Thieves of the Wood (De bende van Jan de Lichte) Series Review
This gritty and harrowing historical drama from Belgium is a visceral ride
Released: 19th December 2019 (Netflix UK)
Created by: Robin Pront and Maarten Moerkerke
Number of Episodes: 10
Where to Watch: Netflix
Starring: Matteo Simoni, Stef Aerts, Anne-Laure Vandeputte, Charlotte Timmers, Anemone Valcke, Rik Willems, Tom Van Dyck and Rik Verheye
The historical drama is a genre ripe with detail; drawing from their own folk legends, Belgium has offered its own take with Thieves of the Wood, a confident effort with just a few stumbles.
Based on a novel by Louis Paul Boon, Thieves of the Wood (Known as “The Gang of Jan De Lichte” in Belgium) follows the titular outlaw (played by Matteo Simoni), who is portrayed as a kind of Flemish Robin Hood. He returns from the War of the Austrian Succession to revolt against the ruling classes while living on the fringes of society. His band of brothers and sisters seek their fortune, while those at the top do everything they can to take them down. We follow a range of different characters on both sides of the struggle, including Jan and his companions alongside former prostitute Anne-Marie (Anne-Laure Vandeputte) and an oppressed member of the upper class named Heloise (Charlotte Timmers), who both look to better their lives on opposite sides of the social divide. The show immediately makes an impression with a dark tone; it’s raw, harrowing and unforgiving throughout, creating a bleak atmosphere that hangs over the characters while also reflecting how rough things could be at the time. The rich press down on the poor who live in squalor and filth, with horrific consequences that the show doesn’t hold back on. Despite these circumstances, the series is not wholly clear cut; there’s a moral ambiguity that unfolds across the two sides with Jan giving wealth to the downtrodden, while also brutalising his enemies. Driven by its characters, De bende van Jan de Lichte is a well-thought-out story most of the way through. There are some gaps in the story towards the end however as characters and settlements disappear from the story without really receiving a proper payoff.
With a widely varied cast, Thieves of the Wood delivers a mostly well-balanced look into their struggles across the ten episodes. Each of the main characters is driven by a desire that often clashes with others over the course of the narrative. The two main sides are personified by Jan of the woods and Bailiff Baru (Tom Van Dyck) of the city. Jan is a likeable yet imperfect lead; as the leader of the thieves, he cares for those around him while holding great hatred for his enemies. The outlaw’s close companions Tincke (Stef Aerts) and Shoe (Anemone Valcke) don’t always see eye to eye and the tensions that manifest with rival gangs add further intrigue with their more ruthless performances. The arcs that Anne Marie and Heloise undertake are particularly well-developed; living on opposite sides of society, they slowly overcome the oppressions of the time period to win their own freedom. On the other hand we have the city officials; Baru is a particularly interesting character in that he forms a parallel to Jan; at first he appears more virtuous than most of the wealthy governors, committed to the law without resorting to barbarism, but his limits are tested in the latter half of the episodes.
The grim, dismal atmosphere that hangs over Thieves in the Wood certainly enhances the dire straits the characters are often found in; it’s a very grey, desaturated look that reinforces the adult nature of the tale. The music is similarly mournful, relying mostly on traditional instruments to reflect the time period. Audiences shouldn’t go in expecting much death-defying action as the series focuses more on slower-paced, carefully planned covert raids that heighten the approach to realism. What’s here is well shot and edited, with some solid lighting effects to match. Falling in line with this presentation, the costumes, make-up and set designs are all excellent, perfectly displaying the distance between rich and poor and nailing the authenticity. The former are clad in long wigs to mark their place on the city council while the latter wear more rugged lightweight clothes to emphasise their lifestyle. The attention to detail is the best aspect of the series and it maintains this high standard throughout.
Outside of some plot threads that are left hanging, Thieves of the Wood is a brutally effective ride through 1700s Belgium; with its well-defined main leads, strong authenticity and dreary atmosphere, it earns a place alongside other great adult-oriented dramas.
Rating: 4/5 Stars (Great)