Review: John Winterson Richards
Here be spoilers...
In 2003, 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,' a film starring Sir Sean Connery, began with an exciting premise: what if the characters of some of the great novels of the Victorian era were real - and got together? It was an 'Avengers Assemble' made five years before the 'Marvel Cinematic Universe' was founded and set over a hundred years before that. Sadly, it lacked a Joss Whedon script and nothing in the rest of the film was as good as the original pitch.
Yet the basic idea was still a good one, and it was revived a decade later by John Logan, co-writer of 'Gladiator,' in 'Penny Dreadful.' This took characters from, among others, Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein,' Bram Stoker's 'Dracula,' and Oscar Wilde's 'The Picture of Dorian Gray,' and dropped them in a wonderful evocation of a fog-filled London that would be familiar to readers of Joseph Conrad and the 'Sherlock Holmes' stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The result was an inventive, strongly cast, handsomely produced, electrifying show, full of twists and turns - perhaps too full of twists and turns for a cohesive story in the end, but packed with tension and excitement along the way.
A mysterious American living in London, scratching a living as a trick shootist, is approached by an even more mysterious couple, an attractive woman and a tough looking older man, looking for someone to do some "night work." This means providing fire support as they explore London's underworld, ostensibly in an effort to help to solve some grisly murders - the "Ripper" case is still fresh in the public memory - but also with another, predictably mysterious end in view. They discover things which require the specialist knowledge of a man with a peculiar medical expertise. This is Victor Frankenstein, not minor European nobility but a penniless researcher who needs their money to finance mysteries of his own.
So far, so intriguing, but the real strength of 'Penny Dreadful' is a cast list that looks more cinematic than televisual. Our American, who goes by the name of Ethan Chandler, is really Josh Hartnett, so the viewer should know exactly what to expect there.
Far more enigmatic is the character of Sir Malcolm Murray, a fictional explorer oddly reminiscent of the way Sir Henry Rider Haggard's 'King Solomon's Mines' hero Allan Quartermain was portrayed by Sean Connery in 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' - not least because he is played by Timothy Dalton, the actor who came closest to Connery, in both style and quality, as James Bond.
In 'Penny Dreadful,' Dalton reminds us just how good he is - and how regrettable it is that he has not been seen more in leading roles since Bond. His Murray is a character of layers. On the surface he is a traditional alpha male hero, a hard man, mentally and physically, who seems to be based on the famous Victorian adventurer Sir Richard Burton (no relation). Yet we learn that Murray was also a selfish, vain, domineering celebrity whose egotism destroyed his family. He seeks redemption but we sometimes wonder how much he has really changed.
He replaces his lost family with a substitute one, which turns out to be much better than the one he wrecked. Indeed, forced to make a positive decision, he eventually chooses his substitute daughter over what remains of his real one, and his manly substitute son is exactly what he always wanted - far superior to the weedy one who died in a vain attempt to impress his father. For all his resolve to be less selfish, things tend to work out well for our Sir Malcolm.
His relationship with said substitute daughter, Vanessa Ives, would keep Dr Freud in gainful employment for years. Vanessa is really the heart and soul of the whole story, and it tends to lose momentum when it wanders off into other subplots, however interesting they are in themselves. She is one of the best drawn female characters of recent years, the poster girl for Catholic Guilt, desperate to atone for an act that had catastrophic consequences when she was just as selfish and egotistical as Sir Malcolm. She wants to be devout, but has difficulty reconciling this with the powerful libido one would expect of a character played by Eva Green.
In a time with little real appreciation of aesthetics, Green is one of the very few classically beautiful women at the top of the acting profession today who can bear comparison with some of the legends of the past. This can obscure a more interesting fact about her: she is also one of the best dramatic technicians in the business. Renowned for her villainess roles, in 'Penny Dreadful' she shows great skill in maintaining the ambiguity of her character.
Vanessa is endlessly fascinating. She is sometimes self-confident, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes Spiritual, sometimes very earthy, sometimes authoritative, sometimes bratty, and, yes, sometimes a villainess, or at least apparently in real danger of becoming one. She is the unwilling recipient of psychic powers which are at once a strength and a burden. The first season ends with her begging a Priest for an exorcism so that she can be rid of them, only to have him ask the thought provoking question whether she would really want to be normal?
It was the great mistake of the show not to have followed this up. Instead, the character and the main story go completely off course when a lot of new backstory that somehow no one remembered before is suddenly introduced. In a particularly clumsy plot point, a cliched old witch, with whom Vanessa spends an obviously ill-advised sabbatical on what looks like a Hammer Films set, gives her a spell with the warning that if she ever uses it, she will turn away from God forever. Chekhov famously remarked that if there is a gun on the stage, it must be fired before the end of the next act, so there are no prizes for guessing what Vanessa does.
She promptly loses her faith and with it her agency. This is disastrous, dramatically as well as theologically. Totally at a loss, she drifts through the third season, and is manipulated easily by the same dark powers which she fought so bravely and effectively in the first. It is not really a spoiler to reveal that the same narrative necessity that suddenly deprived her of her faith restores it in the end, but very abruptly and with no sense of inner struggle. As for the outer struggle, she has by then been reduced to a pawn and the initiative has passed to other, less interesting characters. It is a tragic decline for the magnificent Vanessa and says something about how even strong female heroes are still demoted to passive damsels in distress.
Yet the third season is still worth watching because Green does some of her best work in it, above all in what is arguably the most dramatic episode of all, 'A Blade of Grass,' a sparse actors' piece set almost entirely in an asylum cell with just Vanessa and two other characters.
The other plots that have been set in motion go precisely nowhere. Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and former dead prostitute Brona (Billie Piper) turn out to be no more than dull, disagreeable people whose aimless machinations add nothing to the main story. The same is true of the related subplot in which Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) teams up with his old student pal, Henry Jekyll (Shazad Latif), even if there is a nice payoff line.
Meanwhile, Chandler goes back to New Mexico to confront his past, but, despite some handsome location work (in Spaghetti Western county - Andalusia), and typically outstanding contributions from two truly great actors, Wes Studi and Brian Cox, what happens there makes no sense at all. At least they get to do some male bonding with Sir Malcolm, and, together with Studi's cool Apache chief - obviously referencing Studi's film role as Geronimo but without using the name - they get back to London in time for the 'Avengers Assemble' ending.
This features a splendid march of most of the surviving vaguely "good guy" characters to the final battle. These include Patti LuPone as Vanessa's alienist or psychiatrist, Dr Seward - a successful gender reversal for the Bram Stoker character - and Perdita Weeks as a rather unlikely expert on the occult with super fighting skills who turns up conveniently to fill the gap left by Vanessa ceasing to be Vanessa. Frankenstein joins mainly to make up the numbers.
It was a great waste that the interesting character of Sir Malcolm's former slave trader servant Sembene (Danny Sapani) was thrown away too early. It was also a pity we did not see more of Simon Russell Beale's flamboyant Egyptologist, who brought a welcome sense of fun to the gloom and who proved surprisingly sympathetic. The roll of honour also includes Helen McCrory, David Warner, Alun Armstrong, David Haig, Douglas Hodge, Ronan Vibert, Sarah Greene, Lorcan Cranitch, and, above all, Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein's Creature.
Quietly, almost unnoticed, Kinnear has built a curriculum vitae second to none as one of the most consistently impressive actors of his generation. Despite his lack of physical bulk, his Creature is effectively menacing, more unnerving than terrifying, but at the same time vulnerable and poignant, ultimately tragic. It is a literally haunting performance.
Kinnear turns up in a sequel series, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels set in 1930s Los Angeles. There is no denying that the original had run its course by the end of its third season, possibly earlier, but it might have lasted longer had Vanessa remained true to herself. It nevertheless remains a unique and unforgettable experience.
About writer John Winterson Richards
John Winterson Richards is the author of the 'Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh' and the 'Bluffer's Guide to Small Business,' both of which have been reprinted more than twenty times in English and translated into several other languages. He was editor of the latest Bluffer's Guide to Management and, as a freelance writer, has had over 500 commissioned articles published.
He is also the author of ‘How to Build Your Own Pyramid: A Practical Guide to Organisational Structures' and co-author of 'The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Rome and Judea, 100 BC - 33 AD,' as well as the author of several novels under the name Charles Cromwell, all of which can be downloaded from Amazon. John has also written over 80 reviews for Television Heaven.
John's Website can be found at John Winterson Richards
Published on June 26th, 2020. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.