Penny Dreadful: season one (2014)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: An early scene in episode one tells us it’s 22 September 1891. The events mostly take place in London. We also see a flashbacks to some of the characters’ youths.

Faithful to the novel? This first season of glossy television drama Penny Dreadful takes a couple of characters from Stoker’s book and mixes them with several other 19th-century creations as well as some new elements. The idea of a mash-up of Victorian fictions is nothing new, of course: from the Universal horror movies of the 1940s to Kim Newman’s novel series Anno Dracula and the comic book The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it’s a well-mined idea. Penny Dreadful’s biggest steal from Dracula is the character Mina Murray, who as the season begins has gone missing. We’re told she was married to a solicitor called Jonathan Harker, but then became embroiled with a mysterious, supernatural creature and became his slave. Her father, the explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), doesn’t appear in the novel but is a lead character here. He’s searching for his daughter with the help of an original character called Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). She’s an enigmatic woman who’s haunted by evil spirits. In episode four, another of Stoker’s creations shows up – but oddly Professor Van Helsing (David Warner) is a colleague of a non-Dracula character. Vanessa also makes a passing reference to Henry Irving, Bram Stoker’s real-life employer and mentor who was an influence on Dracula’s eponymous villain. Away from Stoker, Penny Dreadful’s dramatis personae is a mixture of people borrowed from famous literature (Dr Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray) and characters invented for the show.

Best performance: Eva Green plays Vanessa like a swan – she’s an elegant, controlled beauty but there’s enormous power and violence under the surface. The character is a torrid mix of guilt and doubt yet hides it so well, and Green’s performance ranges from serene poise to literally foaming at the mouth. In episode two, for example, there’s an extraordinary séance sequence that sees her possessed by malevolent, foul-mouthed spirits. It’s a bravura piece of acting. Incidentally, Green is just one of many Penny Dreadful alumni who have connections to the James Bond films. She played Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, while elsewhere there’s also creator/writer John Logan (who co-wrote Skyfall and Spectre), executive producer Sam Mendes (who directed Skyfall and Spectre), and actors Timothy Dalton (The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill), Rory Kinear (Quantum of Solace onwards), Joseph Millson (Casino Royale) and Helen McClory (Skyfall).

Finest episode: Closer Than Sisters, the dark, twisted, intensely peculiar fifth episode, is a thing of wonder. It’s an hour-long flashback, telling Vanessa’s back story, filling in some of her mystery and explaining her connection to the Murrays. Vanessa suffers family upheaval, demonic possession and extreme medical ‘treatment’.

Review: The world presented in Penny Dreadful is a fascinating place, if not that original. It’s ‘Gothicana’: a never-existed London of Cockney boozers, opium dens, Pall Mall gentlemen’s clubs, secret crime gangs, mentions of Jack the Ripper, prostitutes waiting in fogbound streets, rat-infested docks, Tower Bridge under construction, and Grand Guignol theatre shows. It’s a shame the drama that takes place there isn’t more gripping. A big problem is a distinct lack of urgency. The various stories meander along, and we drift from subplot to subplot. There are sparks of energy when the characters start to crossover and collide – there’s a terrific sequence at a theatre in episode four which has Ethan, Bronagh, Vanessa, Dorian, Caliban and Sebene all in attendance – but all too often there’s a slow, earnest pace. There is some genuine horror and a few shocking plot twists, but sadly the show is a bit humourless and pretentious.

Six exorcisms out of 10

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