‘Penny Dreadful’ (2014) review

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The latest effort from The Aviator (2004) writer John Logan, Penny Dreadful, made a solid arrival last month, unsurprisingly, with the likes of J. A. Bayona directing and Sam Mendes producing. Showtime’s deliciously creepy new series (already picked up  for a ten-episode second season) takes its name from cheap 19th century British serials,  a tad ironic, given that it boasts appearances from the stars of Victorian classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. 

Timothy-still-could-get-it-Dalton stars as the formidable Sir Malcolm Murray, father of Mina Murray (whom you may recognize from Brahm Stoker’s Dracula) searching for his daughter in London, circa 1891. He is led by Mina’s former best friend Vanessa Ives (a simmering Eva Green) whose talents as a medium (and perhaps a little something more) help them navigate that treacherous demimonde, where “science and superstition walk hand-in-hand,” and where Malcolm believes his daughter has been lost. Ives enlists the help of mysterious American showman Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett) as the muscle of their operation, while  ambitious young Dr. Victor Frankenstein (a massively entertaining Harry Treadaway) brings his scientific merits to the table to examine the blood-drinking creatures they discover. On the periphery we have the restless Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), Chandler’s dying lover Brona Croft (Billie Piper), Frankenstein’s menacing creature Caliban (Rory Kinnear), and  Sembene (a sadly underused Danny Sapani), Murray’s manservant.

The cast is largely solid, with only a few missteps. Billie Piper’s attempt at an Irish accent is distracting at best and downright grating at worst. Reeve Carney pales alongside his co-stars but gives a generally passable performance, hindered only by an anachronistic look and a less grating, but still questionable accent, placing him at stark odds among a convincingly Victorian set. Dalton, who strikes one as a man who could and would take on an adversary such as Dracula, vacillates believably between  dangerous and desperate, guilt-ridden father. He and Eva Green have an amazing chemistry, all at once uncomfortably filial and palpably sexual; and Green, for her part, remains intensely magnetic every time she’s on the screen.

L - R: Sembeni (Danny Sapani), Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett), Vanessa Ives (Eva Greene), Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) question a creature (Olly Alexander)

L – R: Sembeni (Danny Sapani), Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett), Vanessa Ives (Eva Greene), Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) question a creature (Olly Alexander)

In just eight episodes, each installment of Penny Dreadful delivered. There’s a lot to cover, but aside from a rushed and arguably unnecessary romance between Ethan and Brona, the shakes, the chills, and the plot have all been paced rather nicely. The episode “Closer Than Sisters” is pure background, yet doesn’t halt the drama at all. In fact, it is in this episode, the gem of an already impressive season, that the emotional stakes in all their complexity are revealed. Thematically the series explores the boundaries of forgiveness, guilt, salvation, all with a decidedly cynical look at redemption, which Vanessa seems to crave. It’s no accident then that Miss Ives–at odds with her country and most importantly Sir Malcolm–is Catholic, for whom redemption and death are perfectly compatible. “Your father loves you very much, and would do anything to save you,” Vanessa writes to Mina, “But I love you in a different way. I love you enough to kill you.” In the next episode, “What Death Can Join Together” Sir Malcolm is forced to face the very real possibility that he might not be able to save his daughter in the way that he hopes. Sembene, veering dangerously toward Ominous Magical Negro territory, tells him as much, and Van Helsing’s personal connection to vampires, which mirrors Sir Malcolm’s, contains tragic implications. Without giving too much away, the season finale sets up an interesting question for next year: With all this talk of salvation, do we even really want to be saved?

In short, Penny Dreadful the series can be summed up in much the same way as Abel Korzeniowski’s delightfully haunting score (and if he is not recognized come award season next year, it’ll be an injustice): Nothing short of pitch perfect.

 

 

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