Wow…just wow….You know, over the years I think a lot of people have been waiting for a revival…a recapturing of things that either faded, or were lost due to some stupid fads that killed off their “cool”…at least for a time. In this case, I am making reference to the effects that were originally created through classic horror films that are based on some of the most important books of fiction from an era that continues to be romanticised to this day; Victorian London. We’ve seen some excellent adaptions of this era, and we have seen some very good interpretations of its literature as well. But Penny Dreadful does something that few movies and shows have done with the original source material. It not only remains faithful in effect and meaning, but makes it feel anew.
How can I describe Penny Dreadful in a sentence, or even a math equation? It’s simple; Bram Stoker’s Dracula + Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein + Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray + A new story with a few new characters that tie these 3 famous books together + 1891 London = Penny Dreadful. By choosing to incorporate stories and characters within the public domain, there is no lawsuit in sight, which can mean only 1 thing – pure creative control. Anyway, lets move on.
We’ll discuss our new story a little bit: It revolves primarily around 4 or 5 characters, but more are added as it progresses.
First we have Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green), an incredibly strange, seemingly schizophrenic woman to say the very least. Raised ‘Catholic, but often becomes possessed by demons, She foretells horrible events to come, based on tarot card readings and the sound of a scene – meaning she basically has Cordelia’s role in Angel, only instead of having headaches and visions, she hears them and tries to figure out where they come from. Despite this description, which makes her seem a little too mad for intelligent conversation, in public she is very formal, poetic and straight-forward. Although it is clear that she is seeking something.
Then we have Sir Malcolm Murray (played by 2-time James Bond, Timothy Dalton), a hardened explorer who is searching for his kidnapped daughter Mina (the same Mina from Dracula). Personally and professionally, his relationship with Vanessa is possibly 1 of the darkest and most interesting I’ve ever seen.
Then we have Ethan Chandler (played by Josh Hartnett), who is easily “Mr Exposition”, as he is an American staying in London. Malcolm Murray employs Chandler for dangerous missions, 1s that involve his excellent gun skills. Ethan is a complicated character, even though the mask he wears in public is that of a simple man. He likes whiskey and girls, and in a way, London is eating him up before it’s going to spit him back out again…But it’s not enough to make him home sick.
Brona Croft (played by Billie Piper) is an Irish prostitute who likes to drink whiskey in the morning, cough up blood (She has tuberculosis), and occasionally date and bed Ethan Chandler. As a Brit, I remember Billie Piper when she was a 15 year old pop star back in the late ’90s, so in a way I put her in a similar category to Leonardo DiCaprio. Not because she’s as good as Leo as an actor (she isn’t). But unlike a lot of child stars, she survived – and when I say survived, I mean she didn’t fall into drink and drugs, let alone have success in another artistic/entertainment field. She does a very good job, and her accent’s not bad…Literally, for me it feels like she’s been around forever, and yet she’s only 32.
Then we have Victor Frankenstein (played by Harry Treadaway), he’s a character who basically needs no introduction, but here we see him as a young man, practically a student, who works at a Butcher’s Shop during the day. He is a man with a tragic past, which has driven him towards finding the key to human resurrection. This show, instead of necessarily demonstrating the great evils that come with playing God, has decided to focus on Victor’s relationship with his creation. 1 where Victor is a teacher, and even explorer. To the point of finding out where the brain of his creation came from.. But at the same time, he undertakes the responsibility of the mistakes he has made, not only as a creator, but as a father figure to his creation.
Then we have Dorian Gray, a handsome, narcissistic young man who likes to indulge in every pleasure available to him, whether for beauty or for vanity and lust. Though he has everything a man thinks he wants to satisfy himself, he is lonely, and seeking something deeper. Something he tries to find in Vanessa Ives on several occasions.
Sembene is Malcolm’s butler, an African man with a great mystery in his relationship with him. Due to his knife-welding skills and his choice to be quiet, I’ll nickname him Victorian Virgil for now.
Lastly ( at least for now) we have “The Monster” that Victor created (played by Rory Kinnear). If I say much more about him, I might spoil too much. His reveal and his story is just too good.
Now lets break it down:
The acting in Penny Dreadful is amazing! Incredibly well done from everybody. At least an 8 or 9 out of 10 from them all. But the 1 who most definitely deserves a 10 (or turn it up to 11, even) is Eva Green as Vanessa Ives. Before seeing this show, I thought she was good, but not necessarily world class. Here, she not only steals the show, but she should become even more famous afterwards! Lets put this into context – this character she plays is a mysterious and sophisticated woman in public, and in private she is prone to being possessed by demons. She would torment Malcolm Murray while possessed, by speaking to him like she was Mina, and saying things only Malcolm and Mina would know. Her performance as her possessed self could even rival Regan MacNeil in the Exorcist (although she doesn’t wear monster make-up or speak like a man, her performance in this is actually very scary. Lots of unsettling noises, tones and body language).
The characters were all really well developed, even for just an 8 episode show (so far, season 2 should be out later). The relationships and interactions between all of the main characters is incredibly well done, with lots of growth and emotion, and an actual journey that takes our characters from 1 scenario to another without leaving home. However, 1 of the most interesting characters is 1 that I haven’t mentioned yet…Count Dracula…Count Dracula has officially been done properly…he is scary again. He isn’t scary looking…and that’s because he’s not seen. He is a presence. Known to other vampires as “The Master” (How Buffy), who appears whenever and wherever he wants off-camera. A truly fascinating approach.
The music was done by polish composer Abel Korzeniowski, who also did the score for The Single Man and Escape from Tomorrow. He’s not particularly well known, but he did a great job in creating this beautiful, gothic score.
The production of this show was enough to keep me interested on its own. Set in London, but actually shot in Ireland (Making me feel warm inside knowing that some great shows are being made here), I feel like they’ve completely nailed the Victorian London look and atmosphere. Not only in a romantic sense, but a dirty 1 as well. The CGI is fantastically done, and I’m thankful that they chose good lighting for some of the more obvious elements, such as the Wolves. It looks as good as a lot of movies out there.
The show (so far) has 4 directors. The main 1 that catches my eye is the director of the 1st 2 episodes: Juan Antonio Bayona (J.A. Bayona) who directed a horror film called The Orphanage (a truly spectacular horror movie!), episode 3 & 4 were done by Dearbhla Walsh, an Irish woman who mostly does TV show in the UK, including Shameless, The Tutors, and Talk To Me. Episode 5 & 6 were done by Coky Giedroyc, who directed a TV version of The Wundering Heights (starring Tom Hardy) and the last 2 episodes were directed by James Hawes, who did an awesome job, even if his CV isn’t that prolific outside of a few recent Doctor Who episodes. They all did equally excellent work.
As far as writing is concerned: Penny Dreadful is a real treat to the eyes and ears. The show’s creator, John Logan, is a really excellent writer who worked mostly as a playwright before heading out to Hollywood when he was in his 30s. How do I know he’s good? Check out his profile; He wrote the screenplays for movies like Gladiator, Hugo, Skyfall, The Aviator, & Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd. And while he has some duds as well (particularly when he was starting out), what he does well is proof of what he can do. The dialogue in Penny Dreadful is beautiful. It’s poetic, sophisticated, thoughtful, and comes across as a polar opposite to Gotham in terms of its quality.
What themes are covered in Penny Dreadful? The main 1 would be “secrets”. Every character has in their possession, a secret. A reason they do what they do without wanting others to know, or a secret past, 1 where their sins have shaped them into what they are, and they continue to be tormented by it. Malcolm desires to find, not only what is lost, but what was taken for granted. Vanessa seeks forgiveness. Ethan seeks a simple life without violence. Brona seeks a safe haven from her sins. Victor seeks the cure for death, and both Dorian and The Monster seek intimate relationships. Other themes covered include ‘life and death’, ‘the belief in God’ (especially within the context of Roman Catholicism), ‘new life’, ‘The supernatural’, ‘Loneliness’, ‘compassion’, and ‘acceptance’.
Is there anything I don’t like about this show? Yes, but they’re based more on details rather than the show as a whole. No animals were harmed during the making of the show, and this is clear, based on their use of CGI and practical effects, which were rendered very effectively through excellent editing and lighting. It provides an adequate suspense of disbelief, and that’s partly what added to the shock. There is animal cruelty in this show, and even if no real animals were harmed, it still created that image in your head after watching it….I’m also not that into Dorian Gray’s Bunga Bunga Parties, even if everything else surrounding it makes a great show and this was meant to show off his character.
Would I recommend this show? Yes…but only if you love classic horror literature, gothic victorian presentation, and Game Of Thrones. I say that, because it is very much a show targeted at adults (18-rated in the UK). While it doesn’t have the body count that Game Of Thrones is known for – it does have a fair bit of domestic disturbance, gore, scary scenes (proper horror), sex (especially from Ethan, Vanessa & Dorian), and challenging scenarios that focus more on human choices, rather than a narrow pursuit of happiness that some audience members would expect. Either way, it’s well worth a look if you fit the criteria.
Overall Rating: ****3/4 out of 5
UPDATE: The show ended on June 19th 2016 after just 3 seasons. 3 Seasons and 27 episodes…but what a 27 episodes! My review above focuses on Season 1, but how do Season 2 and 3 rate in comparison?
Season 2, in my opinion, is easily the darkest of the 3, with our main protagonists taking on a group of witches, led by Evelyn Poole (Madame Kali in Season 1). The witches in this are particularly scary, and it all becomes an enormous challenge when Sir Malcolm falls in love with Evelyn. At the same time, Vanessa’s spiritual struggles continue, Ethan’s more or less on the run as home comes to London to haunt him, Victor is given a new lease of life, as is Brona, The Creature gets a job working at a Madame Tussauds style wax museum, and Dorian Gray continues to experiment with pleasure.
In Season 3, it feels a little like watching a different show (Think, comparing Season 1 to Season 2 of Game Of Thrones), with new characters thrown into the mix – including Victor Frankenstein’s old college buddy, Henry Jekyll, Kaetenay, an apache native american who has a connection to Ethan and befriends Malcolm, Dr Seward, a psychiatrist who seeks to help Vanessa Ives with her problems, and Dr Renfield…and with Renfield comes, you guessed it…Dracula returns in Season 3. While I don’t consider this 1 to be as dark as Season 2, it has easily some of the darkest moments in the show, as well as possibly the most challenging story of the bunch. Also Episode 4 in particular has some of the best acting and is 1 of the best character-driven stories you’ll ever see on TV.
Overall it’s an excellent show that remained true to itself and consistent in quality, themes and of course its intended darkness up to the end.