Review – Penny Dreadful
I’ve raised Penny Dreadful as an example once or twice, but what am I going on about here?
More than one film, book or television series has brought together the mythologies of gothic horror masterpieces of Victorian England with varying degrees of success. Werewolves and vampires are easily pitched against one another, and when the matter of life versus death, humanity versus primality are put to work invariably the works of Victor Frankenstein and Henry Jekyll are rarely far behind. Demons, witches, and a smattering of magicks and lores from colonial America and Africa blend to make an interesting take on the dark, bloody and profoundly philosophical imaginations of some of the era’s best remembered authors.
Heading up the cast is Eva Green as the haunted but strong Vannessa Ives, for whom I have boundless respect and admiration, and she unflinchingly holds centre stage in the series, but the cast does not rest on her strength alone. Former James Bond, Timothy Dalton plays Sir Malcolm Murray, a Van Hellsing like figure, an explorer, adventurer and man of the world with no small hatred of the night creatures that have plagued his life. Billie Piper plays the would-be bride of Frankenstein, who has become something quite different in the course of the series, and is perhaps the only female character to outshine Ives.
Blandest of the cast is our male “lead” who could hardly be called that. Josh Hartnett plays Ethan Chandler, the gunslinger from America who is recruited as a marksman by Murray and Ives to help them slay the fouler creatures. It’s no spoiler to say that he’s a werewolf, it’s a very thinly veiled secret from his entrance, and an American werewolf in London seemed a fairly poor joke in an otherwise serious series, but he has since become an important character, playing part in some building prophesies and themes.
Series 1 – We gather our crew for a revenge story, to wrest the soul of Mina Harker (a name familiar to anyone who has read or watched Bram Stoker’s Dracula) from the hands of a vampire clan, and her father, Sir Malcolm, and childhood friend seek to hunt down the clan and destroy every last one. They enlist the aid of the fugitive gunslinger, and the scholarly Victor Frankenstein, who is somewhat at the mercy of his own handiwork, a monster who calls himself Caliban, come to wreak revenge upon the monster who created him.
Series 2 – As Frankenstein’s latest creation takes shape, Vanessa Ives is beset by demons of her past, forcing her to reunite with a part of herself she’d left behind many years before. Ethan Chandler is pursued by an inspector of Scotland Yard who believes that he’s connected to a vicious, animalistic massacre (which he is). Caliban suffers greatly at the hands of a world he was thrust into, and worse under the machinations of Dorian Gray.
I regularly site this series for its two greatest strengths: incredible female characters, and interpretation of the source material that is both loyal and original in admirable balance whilst bringing to life an original and well written story. Characters like Victor Frankenstein and Dorian Gray find new life, and in coming together build into something far grander, and yet the original characters are no less brilliant. There are some brilliantly emotion-charged moments, action that’s shadowy – but not in the Alien-vs-Predator 2 way, in a Woman in Black kind of way – and some real tension building mystery and drama that make for compulsive viewing. And yet I find something is missing.
Despite watching and loving two seasons of Penny Dreadful and enjoying the start of season three, I still find that something is sorely lacking to make me rewatch it over and over again like I do Game of Thrones, Daredevil, Battlestar Gallactica. Something is absent that stops me from throwing myself so wholly into this as I do other fandoms and so help me I cannot place that elusive thing that I sorely crave. There’s a narrative that flows throughout that has me hooked, and on paper it ticks all the boxes, writing, direction, cast, the works.
I won’t stop watching that’s for sure, I may not watch it again but this is good television, a rare and beautiful thing these days. They’ve also started on a rather touchy subject of mine, and I can’t quit while they’re pressing so hard on a hot button like that, because if they slip up I shall feel utterly betrayed.
I rate Penny Dreadful, and I advise watching it because in many ways it exceeds in areas that most TV shows just don’t. If anyone can put a finger on exactly what’s missing from it please share your thoughts on Facebook or in the comments down below. Otherwise, enjoy some of the best interpretations of classic horror literature, a masterwork that only serves to highlight exactly how bad The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen really was.