With its atmospheric horror and chilling “ghost” as a central protagonist, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White was crying out for a BBC adaptation. And this evening’s offering certainly had every chance of doing well, given the broadcaster’s period predecessors. Combined with a seriously talented cast, there can’t be much that could go wrong with the adaptation… And yet, the headline to this piece seemingly contradicts the previous statements.
The show opens with all the atmosphere, you would expect. It’s an old London many wouldn’t recognise, filled with vibrancy – one almost finds themselves missing the mechanical grey of the Underground. We’re instantly introduced to Walter Hartright, played by Ben Hardy. It’s a far cry from Peter Beale and in the time Ben has stepped away from his EastEnders role, it’s clear to see he has grown enormously. The 27-year-old actor was mesmerising on screen as the inquisitive artist who bumps into the eponymous lady in the forest.
The initial encounter with Anne Catherick (Olivia Vinall) had all the ingredients for a spooky meeting, but it seemed the horror of the scene was missing more of a scare. Olivia’s Anne, however, turned out to be the real steal of the scene. Her wide-eyed and crazed performance certainly gave Walter – and viewers – enough intrigue to stay with the show, even if the scares weren’t there.
Walter was then sent to stately home, Limmeridge, against his will where he met Marian Halcombe (Jessie Buckley) and Laura Fairlie (Olivia). The family were in need of an artist to repair some gems while the girls wanted a teacher – and some company. There, Walter strikes up a good relationship with the pair but clearly gets closer to Laura. It’s no surprise when they end up sharing a quick smooch in the garden during a steamy landscape lesson but there’s heartbreak for Laura when it’s revealed she is already engaged. And that’s not all, with it now obvious Laura and Anna are played by the same actress following a run in the graveyard with the crazed latter. While it’s still not *quite* clear what Anne’s deal is, she’s had a tough time of late and has clearly run from her husband, Sir Percival Gylde (Dougray Scott). And with Laura engaged to be wed to the same villain, the race is on to get her out of the marriage – but is there time? And why are Laura and Anne so similar?
Despite any negativity so far, I must say the cast are really fantastic. Above anything else, they’re extremely believable. A word must be said for the addition of Charles Dance as Frederick Fairlie. His introductory scene with Walter actually made for some real laughs and as ever, his captivating performance swipes any scene from the rest of the cast.
The martial aspect of The Woman In White’s BBC adaptation makes the show less about the horror and more about the relationship developments between the characters. In particular, the girls are really interesting and with them trying to pave a revolutionary life for themselves, it can’t help but feel particularly fitting at this time in regards to the #MeToo movement and feminism on a wider scale.
As a plot, it’s worth sticking with, as Wilkie Collins’ original is largely considered one of the country’s best mystery/thriller novels. However, as a television show, there could have been more of his famous atmosphere created on screen. Yes, the location and framing is incredibly impressive, but all the tension is lost during the critical scenes with Anne. There’s simply no scare. The eponymous character runs behind Walter at various times, but the gentle music doesn’t relate.
Hopefully in the next couple of episodes, it won’t matter as the tale of Laura really comes out, but if the BBC was aiming to deliver a “chilling thriller” this Sunday evening, I’m afraid they just didn’t do it.
The Woman in White Continues Sunday at 9.00pm on BBC One
Contributed by Helen Daly