Penny Dreadful is a sight to behold.
Premiering this Sunday (May 11) on Movie Central and the Movie Network, the new thriller is sumptuously filmed, chock full of lavish period costumes and sets, and boasts some excellent, even riveting, performances.
It’s also a bit of a hot mess.
Of course, the title should have been a tip-off. Referencing the lurid Victorian-era pulp publications of the same name, the show is likewise thick with melodrama, heaving bosoms, opium dens, Herschell G. Lewis-style gore, and plenty of copyright-free 19th century monsters.
Set in 1891 London, it’s pretty much a cross between The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and The X-Files, placing a wide swath of classic literary characters within a monster-of-the-week format.
And, as Agent Fox Mulder’s continuing search for his sister provided motivation for the X-Files, Penny Dreadful centers around the missing daughter of Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton). Along for the quest are the mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and American carnival cowboy Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett).
Created and written by John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall), executive produced by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Skyfall), and with the first two episodes directed by J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible), the proceedings possess a formidable pedigree.
It doesn’t all work, but that’s not to say it isn’t goofy fun. There are vampires of Egyptian origin (Anne Rice, please contact your lawyer), an unseen mystery monster (J.J. Abrams, you too), visits from the spirit world, and lots of creepy Catholic imagery.
Eva Green, for her part, is absolutely mesmerizing, holding the viewer (and the rest of the cast) in her powerful, brooding gravity. Seductive, intense, and frightening, her character obviously has a direct line to the supernatural, but the nature of that link, so far, is undisclosed.
Likewise, Harry Treadaway is superb as Victor Frankenstein, portraying the doctor as a thoughtful, sensitive soul, at home with Shakespeare and Wordsworth as well as reanimated corpses. Treadaway shares some of the show’s most affecting moments, sweetly caring for his creation (Alex Price) in a tender relationship which borders on the homoerotic.
The ensemble supporting cast is a toss-up. Singer Billie Piper is first-rate as a well-connected prostitute, and there’s some grand scenery-chewing from Simon Russell Beale—apparently channeling Victor Buono—as a very odd Egyptologist, but that’s where the effectiveness ends. Hartnett turns in a typically leaden performance, while Dalton only halfway succeeds in a Peter Cushing-type role. And floppy-haired Reeve Carney, as Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, appears to be around solely to appeal to the Twilight demographic.
In the end, it’s a high-brow, big-budget approach to what is essentially pulp fiction, and that’s exactly what hamstrings it: Penny Dreadful is too high-minded to truly embrace its camp origins, and too camp to fulfill its lofty aspirations.