Review: Pitch-perfect Renegade Nell is a gem of a series you won’t want to miss

Enlarge / A young prodigal tomboy returns home from war and finds herself framed for murder in Renegade Nell.


Award-winning British TV writer Sally Wainwright is best known for the dramatic series Happy Valley (2014–2023) and Gentleman Jack (2019–2022), the latter produced jointly by BBC and HBO. Wainwright partnered with Disney+ for her latest series, the resolutely PG-13 Renegade Nell, which is a different beast altogether: a good old-fashioned, swashbuckling comic adventure with a supernatural twist, featuring a sassy cross-dressing heroine forced to turn to highway robbery to survive.

(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)

Set in 1705 during the reign of Queen Anne (Jodi May, Gentleman Jack), the series stars Louisa Harland (Derry Girls) as Nell Jackson. Nell is a headstrong young woman with tomboy flair and a taste for adventure who returns home to her village of Tottenham after running off five years before to marry one Captain Jackson against her father’s wishes. She’s now widowed and possessed of occasional supernatural skills whenever someone threatens her, courtesy of a fairy sprite named Billy Blind (Nick Mohammed, aka Nathan from Ted Lasso), who has been tasked to protect Nell. Nell’s family thought she’d been killed on the battlefield alongside her husband, so her homecoming is a bit of a shock.

Alas, Nell soon runs afoul of one Thomas Blancheford (Jake Dunn), the louche, drunken offspring of the town’s landlord, Lord Blancheford (Pip Torrens, Preacher). Let’s just say things escalate, and Nell soon finds herself on the run and framed for murder, along with her two sisters, Roxy (Bo Bragason) and George (Florence Keen), and the Blanchefords’ former groomsman, Rasselas (Enyi Okoronkwo, The Lazarus Project). The group gets further assistance from a charming aristocratic dandy/secret highwayman named Charles Devereaux (Frank Dillane, The Essex Serpent).

Nell just wants to evade capture long enough to find an honest magistrate to clear her name. In the process, she finds herself battling the formidable black magic of the Earl of Poynton (Adrian Lester, Euphoria) and his acolyte, Thomas’ sister, Lady Sofia (Alice Kremelberg, The Sinner), and stumbles upon a sinister plot to dethrone the queen.

The writing, pacing, and production values are top-notch, and the cast is terrific across the board. Lester brings a ruthless authority to Poynton’s spooky supernatural machinations, while Kremelberg is all seething bitter resentment and steely resolve as Lady Sofia, a brilliant, ambitious noblewoman (also widowed) who is far more qualified to run the family estate than her worthless brother, yet prohibited from inheriting by the laws of the time. Dillane’s Devereaux provides much of the witty repartee and comic relief, as does Joely Richardson’s (The Sandman) newspaper magnate, Lady Eularia Moggerhanger. And Ashna Rabheru (Red Rose) is delightful as a spoiled young aristocrat, Polly Honeycombe, with a lively romantic imagination who longs for something more in life than an arranged marriage.

But it’s Harland’s sensational portrayal of Nell that anchors it all. This is a role that requires her to be a tough rebellious tomboy in one scene and sport a posh accent and fancy dress in another; to balance action comedy with moments of genuine fear and heartbreaking tragedy. It’s also a highly physical role: Harland underwent several months of stunt training prior to filming. She does it all with refreshingly unpretentious aplomb.

Renegade Nell keeps the action flowing and wisely never takes itself too seriously. Sure, there is injustice, class warfare, and strong intelligent women chafing within the strict confines of traditional binary gender roles—and Polly Honeycombe definitely qualifies as bicurious. But Wainwright never lets the story get bogged down in heavy-handed symbolism or didacticism. Even Nell’s cross-dressing is handled with the lightest touch. Asked to comment on her character’s gender politics, Harland told the Guardian that there was no ulterior motive or agenda: “Why does she dress as a man? To pass as a man.” Simple as that.

Will we see more of feisty Nell and her delightfully eccentric compatriots? That’s up to Disney. There are plenty of questions left unanswered and definitely more stories to tell, both past and present. Series director Ben Taylor told Radio Times just after the premiere that a second season was currently being written and that it would likely involve some kind of time jump (given that some of the younger actors will visibly age), picking up with the various surviving characters from where they left off in the first season. But Disney has yet to confirm this. Here’s hoping this series finds the broader audience it so richly deserves. We’re rooting for you, Nelly… err, Nell.

Renegade Nell is now streaming on Disney+.

Trailer for Renegade Nell.

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