Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Review: Showtime's PENNY DREADFUL

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

written by John Logan | directed by J.A Bayona

There have been so many vampires stories it's hard to give audiences a new and exciting one; so writers often have to wait until an approach falls out of fashion, before attempting to breathe new life into it. Or else add lots of associated things into the mix, hoping the chimerical result is enticing to viewers. Screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Skyfall) does a little of both for his first foray into television, with Bond collaborator Sam Mendes serving as executive producer for his Gothic supernatural horror...

Penny Dreadful takes place in the late-19th-century, where charming US gun-slinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett) is entertaining London audiences with his crack shots, only to be co-opted by pretty psychic Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) into helping assist her colleague Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) eradicated vampires. Although the v-word is never mentioned, in that slightly irritating way familiar to fans of the z-word who watch The Walking Dead.

It's a simple set-up, but this opening hour took its time with the delivery. That's to its credit, as it demonstrates the show has time for its human characters and isn't going to be the low-budget version of film flop Van Helsing (which also mixed together horror iconography). For yes, unless you've somehow managed to escape Showtime's marketing, Penny Dreadful is weaving together characters from Bram Stoker's Dracula, Oscar Wilde's ever-youthful character Dorian Gray, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and the obligatory Wolf Man.

This "monster-mash" isn't thrown together prematurely, either, which I was very pleased about. We only tangle with a half-dozen vampires in this hour, before the famous Dr Victor Frankenstein makes his identity known in the closing moments. Instead, "Night Work" spent an appreciable amount of time on its original key triumvirate of stately heroine Vanessa, hardened African explorer Sir Malcolm, and action hunk Ethan. And they're an entertaining mix of personalities; both familiar to the period horror genre but with enough flourish to make them stand out.

I'm a particular fan of French actress Eva Green, who excels in these kinds of dark, twisted roles. She's always so effortlessly sexy, courtly, weird, powerful, and intelligent. Her large blue-green eyes twinkle with dark fun, while her curious cosmopolitan accent never fails to snare my ear. Can you tell I really like her? She's long been the best part in bad projects (Starz's Camelot, Dark Shadows, 300: Rise of an Empire), and slips into this role like an opera glove. Dalton's also good as the grizzled Van Helsing-like leader, and Hartnett's very decent as the character through whom we learn more about this hidden world.

Overall, this was an intriguing start that surprised me for being more considered and sophisticated than I expected. If the show can create a fun tapestry with its different horror icons deserving their inclusion, while keeping us interested in the core group as a kind of Victorian X Files, I can't see Penny Dreadful failing this summer. It's nicely written, looks gorgeous, has good actors involved, and I'm interested in the seeds of a few mysteries planted early here.

  • If you're wondering, the title is the nickname given to lurid British fiction stories of the 19th-century that cost one penny per issue.
  • Yes, that was theatre/TV actor Rory Kinnear (Skyfall, Southcliffe) playing Frankenstein's Monster with his genitals in full view. Although you'd be forgiven for his presence escaping your notice because Kinnear clearly lost some weight for this role.
  • What's with all the Bond connections? Kinnear has played MI5 aide Bill Tanner in Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, Green was Bond Girl Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, writer John Logan wrote Skyfall (and is working on the next Bond), producer Sam Mendes directed Skyfall, and Timothy Dalton played James Bond in The Living Daylights and License to Kill.
  • Impressed by the cast? We still haven't seen Billie Piper, Helen McCrory, or Anna Chancellor yet!
11 May 2014 (online preview 28 April 2014)  | Showtime