The Woman In White episode 1 review

The BBC's new five-part Wilkie Collins adaptation rages against a depressingly perennial theme. Spoilers ahead...

This review contains spoilers.

A century and a half after The Woman In White was first published, what was once sensational about ‘the sensation novel’ now feels rather tame. Victorian readers may have shivered at the image of a ghostly hand being placed on an unsuspecting shoulder, but we’ve all seen that done a million times by now. The same goes for the novel’s scandalous acts. Post-Jeremy Kyle’s “Prove I’m the dad and I’ll prove I haven’t slept with my mum!” ep, the modern age forfeited its ability to be shocked.

To justify this latest going-over of Wilkie Collins’ novel then, Fiona Seres’ adaptation foregrounds a dishearteningly ageless theme: the abuse of vulnerable women by sadistic men. Like style, that one just never goes out of fashion. (Anyone wanting to argue otherwise may do so in writing, sent to the following address: a bin, wherever. Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales. Sinfully, this isn’t contained to fiction or history.)

Episode one therefore opened with a veiled figure raging against the injustice of men crushing women “time and time again” and going unpunished. “If men were held accountable they’d hang every hour of the day, every day of the year.” Stall thus set out, The Woman In White invites us to rage alongside it.

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Despite its doomy flashforwards—a dead Laura, a missing Walter, everyone else grieving and guilt-ridden except for those who should be—the first hour of this five-parter mostly covers the happy days before the bad times roll in. As Laura, referencing Milton, tells Walter: this is Paradise before the fall.

Paradise for Laura Fairlie (Olivia Vinall) means freedom. Freedom to roam the coastline and bathe in the sea, freedom to read poetry and paint and play music, but most of all freedom to think. “Opinions? Yes, they have a thousand of them,” says an indulgent Mrs Vesey (Joanna Scanlan), companion to Laura and her half-sister Marian Halcombe (Jessie Buckley occupying her now-traditional role in any cast as The Best One).

Along with her uncle Frederick (a hoot-worthy Charles Dance), Laura, and Marian make up Limmeridge House’s “curious family trio”. The uncle’s a neurotic, art-collecting ham, the niece is a synaesthete who experiences sound as colour, and her half-sister is your new favourite nineteenth century heroine. Marian is the antidote to every Victorian stereotype of a wilting, simpering, fragile woman. She munches toast, speaks her mind and grins as wide as a Peanuts comic strip character. If she were around today, Marian would come with a quilted racing-green gilet, a herd of golden retrievers and a couple of doctorates.

Sadly for her sake, Marian isn’t around today. Like her sister, outside the bubble of Limmeridge, she’s subject to all the constraints and injustices her day doled out to her sex. Unlike her sister though, she’s not even wealthy.

Laura’s inherited wealth makes her attractive to Sir Percival Glyde (Dougray Scott, with an additional coat of oil), the baronet to whom she was promised by her dead father. Episode one shows us only a little of the baronet, but enough to be able to answer to Laura’s desperate question, “Sir Percival is a good man, isn’t he?” with a firm shake of the head.

Don’t just take our word for it – listen to Anne Catherick, the titular woman in white (also played by Olivia Vinall, with an accent and a set of false wonky teeth). Anne knows all about Sir Percival, and has escaped from the asylum he put her in to protect Laura from his evil.

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All that is pieced together by Walter Hartright (Ben Hardy), an artist engaged by Mr Fairlie to restore his private collection and instruct his young wards in the art of drawing. Not long into Hartright’s planned eight-week stint at Limmeridge, art isn’t all he’s instructing Laura in. Cue: trouble.

Appreciating that Walter’s supposed to be the kind-hearted everyman in all this, Hardy has yet to peel him off the page, despite some first-class Victorian erotic displacement (whether they’re discussing Ruskin, perspective, the wind, or rubbing ointment into bookspines, he and Laura are trembling to the point of orgasm.) Their love affair is sweet but wan.  

There’s more saturated colour elsewhere though: in the villainy, deception, twists and Italians to come… And in Marian. Raging, clever Marian. For her sake, and for Laura’s, and Anne’s, and for the sake of every woman whose life was treated as disposable by a cruel man, you’ll want to see this version of the story through.

The Woman In White continues next Sunday the 29th of April at 9pm on BBC One.