the pawns in this monumental chess game, when we would really rather be concentrating on the alliances and treacheries among the main pieces.

Franklin is dogged by the same slight but dreary sense of worthiness that attended Apple’s other recent foray into US period drama, the meticulous Manhunt (about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the conspiracy behind it, and – almost as a distasteful afterthought – the capture and trial of his killer, John Wilkes Booth). This time, though, it doesn’t even have the background pursuit of a murderer to keep things moving. Douglas is wholly convincing as the experienced but idiosyncratic statesman and 18th-century celebrity. And he has his usual undeniable presence (so compelling but always with a hint of creepiness at the edges). But Franklin himself was wearying by this point in his illustrious career and it feels as though we are concentrating on the wrong part of his astonishing story. And when Congress becomes frustrated with Franklin’s perceived lack of progress and send John Adams (Eddie Marsan) over instead, Douglas/Franklin has to join le comte and Chaumont towards the sidelines too.

Doubtless it plays slightly better in its native land, where Franklin’s more immediately interesting and understandable accomplishments are better known. It probably feels more like a wrong being righted as an underacknowledged period of the national hero’s life is given its due. Whether this is quite enough to bring the punters in and satisfy the expectations for entertainment they have – mostly rightly – come to expect from Apple TV+, I am not nearly so sure.

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Source: theguardian.com