‘Do not be amazed at anything you see.” Words to the wise from this weekend’s major new cable series. It’s a big one – much established talent, artistic heft and lots of money involved.
It’s Penny Dreadful (Sunday, The Movie Network/Movie Central, 10 p.m.) and is the creation of John Logan, the playwright (Red, about artist Mark Rothko) and screenwriter (Gladiator, The Aviator and the James Bond film Skyfall). It’s an eight-hour excursion into Victorian Gothic teeming with monsters and demons. Essentially, it’s set in world where you happen upon Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and Dorian Gray, because that’s where they exist as real.
Logan wrote all eight episodes, and a producer is Sam Mendes, who also directed portions of it. And what I can tell you is this: It’s visually stunning, contains scenes of enormous power, is a wickedly good thrill ride at times, has a sizzling erotic charge and yet is disappointingly shallow.
The title comes from those cheap Victorian publications that delivered lurid crime stories to readers. The plot is a bit thin at the start but expands well. It’s 1891 and rich London nobleman, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and his frosty female companion, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), hire an American gunslinger – he does it in cheesy theatre performances – named Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) to help find Sir Malcolm’s daughter. She has, he believes, been taken by vampires who exist in a London “demimonde,” which Vanessa calls a “half-world between what we know and what we feel.”
To bolster the crew for this mission, Sir Malcolm also recruits a young doctor, Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), although he doesn’t know that the doctor is also working on his own project, attempting to create a living being from the remains of other beings.
The first hour has a visual sumptuousness that’s enthralling. Enormous care is taken in the staging of some scenes, even those of blood and gore. (The series was made in Dublin and makes good use of its Victorian heritage buildings. The city also informs the story: Bram Stoker, creator of Dracula, was a Dubliner and Oscar Wilde, creator of Dorian Gray, was born and lived in one of those buildings.) But for all the eye-popping visuals, one thing becomes clear – the series is owned by Green.
As Vanessa she’s pivotal and her performance is fabulously good. There’s a long scene in episode two, during a seance, which requires her to speak simultaneously as two women, and it takes your breath away. Around her, Dalton is good but stiff as the grieving father and Hartnett seems vaguely lost in this intense, melodramatic world. He’s in it, but not quite with the program.
The dialogue is arch and often delicious. When Vanessa first hires Ethan she says, “I have a need for a gentleman who is comfortable with firearms and not hesitant to engage in dangerous endeavours.” He smirks and she unnerves him with a deft analysis of his personality. There’s fiendishly good work by Simon Russell Beale as Ferdinand Lyle, a lisping, coquettishly camp expert on Egyptian matters. Scenes between Dr. Frankenstein and the monster he created are poignant and beautifully staged. But it’s Green as Vanessa who has the real impact.
What Logan has done here is cook up a very fine idea, but deliver it with haphazard skill. He has taken the premise used in such movies as The Avengers, in which a motley assortment of superheroes is assembled, and applied a Victorian literary expert’s eye to it. Some have called it a “monster mashup,” but it has more serious intentions. It aims to reveal the sordid, squalid underbelly of stiff Victorian London as an intellectual gap as well as physical, and ends up rather muddled on that point.
Penny Dreadful, heavily promoted, is worth your time for the visuals and the Vanessa character, but be prepared to be disappointed by undelivered intellectual heft.
Also airing this weekend
Oprah’s Master Class: Justin Timberlake (Sunday, OWN Canada, 10 p.m.) allows the actor/music superstar to tell “never-before-told stories” about his youth and musical influences. The point, of course, is to deliver “valuable life lessons,” including, “how to find your voice, how to break the mould and how to hold on to your ambition.” Also, he tells a story about the night he was so upset he drank a whole bottle of whisky. The poor dote.
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