Monday, 19 May 2014

PENNY DREADFUL, 1.2 – 'Séance'

Monday, 19 May 2014

written by John Logan | directed by J.A Bayona

After the impressive pilot, "Séance" somehow surpassed it, but in a very different way. It was notable for introducing even more characters into the mix, which meant alcoholic Yankie marksman Ethan (Josh Hartnett) was mostly pushed into the background. First there was smiley Irish prostitute Brona Croft (Billie Piper); handsome and kinky playboy Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney); and, eventually, the blood-spattered entrance of Dr Frankenstein's original Creature (Rory Kinnear).

Let's begin at the end. I will come clean and admit to spending these episodes scratching my head over the fact Rory Kinnear (established as playing The Creature in the credits) didn't look like himself in the role. I thought he'd simply lost weight and the resulting change to his body shape had given him a surprisingly youthful look, but I was completely wrong. Kinnear wasn't the actor playing sweet "Mr Proteus" (as he was christened by Victor in this episode), but instead the original Creature it appears Dr Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) turned his back on. My apologies. I only hope this confusion was intentional (casting Alex Price; an actor who resembles a younger, slimmer Kinnear), and the surprise of Mr Proteus being torn asunder by his returning sibling hinged on people being widely mistaken in thinking a thinner Kinnear was introduced in the pilot.
"You see, you're hunting for a man. You need to start hunting for a beast". -- Sir Malcolm
There weren't any vampires that needed slaying this week, but Sir Malcolm's (Timothy Dalton) investigation into the tattooed Egyptian hieroglyphics took a huge leap forward when it became clear they're part of an ancient prophecy (to unite gods Amunet and Amun-Ra, which would result in a reign of darkness). Beyond that, "Séance" was more concerned about finding effective ways to introduce some of Penny Dreadful's second tier characters the pilot didn't have time for.

The most notable newcomer was Dorian Gray, who is arguably the trickiest of literary characters to adapt and make interesting. We all know Oscar Wilde's famous story about Dorian achieving everlasting youth (which he uses to indulge himself with a debauched lifestyle that corrupts his soul and is manifested in the form of a portrait of Dorian that turns hideous). It's a classic Gothic tale of the era, but how does that character operate for modern audience who know the "twist" going in? Is there a story to be told with someone like Dorian, even if you remove that twist?

It feels like writer John Logan has found a way to solve the Dorian-problem with Penny Dreadful. It's not clear if Dorian's made his Faustian pact at this point, but he's already a fascinating and highly sexual character. Both his key scenes were very compelling in their execution and palpable weirdness; first with the sequence where he had sex with Brona Croft while a photographer took pictures, even getting a thrill when tuberculosis-sufferer Brona coughed blood up all over his face; and secondly when he locked eyes with haunted psychic Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) at a crowded party and managed to "cold read" her inharmonious personality to a tee.

The aforementioned Brona Croft is a new creation for the show, and one that could have been a lazy buxom stereotype. But I'm pleased by how Billie Piper (affecting a decent Irish brogue) is playing the role, as it's not quite the "whore with a heart of gold" cliché it might have been. Brona's actually quite fun, fiercely independent, and currently a vital link between two of the storylines—as Dorian's muse (and ongoing lover?), and acquaintance of both Ethan and Victor.
"Man does not live only in the empirical. We must seek the ephemeral, or why live?" -- Frankenstein
However, much of this episode couldn't hope to best the titular séance as a frightening centrepiece. This was a masterful piece of directing from J.A Bayona, and once again demonstrated how patient Logan's scripts are. And what luck that Penny Dreadful has the fantastic Eva Green playing genuine spirit medium Vanessa, whose body was possessed by an ancient demon just as faker Madame Kali (Helen McCrory) was about to begin her parlour trick for a bunch of socialites.

I mean, wow. Eva Green sank her teeth into this moment with such giddy relish that I couldn't help grinning through the tension and scares that came part of the experience. The French actress knows how to channel bug-eyed, teeth-clenching insanity, but is gifted enough that it never becomes laughable. Instead, I was rooted to my seat by her eye-rolls and grimaces, as Vanessa was seemingly possessed by Sir Malcolm's son Peter (apparently left to die of dysentery while on a mountain expedition with his father), before a powerful demon took (Amunet or Amun-Ra) seized control of her body and viciously contorted it. A marvellous, powerful scene. One of the best séances I've seen portrayed on television or film, actually. And were the insinuations that Sir Malcolm sexually abused his missing daughter Mina true, or just spiteful nonsense spoken by a demon to try and provoke a reaction?

Overall, "Séance" confirmed Penny Dreadful as a new show I really want to watch. And unless it fails to develop the story and weave its plots together once everything has been established, I'll be watching to the very end.

  • Having been mistaken as Rory Kinnear by me, actor Alex Price has some intriguing connections to other stars of Penny Dreadful. He co-starred with Helen McCrory in Doctor Who's "The Vampires of Venice" as Francesco, and appeared in Channel 4 miniseries Southcliffe with Kinnear. You may also know him from afternoon drama Father Brown, where he plays Sid Carter.
  • There were some really nice shots of the Thames during Victorian times, full of beautiful boats and ships. Penny Dreadful was actually shot in Ireland, but is doing a fantastic job convincing you it's London.
12 & 18 May 2014 | Showtime OD & Showtime