Review by C.J. Bunce
With the 1868 novel The Moonstone, author Wilkie Collins created what is widely considered to be the first modern English detective novel, creating the key beats that would thereafter make up the framework for the genre. In his earlier work, the 1859 Gothic “sensational” novel The Woman in White, Collins created a suspense thriller that stands up to rich classics including his contemporary Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Bleak House, all while steeped in the realities of being a 19th century woman documented a decade earlier by Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre, and later, Daphne du Maurier in Rebecca. The BBC 2018 adaptation of The Woman in White, streaming now via Amazon Prime, rises to the top of recent British mystery series, a compelling execution that will keep you guessing until the final scenes.
In The Woman in White viewers are introduced to the three lead heroines of this story by an artist named Walter, played by Ben Hardy (Bohemian Rhapsody, X-Men: Apocalypse, 6 Underground). Walter encounters a woman dressed all in white, who we learn to be Anne Catherick, played by Olivia Vinall (Doctor Who, Queens of Mystery, Gutterdammerung), a woman with a past clouded in secrets who has escaped from an asylum. Walter has been summoned to the town of Limmeridge where the invalid Frederick Fairlie, played by genre actor Charles Dance (Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Alien3, Labyrinth), taps Walter to tutor his niece, Laura Fairlie. Olivia Vinall takes on the dual role of Laura, who lives with her loyal confidante and half-sister Marian Halcombe, played by Jessie Buckley (Fargo, Dolittle, Chernobyl).
On Laura’s father’s deathbed, Frederick committed Laura to be wed to Sir Percival Glyde, played by Dougray Scott (Batwoman, Doctor Who, Ever After). Is he just poor at communicating his feelings, like Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre or Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, or is he something altogether worse? The company he keeps includes an Italian expatriate named Count Fosco, played by Riccardo Scamarcio (John Wick 2) and his wife, played by Sonya Cassidy (Lodge 49, Humans, The Fifth Estate).
When Laura falls for Walter, to the distress of Marian and opposition of seemingly everyone else, the already tenuous relationships in the household begin to crumble, resulting in murder. But whose body is buried in the ground, and what further ends will the fiendish villains of this tale go to to accomplish their secretive scheme?
The acting behind the heroines, heroes, and villains will pull you into the story and keep you engaged until the final scene. Keep an eye out for legendary genre actor Art Malik (True Lies “because it sounds scary,” Doctor Who, Sherlock, The Living Daylights, The Wolfman, A Passage to India) as a particularly compelling scrivener who pieces the clues together. Cinematographer Eben Bolter (Avenue 5, iBoy) nails the dark, dimly lit world of the 1840s better than anyone in recent memory. And art director John Merry (Dublin Murders, The Mummy) and production designer Tom McCullagh (Raised by Wolves, Dublin Murders) create all the right emotions with their evocative setting.
The shocking modern subplots, complex legal wrangling, and historical social structure that Wilkie Collins weaved into this story are expertly handled and adapted by series director Carl Tibbetts (Black Mirror, Humans). Anglophiles who may be getting tired of the endless barrage of missing persons television series should find this series refreshing. And to the extent the series gets off to a slower start, it only builds to a very satisfying conclusion where just desserts are well portioned.
Viewers can compare the romance and plight of the heroines of Jane Austen’s novels from a century earlier and ask whether the role of women in society had changed all that much by the time The Woman in White was penned in the 1850s (and then compare the story to the 1950s, the 1970s, and today).
It’s a series both suspenseful and smart, a story for all fans of mystery and Gothic tales. All five episodes of The Woman in White are streaming now on Amazon Prime. It’s also available from PBS on Blu-ray and DVD. And don’t forget Wilkie Collins’ source novel, still in print 161 years later.