It is hard to credit that the first series of Penny Dreadful managed to encompass something as sublime as Eva Green’s magisterial lead performance as the haunted Vanessa Ives as well as one of the worst accents ever committed to celluloid (or whatever it is these days) in the form of Billie Piper’s Northern Irish brogue which, without due care, could well ignite some Troubles of its own. The transatlantic Showtime/Sky Atlantic co-production aired this summer and was conceived and written by John Logan and with an executive producer credit for Sam Mendes, it is no surprise that it is a quality product, albeit not without its issues.
Penny dreadfuls were a British 19th-century invention, sensationalist fiction with often lurid subject matter, and Logan has drawn on these alongside more well-known tales from the time from authors such as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. So the show is set in 1891 London in a world heavy with the supernatural where noted explorer Sir Malcolm Murray is searching for his kidnapped daughter Mina. He is assisted by a motley crew – Green’s prepossessed Vanessa, Josh Hartnett’s sharp-shooting Ethan, Danny Sapani’s enigmatic Sembene, Harry Treadaway’s tortured Victor – but they soon find that (to borrow a phrase), the night is dark and full of terrors (and unexpected gayness).
I won’t say much more about the story as it is full of clever little reveals within the overarching narrative and I loved these ah-ha moments, Logan balances them well against his primary storytelling and the general feel of Gothic horror is maintained brilliantly. As with anything to do with the supernatural, it is more effective in suggesting what lies in the shadows (thus the séance of episode 2 is way creepier than the possession of episode 7) but that said, the make-up and effects are highly superior and the composition of Xani Giminez’s cinematography is just beautiful as the Dublin locations are utilised to their full advantage.
One thing I did miss was the uniqueness of the imagery from JA Bayona’s direction in the opening two episodes (four directors shared pairs of episodes throughout the run) as his camera just loved Eva Green and he really pushed for the artistic shots- whether showing Vanessa in supplication before a cross or standing out as a striking audience member, it showed a boldness of vision I would have liked to have seen more of. The strength of Green’s performance though, and Dalton as a pseudo-father figure are truly engaging, Hartnett displays an interesting depth as Ethan taps into a kindness he didn’t know he possessed and Treadaway excels throughout, a truly cracking performance.
There’s real pleasure though in a supporting cast laden with brilliant cameos – Simon Russell Beale as a camp Wicked-esque professorial type, Helen McCrory’s striking medium, Anna Chancellor’s beautifully layered emotion as Vanessa’s concerned mother, Joseph Millson in a hot uniform… In more substantive roles, Alex Price and Rory Kinnear both interact with Treadaway’s character in captivating ways and we should all be thankful for what Reeve Carney is able to achieve with a bottle of absinthe and a Hollywood actor. Which makes it all the more bizarre that Billie Piper’s impenetrable accent made it through (a poorly executed ADR job actually makes it worse) and sadly means it is a blessing when her scenes are done.
Still, I’d highly recommend Penny Dreadful for a boxset catch-up and am mightily pleased to hear that a second series has been commissioned.