Victorian-era detective novel gets updated for the MeToo era

by Fiona Rae / 16 December, 2018
The Woman in White.

The Woman in White.

RelatedArticlesModule - Woman in White

New BBC period drama The Woman in White is based on Wilkie Collins detective story-cum-psychological thriller.  

Now that Jane Austen is pretty much tapped out, the BBC period drama department has turned its attention to the Victorian era and the works of Wilkie Collins, a friend and collaborator of Charles Dickens.

Collins’ 1868 story The Moonstone, considered the first modern detective novel, was adapted in 2016 and now his earlier work, The Woman in White (SoHo, Sky 010, Sunday, 8.30pm), is getting the treatment. It’s not for the first time, by any means.

The Woman in White was on the stage by 1860; there have been a number of films, some in the silent era; Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a musical in 2004; and The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln appeared in a previous BBC adaptation in 1997.

It’s not hard to see why: The Woman in White is also considered a kind-of early detective story, but it’s a psychological thriller, too, with deliciously gothic undertones, villains, injustices and romance.

Like Dickens, who published The Woman in White as a serial, Collins also wrote about social inequality in a way that has echoes today. It was this that attracted writer Fiona Seres.

“The perspective that it had on women felt different to other Victorian novels,” she says. “It’s a great classic thriller that explores the relationships between people, the manipulation of people, and power as the ultimate prize. These are themes that still very much resonate in our society today.”

Collins created a modern woman in Marian Halcombe (Jessie Buckley), who speaks her mind and refuses to wear a corset and crinoline. The costume department has furnished Buckley with a terrific pair of culottes that pass for a full skirt when she is not striding about the sand dunes.

On the other hand, Marian’s cousin Laura (Olivia Vinall) is ethereal, a Victorian hippie who suggests skinny-dipping at the beach and talks of seeing the colours of the notes when she plays the piano.

Into their world arrives young, handsome artist Walter Hartright (Ben Hardy), who has had an unsettling encounter with a young woman dressed in white just before he arrives at the home of the cousins and their capricious uncle (a hilarious Charles Dance).

Disturbingly, the woman looks similar to Laura Fairlie, and it emerges that she has a connection to the family. Enter evil Sir Percival Glyde (Dougray Scott), boo!, who is to marry Laura, and his Italian friend Fosco (Riccardo Scamarcio), boo!

What dastardly deeds are they planning and will the young people triumph?

This article was first published in the December 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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