The Woman In White episode 4 review

The Woman In White part four is packed to the rafters with plot so loses a bit of atmosphere...

This review contains spoilers.

Before it was published in novel form in 1860, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman In White was a forty-part magazine serialisation. Appearing weekly in the Charles Dickens-founded All The Year Round journal, Victorian readers gobbled up Laura and Marian’s Gothic tale as if it were a Superman comic. Kapow! Sir Percival’s plotting something! Zoom! Marian’s on the case! Smash! Count Fosco’s kidnapped Laura! Zoing! Biff! Boom!

A forty-part serialisation demands plot and lots of it, something Collins provided alongside no shortage of twists and cliff-hangers. Stuffing all that into a five-part TV adaptation requires a bit of sacrifice. To get all that story across in such a concentrated time, you have to lose a few things: atmosphere of slow-built dread is out; action and rushing about are in.

So it goes for part four of this adaptation, which, after spending the preceding hours gradually building a sense of dread, barrelled through a huge amount of story in one great rush.

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Atmosphere wasn’t the only thing lost in episode four. Between all the chopping and changing of locations and time periods, a little coherence also fell by the wayside. Chunks of dialogue we’d been shown in previous episodes were repeated (Marian’s ‘men crushing women and going unpunished’ speech could obviously stand to be played every episode, but the stuff about Laura’s letter to Mrs Vesey?) as if the hour needed padding out.

In truth, it needed anything but – this was the busiest instalment so far. It went from Marian’s declaration that there was something ill at the heart of Blackwater Park last week to a rooftop clamber, fever, drugging, abduction, death, imprisonment, swapped identity, torture, and an asylum escape. All good Gothic stuff, but a frantic change of pace after the carefully established tension of last week’s episode.

This was act two of a horror film, the bit where the monster—until now only seen in tantalising flashes—is fully unveiled and has a punch-up with our hero.

Also like a horror film, it was full of frustrating ‘don’t go into the cellar!’ moments. As soon as we’d finished shouting at Marian to smash the window on her East Wing prison cell and leap to safety in Mrs Michaelson’s arms, we were busy screaming at Laura not to drink anything proffered her by the Count.

Alas, it was too late for both. Count Fosco succeeded in his dastardly plan of swapping the terminally ill Anne Catherick for Lady Glyde, burying the former and locking up the latter in an asylum (‘I’m really a Lady! I’m married to a baronet! I live in a massive house!’ all being things a mad poor woman would say). Marian’s rooftop adventure-induced fever kept her out of the way while her sister’s death was faked and Laura was tricked into a straitjacket.

In the limited time she was afforded to do it, Olivia Vinall conveyed the distress of Laura’s situation with real power. The Victorian asylum was a place of degradation where, through ignorance, vulnerable people were cruelly used and misunderstood. The horror of that location was established, even if it had to be done in a rush, without a tenth of the time that had been spent visually establishing Blackwater Park as an unsettling prison.

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What with being feverish for most of the hour and grieving for the rest of it, Marian’s forthright spirit had melted into a puddle, giving us little to cheer on. Now that she has Laura back and the timeline has overtaken the first accounts collected by Mr Nash, fingers crossed we see her back on her usual excellent form for the finale.

Speaking of melting into a puddle, Dougray Scott showed a different side to Sir Percival this week. He’s not only a monster, but a desperately miserable one. ‘Good’ says the merciless part of me. Glyde is a sadistic rapist who has cut a swathe through Anne and Laura’s lives. Forgiveness is hard to muster.

It’s to this adaptation’s credit that its emotions are so easy to get wrapped up in. We hate Glyde, we despise the Count, we love Marian and Laura. This outlandish, twisting story of swapped identities and plotting aristocrats has been adapted with its heart intact. We’re invested in what the finale brings – will evil be punished and goodness rewarded?

Thanks to the BBC’s cluttered scheduling for this five-part series, we don’t have long to wait to find out.

The Woman In White concludes on Monday the 7th of May at 9pm on BBC One.

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.

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