TV Review: The Woman in White has been given a modern #MeToo makeover for 2018 but the Victorian whodunit still offers plenty of creepy cliffhangers
PUBLISHED: 09:55 26 April 2018
A creepy encounter on Hampstead Heath, a woman who sees colours when she hears the wind, feminist battlecries, Peter Beale from EastEnders with mutton chops and Charles Dance hamming it up like a pro: the BBC’s new adaptation of The Woman in White has it all.
Beginning with a woman in black (which is, incidentally, my Twitter user name, @womaninblack), The Woman in White set out its stall early with an impassioned call from Wilkie Collins’ tour de force in this play, Marian Halcombe, played by the wonderful Jessie Buckley.
In full mourning attire – also known as ‘what I wear every day’ – Marian is seeking help from Mr Nash, a solicitor: “The coroner stated that the cause of death was natural, which we know to be a lie,” she told Art Malik (Nash), who replied: “There’s nothing to suggest these men are guilty…”
Marian hissed: “Of course they’re guilty! How is it men crush women time and time again and go unpunished?” #HerToo.
Fiona Seres’ adaptation of the classic Victorian novel places it squarely in the present tense while keeping its feet in the past: with clever flash-forwarding we realise we’ll eventually be dealing with a suspicious death, rather than the beginning Collins intended, which involves a painter, a heath and a mysterious woman.
Walter Hartwright (played by Peter Beale II from EastEnders, Ben Hardy) is happy making a living as a painter in London, hanging out on balconies with his Italian chum Pesca and wearing smocks. Pesca, however, has plans for his friend which involve him tutoring rich women in the Cumberland countryside
But before he makes it to Limmeridge House, he has a chance encounter with a distressed woman on the heath – she is lost and begs for his help. As he tries to give her aid, she bolts away from him and disappears in a horse-drawn coach, just as a policeman hoves into earshot with a bit of handy exposition: the police are looking for a woman who has escaped from an asylum who was dressed from head to toe in white.
Arriving in Cumberland, Walter meets Marian, who has more backbone in her little finger than he has in his entire body: “You’ll soon find out we are not the most traditional ladies,” she told Wally, while adjusting her breeches, chomping on toast and downing brandy (not simultaneously, but you get my drift).
Walter then meets her half sister Laura (Olivia Vinall) and does a double take: not only is Laura the woman he will quickly (and disastrously) fall in love with, she’s also the spitting image of the woman in white from the heath: is there a connection? (Yes).
Father to the girls is Mr Frederick Fairlie, who is played magnificently by Charles Dance as an eccentric and self-absorbed housebound pedant who complains about literally everything, from the tone of a visitor’s voice to sunlight coming through the window. Sadly for Mr Fairlie, Walter is keen to instruct Laura on far more than just art, even though in comparison to the marvellous Marian, she’s quite literally a pale shadow (she too wears all white) of her sister.
Meanwhile, in between helping the women learn how to paint (check out Laura’s efforts – she is to art what I am to ballet dancing), taking on Marian at billiards and singularly choosing the wrong sister to fall for, Walter is also seeing the woman in white out of the corner of his eye in the garden.
Piecing evidence together, he discovers the woman is Anne Catherick (also played by Vinall, with the addition of stunt teeth) who has a connection to Laura’s betrothed, the dastardly Sir Percival Glyde (Dougray Scott in full rotter mode), a baronet that the super-wealthy Laura was promised to by her dead father.
Laura, who sees colours when the wind blows, paints as if she’s using a spade and is wetter than a bank holiday Monday is prepared to go through with the marriage of (in)convenience because she is Victorian and a woman so does what she’s told. #NotHerThen. Marian, however, spots Laura and Walter in a gazebo clinch and collars the art teacher to warn him that he must never be alone with her sister again lest her stays loosen alongside her maidenhead.
Walter tracks down Anne to Laura’s mother’s grave and discovers that it was Sir Percival that put her into the asylum to protect her from tale-telling to his bride-to-be – SIR PERCIVAL IS NOT A GOOD MAN KLAXON.
There are some niggles: the costumes are occasionally a bit wide of the mark, I don’t remember Wilkie Collins using the word ‘OK’, the whole ‘modern relevance’ trope is hammered home with the subtlety of a jackhammer but on the whole, this version of The Woman in White is worth persevering with. Amid some absolutely outstanding performances (Buckley and Dance, in particular) though, it’s Collins’ storytelling that’s the real star here.