Saturday 17 November 2018

Couchsurfer: Caitriona Balfe carries outlandish tale

Both script and casting could have gone horribly wrong, but actually, says Emily Hourican, Caitriona Balfe shows she can carry Outlander admirably

Caitriona Balfe in Outlander
Caitriona Balfe in Outlander

Emily Hourican

It has all the elements of the potentially dreadful: bodice-ripping romance, bizarre plot involving time-travel, a host of unconvincing Scottish accents, and a model-turned-actor in the main role. And yet Outlander has turned out to be highly enjoyable; a big-budget, high-production piece of escapism, in which Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall, manages a very credible performance.

The series - clearly aiming for the Game of Thrones market - is based on the hugely popular books by American author Diana Gabaldon, which have sold 25m copies and generated armies of excitable fans, who largely approve the casting of Caitriona in the role of Claire, a married First World War nurse who is mysteriously transported back to the Scottish highlands of 1743, where she is taken under the protection of a rebellious Laird and kept as an unwilling 'guest' in his castle. Her life in danger, at near-constant threat of rape, Claire displays the resourcefulness of her medical training and 19th century upbringing, behaving with endless audacity and integrity.

Yes, there is rather a lot of head-tossing and 'fie, my lord' type exchanges, but really no more than is bearable. In general, Claire's strength as a character is in the more developed sense of humanity she brings to a very rough and ready world, as well as the poise and sexual confidence of a married woman, but one without an actual husband to cramp her style. And although the bread and butter of the series is suggestive romance - lots of firelight flickering over naked shoulders and heaving bosoms, lingering glances by torch-light - rather than anything more explicit, there is a fair amount of nudity and the odd raunchy scene.

"I think I've pre-warned my parents that there are a couple of scenes they can go out and make a cup of tea during," is how Balfe laughingly responded to questions about her more revealing moments.

Born in Monaghan, daughter of a Garda Sergeant and one of seven children, Balfe was 'spotted' by a model scout outside the Swan Centre in Rathmines, and within months was walking the catwalk for Kenzo in Paris, stepping out immediately after Iman. She made the cover of Elle and Vogue, and did catwalk shows for Gucci, Calvin Klein and Chanel, moved to New York and worked for Dolce & Gabbana, Narciso Rodriquez, and Victoria's Secret. But, throughout, she kept a very down-to-earth sense of herself; "My friends and I, we were more the blue-collar girls," is how she describes being backstage with Gisele, Naomi and Tyra Banks.

It's a sharp sense of perspective that is better understood in the context of her overall ambition: "Modelling wasn't a passion of mine so that made it get old kind of quickly. I was getting very frustrated." And so, in her late 20s, she made the move so many dream of. That she had opportunities is no surprise after such a career; that she can actually act, is. Small parts in alien blockbuster Super 8 and Now You See Me, where she played Michael Caine's daughter, eventually translated through to Outlander, and the role of CIA lawyer in Escape Plan, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. In Outlander, Balfe demonstrates that she can carry a show, and has the talent to stand out in what is the kind of big-budget production in which it is entirely possible for actors to get lost, swallowed up by their hooped skirts and historically-accurate props. Like any good lead, she draws support and strength from the cast around her, but naturally commands the limelight.

Outlander is being spun as Game of Thrones for feminists, which is certainly a bit glib, but on the strength of five episodes, the series has potential, and much of that is down to its star.

Outlander, RTE2, Monday, 11pm

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