Less than a minute into this adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel THE WOMAN IN WHITE, Marion (Jessie Buckley) stares straight at the camera and says: “How is it men crush women time and time again and go unpunished?”.
Short of saying ‘Time’s up’, this might have been a 21st century plea. It’s too on-the-nose; seeing as this is a Victorian novel, we can take it for granted that the female characters will suffer at the hands of men.
The Woman in White has no connection to The Woman in Black, although the story has a similarly eerie vibe.
Young painter Walter Hartright (the first of many symbolic surnames) encounters a distressed woman on Hampstead Heath, dressed in white and begging for his help. He takes up a job in Cumbria, tutoring the two nieces of hypochondriac Frederick Fairlie (Charles Dance, always great comic value, as Frederick fusses for Walter to ‘contrive to speak in a lower key’ as loud sounds are ‘indescrible torture’ for him).
The two women couldn’t be more different- Marion is practical and tomboyish whereas her half-sister Laura (Olivia Vinall) is ethereal and reckless. Walter falls for Laura but is disturbed by her startling resemblance to the mysterious figure wandering Hampstead Heath (also played by Olivia Vinall).
Viewers who are tired of drawing rooms and ballrooms will enjoy this adaptation, which feels liberated from the traps of costume drama.
The beauty of the scenery surrounding Limmeridge House almost makes you to join the sisters in propping up an easel and painting, even though a gothic melodrama is murmuring under the surface.
Having impressed in War and Peace as stoic plain Marya, Buckley imbues Marion with these qualities, as well as a refreshing forthrightness. If you hadn’t gathered from the opening, Marion is not your typical Victorian woman: she wears trousers and can hold her own in a game of billiards. Vinall makes Laura an enigmatic figure, whose contradictions are intriguing. Seemingly the sweet demure Victorian, she’s bold enough to suggest to Marion and Walter that they all bunk off painting to go skinny dipping.
By playing up the contrast between the women, screenwriter Fiona Seres shows that you don’t need a Dickensian tapestry of characters in order to sustain a dramatic adaptation. As long as she holds back from introducing clumsy contemporary commentary and continues to focus on the gothic melodrama, the next four episodes should be enjoyable Sunday night viewing.
- Aired on BBC1, April 22 2018 at 21:00.