“With me you will behold terrible wonders,” says Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) to a young mortician in 19th century London whom he is trying to recruit. The mission? To find a missing person. “Why me?” asks the fellow. “Because you were unafraid to pull back the skin and look beneath.”
After the film adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen went horribly wrong, the idea of bringing together famous literary characters on-screen is something you might approach with trepidation. Once Penny Dreadful sinks its gothic hooks into you, though, the trepidation will be for an entirely different reason. Nabbing characters from Shelley, Stoker and some other places that he’s made up, showrunner John Logan’s cauldron of myths and monsters is a delightfully dark brew; one that leaves you thirsty for more and eyeing the glass with fearful suspicion.
Accompanying Sir Malcolm is the enigmatic Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a tarot card reader with eyes that seem to bore into you, out the other side and through Victorian buildings into the gloom beneath. She turns her gaze upon sharp-shooting drunkard Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), who finds himself signing up to their expedition into the “demi-monde” immediately.
All of this set-up, of course, is served with the utmost seriousness – and the classiest side portion of ham.
Dalton dishes it up in juicy slices, grandly posing in extravagant rooms in his hat and moustache before delivering exposition with gravelly gravitas. Even his facial hair bristles with the power of pure acting. Green matches him every step of the way, going into trances and out of them with an eerie precision that rivals her intricate, period-accurate costumes – and leaves you curious about her repeated attempts in private to pray. Hartnett, meanwhile, barely acts at all. He strolls through the flawlessly designed production, a presence so casual you easily buy into the weirdness he encounters.
That bizarre balance between straight and strange is echoed by young Harry Treadaway’s tremulous scientist, who hungrily hears out Malcolm’s invitation. His solemn, sweaty face couldn’t be more different to Simon Russell Beale, who almost steals the show as an hilarious lisping Egyptologist called Ferdinand Lyle, less a man and more a walking combover with a belly and an ‘Allo Allo! accent.
The show’s off-camera ensemble is equally impressive, from Skyfall’s John Logan and Exec Producer Sam Mendes to director Juan Antonio Bayona. The man behind The Orphanage shoots this grubby London with an immaculate eye for shadow and light. Moving in and out of darkness, his camera never stays still; it glides slowly, almost imperceptibly, into the nether regions, never letting us get a sure footing. When he finally stops to take in the full screen, the reveal is sad rather than scary – a note of unexpected melancholy that reveals just how sophisticated this anthology of familiar nightmares is. It could be cheesy. It could be terrible. But its heightened excesses are so refined that it works.
“You’re talking about the supernatural?” quizzes the scientist. You can sense Dalton resisting the urge to stroke his moustache. “A place where science and superstition walk hand in hand,” he offers. Penny Dreadful sits in a similar limbo between theatrical and thoughtful; a place where the arch and the intelligent bite each other’s necks. After a fascinating opening episode, and with more literary figures to come, the programme leaves you pondering the dark questions still to seep between its tightly stitched parts. This, you sense, is a show unafraid to pull back the skin and look beneath. What it finds promises to be both terrible and wondrous.
Season 1 to 3 of Penny Dreadful are available on Sky On Demand. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £6.99 Sky Entertainment Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial. Season 1 and 2 are also available on DVD, Blu-ray and pay-per-view VOD.
Where can I watch Penny Dreadful online in the UK on pay-per-view VOD?