This review contains spoilers.
Though created by novelist Eugene McCabe in 1992, Beth Winters makes a fine nineteenth century Romantic heroine. She’s grave, with a poetic soul and fixation on death and beauty. She lives among nature and reads John Keats. There’s mystery and scandal in her parentage, and quasi-incestuous abuse in her home life. Beth’s resourceful and strong-stomached, but also besotted by a scoundrel, and likely pregnant with his child.
Played here with careful seriousness by Ann Skelly, Beth is a compilation of the ingredients of Romantic and Gothic melodrama—though there’s nothing melodramatic in Skelly’s controlled, almost stunned performance. More besides, as a Catholic raised by a Protestant in an increasingly divided (yet pre-1921) 1885 Ireland, Beth Winters is also a symbol.
This sparsely told, solemn story is steeped in symbolism. Beth and local man Liam Ward (Jamie Dornan) are brought together over the failed rescue attempt of a drowning beast. The silk shirts laundered in Ward’s rustic kitchen warn of his vanity and ambition. A painting hangs in his kitchen of long-tailed demons torturing a soul in hell. Is it all an ill omen? The plot Ward conceives for Beth to drug her step-father, Ulster businessman Billy Winters and escape with his family gold certainly feels ominous. As Beth tells herself at the end of the first episode, “One thing is certain sure, God will not smile on what is planned for tonight.”
God wouldn’t smile on Ward at all, according to the local bishop, who describes the man as “evil, or near it.” The description doesn’t faze Beth – rather, she’s fascinated and fancies that the same could be said for everybody. Growing up as the illegitimate child of Catholic who deceived her Protestant husband has made her sceptical, as has her drunk step-father kissing her “not fatherly” after her mother’s death.
That’s the story of episode one in this three-part adaptation, set on the day of Beth’s twenty-third birthday and told in fluent flashback to events from the year before. We’re left with the question of whether Beth—in two minds as to whether she hates or loves her stepfather—will carry through the plan to poison him and run away. We’re also left asking what Liam has done to merit his reputation, and whether Beth is in danger.
The Fall’s Allan Cubitt, adapting McCabe’s novel, leaves plenty of room around his characters, both in terms of dialogue and the frame. Speech is sparse, silences are long, and Beth’s odd moments of fanciful poetry spoken either in her head or to Ward (“the heartbreak of this place,” she exclaims to herself, looking at the view) provide all the adornment there is. Combined with the melancholic string score, the result is a sense of gravity and solemnity. There’s no nostalgic comfort in this period drama, built as it is around religious and political conflict, and themes of good and evil.
Cinematographer Stephen Murphy contrasts painterly lamp-lit interiors with wide open exteriors. Indoors, Beth’s face confronts the viewer framed centrally, head-on. Outside, she’s lost in the early dawn Romantic landscapes—corn fields and glittering lochs. When Beth confesses that she believes the local coastline to be a fairyland, you’d believe her. There’s a sense of the Western to the Winters quarry, where a stack of dynamite is guarded from those who’d steal it to create political terror.
Political division is embedded in the story. Billy (Matthew Rhys) rues marrying outside his faith and hums satirical anthem “Rule Romania!” under his breath on seeing the way his maid Mercy venerates the bishop. In flashback, his Catholic wife accuses his people of stealing their land, and he drunkenly acknowledges that his wealth is founded on ancestral theft.
It’s a slow-build story that promises to be thematically complex. The next two instalments will tell whether it can successfully convey the novel’s richness, or whether its curiously still atmosphere will become stifling.
Death And Nightingales continues next Wednesday at 9pm on BBC Two.