This review contains spoilers.
1.1 Night Work
With the rising popularity of series like American Horror Story, Hannibal and Bates Motel, modern gothic is very much in the murky spotlight on television at the moment. Returning to Victorian literature for inspiration, Penny Dreadful takes the gothic back into the past, pitching its intrepid supernatural fighters Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) into a world full of vampires and men playing with other undead things. There’s a considerable pedigree behind it with Skyfall’s John Logan and Sam Mendes as Executive Producers, Logan on screenwriting duties and directors such as J.A. Bayona and Coky Giedroyc on board during the series’ eight episode run.
The opening episode is largely about establishing the world in which these characters and creatures reside. It’s not for the faint-hearted; the consequences of a disappearance seen during the opening moments is depicted graphically, though briefly, later in the episode. The central narrative of the episode – the search for Murray’s daughter – takes a step back in favour of building this version of Victorian London. Opening episodes can usually be a frenetic affair, tasked with setting up conflicts, motivation and plot whilst trying to hook in the viewer for the rest of the season. However, Penny Dreadful is more than happy to take its time, only exploring the plot in a handful of scenes, and for those who love spins on the gothic genre, Night Work is about as close to perfect as you can get.
What was most impressive about Penny Dreadful is how it handles its literary aspect, touted in the title itself and as the show’s major selling point from the day it was announced. Rather than immediately introducing a Victorian rogues’ gallery, Logan chooses to weave his own characters into a recognisable landscape before populating that with the more well-known figures in his arsenal. It has faith in its audience to connect any dots that are there without providing a clunky nudge-wink element. The namedrop of Murray’s daughter, Mina, was particularly well done, a reference that could easily be overlooked, but with enough resonance for Dracula fans to pick up on. If the presence of vampires in the plot wasn’t enough of a hint, then that certainly cements the infamous Count for a future appearance.
They may not be literary characters in their origin, but Vanessa, Chandler and Murray are sprung from staple nineteenth century literary archetypes. However, when Vanessa states “we all have our curses, don’t we?” to Chandler, the characters are imbued with considerably more depth than any characters in original penny dreadfuls were accorded. Chandler has walked straight out of a dime novel, the American equivalent, though Vanessa’s frequent assertions of his performative behaviour suggest a darker past. Hartnett’s charisma works well within the role, playing up the cheeky aspect of the Wild West showman whilst also ensuring he can hold his own whilst sharing the more dramatic scenes with Green and Dalton.
Murrary is a hunter and explorer in the Allan Quartermain/Professor Challenger vein and Dalton fills those shoes perfectly, physically imposing with a ready wit. It is his ‘curse’ that drives the plot forward throughout this episode as he continues his search for his daughter, what has already been a lengthy and exhausting quest. There’s also the mystery of his relationship with Vanessa, who is clearly intertwined with Mina’s fate in some fashion. With her pallor and dark wardrobe, Vanessa is at once both gothic heroine and an enigma with religious fervour and spiritualist tendencies. Green’s performance is magnetic from the moment she appears on screen and is easily the most fascinating figure so far in the series’ landscape. Vanessa has had dealings with the darkness before and is somehow still shaped or formed by it; birds are disturbed by her presence in a rather Frau Blucher-esque fashion and stops what is likely an ancient Egyptian vampire completely dead in its tracks.
The character we learn the most about is one not introduced until halfway through the episode, yet to try and keep him enigmatic would have been somewhat of an insult to the audience. Harry Treadaway’s Frankenstein is every bit the Romantic thrust into a Victorian world and his ambition and arrogance reflects that of his literary counterpart. Logan gives him a speech that captures the poetic nature of Mary Shelley’s prose whilst setting this new Frankenstein apart. That he fits so well into this Victorian society is demonstrative of not only how ahead of her time Shelley’s novel was, but also the brilliance of Logan’s deftly woven literary tapestry. The final scene with the creation of his monster was haunting, both beautiful and horrifying in equal measure, ending with the spine-tingling line: ‘my name is Victor Frankenstein’.
J.A. Bayona has already proven himself to be a dab hand in the gothic mode with the fantastic film, The Orphanage, and he masterfully returns to the genre here, building a convincingly menacing world in which these characters operate. Scenes set in the daylight are cold and uninviting, but also feels safe. It is make-believe, such as Chandler’s performance of Custer’s Last Stand, or the after-effects of a dangerous attack in the East End. By contrast, the night-set scenes feel like an entirely different and more sinister city. Chandler is our go-between in these two worlds; he observes both and is torn between the performative normality of daylight versus the immediacy and urgency of the demi-monde that Vanessa introduces him to. Bayona uses the contrast between light and dark in the night-times scenes brilliantly, emphasising that is is during the night that this version of London comes alive.
The traditional Victorian London fog of Dickensian notoriety is used sparingly to enhance atmosphere rather than create it, and everything is bathed in the green-yellow glow of the gas lamps where shadows move and creep and the danger becomes more immediate. The camera work also reflects this shift; the daylight conversations are filmed statically, giving the actors room to breath and relying on their performances and the dialogue to hold attention. As soon as we follow the characters through their night-time jaunts, Bayona utilises a more kinetic set of shots; we glide serenely through claustrophobic corridors or swoop around characters engaged in a deadly fight with the undead.
Confident in its own quality, Penny Dreadful may take its time, but it ensures swiftly that these are characters you want to get to know in a world you are desperate to explore. It’s a macabre, fascinating delight, every bit as entertaining as its literary namesake, but vastly superior in quality.
Penny Dreadful airs on Showtime in the US on Sundays and starts on Sky Atlantic in the UK on Tuesday the 20th of May.
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