The buzz surrounding Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance in “12 Years a Slave” should throw a bit of heat toward “Dancing on the Edge,” the five-part Starz miniseries in which he stars. Yet this handsome and interesting period piece — focusing on black jazz musicians hobnobbing with the British aristocracy in 1930s London — suffers from its languid pace, with a not-terribly-compelling mystery breathing only fitful life into the project. Beautiful to look at and pleasant to listen to, at six-plus hours (the first and last chapters each run more than 90 minutes), this is ultimately a rather dull “Edge.”
Writer-director Stephen Poliakoff previously explored the era in “The Lost Prince,” during which he learned about the real-life Prince George, who harbored a passion for jazz. He twinned that with the popularity of artists like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong in quarters of post-Depression British society — including Ellington’s interaction with the future Duke of Windsor, Edward VIII — providing the spine of this fictional account.
Ejiofor plays Louis Lester, a piano player and band leader performing in ’30s London. He’s quickly taken under the wing of Stanley (Matthew Goode), a suave and ambitious music journalist who becomes the band’s de facto champion and manager.
Helping book them a gig at the Imperial Hotel — which is seeking an infusion of vitality, much to the chagrin of its wary, officious managers — Stanley guides the group into elite circles, where their acquaintances grow to include an American industrialist (John Goodman) and a reclusive British lady (Jacqueline Bisset).
Both Louis and Stanley also begin romances with the alluring Sarah and Pamela (Janet Montgomery and “The Paradise’s” Joanna Vanderham, respectively), while the band’s beautiful lead singer Jessie (Angel Coulby) catches the eye of Pamela’s awkward brother (Tom Hughes).
It all meanders along pleasantly enough until an unexpected attack and murder happens, which explains the flashback device in which Stanley seeks to shelter an on-the-lam Louis, building toward a prolonged but not entirely satisfying conclusion.
The shame of it is that almost everything about “Dancing on the Edge” oozes class, from the period setting and touches to the original songs (written by Adrian Johnston) to the splendid cast, which is too often left idling. At times as they sit around kibitzing, they almost seem like the impeccably dressed players in the movie within “The Purple Rose of Cairo” after Jeff Daniels’ character abandons them.
Starz has been shrewd about using British product to frugally flesh out its original-programming slate, yielding choices that could be called eclectic or, less politely, disjointed.
That’s not to say “Dancing” is without elegant moments. It’s just that in the slow waltz of a miniseries that envelops them, someone forget to hone its edge.