Renegade Nell review | Dressing up and derring-do abound in charming historical fantasy

renegade nell review
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Nell Jackson (Louisa Harland) buckles swashes across 18th century England in a cheerfully entertaining family drama. Here’s our Renegade Nell review.

(Episodes watched: 8 of 8)

The Hitman video game franchise – in which a bald assassin garrottes his way through various improv suggestions – gets an awful lot of mileage out of a dressing up box. Put on a chef’s hat and a hi-vis jacket, the series says, and you can infiltrate any building you like. Don a straw hat and some wellington boots and a dozen gardeners will swear they’ve worked with you for years. Don’t get me started on where a beekeeping suit will take you.

Renegade Nell – the very un-Happy Valley-like follow-up from Sally Wainwright – wisely acknowledges this most unsubtle rule of entertainment with gusto. Over the course of the eight episodes landing on Disney+ this Friday, the title character “transforms” into everything from a Scottish aristocrat to a prison doctor – sometimes with little more than a big wig and a different coloured coat.

Read more: Renegade Nell preview | Spells, swashbuckling, and a whole lot of fun

That so few people notice their new delivery boy looks a lot like the most feared highwaywoman in 18th century England is pretty representative of Renegade Nell’s charm. The story of a young woman framed for murder and on the run from the law, aided by a friendly sprite that lets her catch bullets, unsurprisingly requires more suspension of disbelief than Wainwright’s more grounded previous outings would suggest. This might explain some of the mixed reactions the show has received from certain quarters since the review embargo lifted earlier this week; if you come into Nell expecting Gentleman Jack 2.0, you’ll likely leave disappointed.

Because Renegade Nell is something far rarer than a good adult drama. It’s original, narrative family entertainment – the sort of show three generations can happily stick on for 40 minutes and have a bloody good time. Balancing an eclectic bucket-list of set pieces (carriage chase, prison break, unexpected musical number, check check check) with a witty script refusing to take itself too seriously and a properly brilliant central performance from Louisa Harland, it’s really, really hard to find much to dislike about Disney Plus’ latest acquisition. It’s even (sort of) educational: any swashbuckling fantasy drama for a broad audience which finds room to bring up Restoration England’s disproportionately punitive property laws and printed ballad culture gets a thumbs up in my book.

If there’s one quibble that can be rightly aimed in Nell’s direction, it’s that the show tries to do a little too much. A series of romances, kidnappings, magic rings, Jacobian uprisings and the machinations of the early newspaper business mean that, by the season’s latter half in particular, there are an awful lot of plot threads to tie up. Quite why Mohammed’s Billy Blind has decided to start giving Nell superpowers is a rather important mystery that seems to fall by the wayside after the first couple of episodes.

Hopefully, the answers to this question and more will be forthcoming in a second season. I could watch Renegade Nell run and run.

All eight episodes of Renegade Nell are streaming on Disney+ now.

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