A six part mini-series with a top-notch cast, headed by Sean Bean, great production values and a nifty hook and line in grounding the Mary Shelley mythos in a real-world historical setting. It screams PRIME TIME, but finds itself inexplicably tucked away in a late night spot on the less than essential ITV2 channel. What gives? John Marlott (Sean Bean) is a London river cop in the early 1800s. In the process of busting a smuggling gang he stumbles upon the washed-up corpse of a child on the banks of the seriously polluted Thames. Only this corpse is a composite of body parts of multiple children crudely stitched together. It could never have lived, yet it briefly grabs Marlott's wrist before lying still forever.
The Home Secretary (Robert Peel) charges Marlott with finding out who is responsible for the "abomination" and we're off full tilt into a Gothic world of fog, body-snatchers, rotting corpses, child prostitution and murder, bizarre medical experimentation and political intrigue.
Mary Shelley (Anna Maxwell-Martin) widow of the poet Shelley and author of Frankenstein and William Blake (Steven Berkoff) poet, writer and artist are key figures who pop up along the way and are instrumental in driving the narrative forward.
It is wonderfully creepy and disturbing stuff. So atmospherically shot and mounted that you can almost smell and taste the stench of death and decay as the characters instinctively recoil from it, covering their faces with whatever they can to blot it out.
Sean Bean gives a master-class performance as a good, honest man adrift in a world of physical and moral corruption. Marlott is an ex-soldier (from the same regiment as a guy called Sharpe, reference spotters), veteran of Waterloo, wracked by grief, guilt and despair after having unwittingly passed on syphilis to his wife and new born child, resulting in their untimely deaths. The illness is active within him, and combined with mercury treatment (a painful and pointless remedy) induces florid nightmares and vivid hallucinations. Anyone who ever wrote Bean off as little more than a movie rent-a-heavy, or sitting duck dead villain in waiting, should reassess on this evidence. His affecting portrayal of tragically damaged and conflicted humanity here is nothing short of superb. Re-imagine it as if Di-Crapio or Crooze replicated in a movie with a bit of a profile, and he'd be instant Globe or Oscar bait.
I'm going to watch the last episode in a day or two, anticipating an outcome that I haven't even been able to guess at. I have no idea how this is going to pan out exactly, and that's a good thing. It is always a great, and indeed rare experience to find a period drama that is both captivating and unpredictable. Set at a time when religion was railing and losing ground against the advance of science and in a capital metropolis teeming with filth, crime, social inequality and exploitation of the weak and vulnerable, it's a compelling canvas upon which the action is drawn. The script is thoughtful and well-rendered and although ultimately it lacks the gloriously overwrought and fantastical dynamic of, say, PENNY DREADFUL, or the heroic wild-west undertones of RIPPER STREET, it represents a solid and entertaining companion piece to those two shows.
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