Feminéma’s miniseries pitch: “The Woman in White”

2 December 2011

I spent a week this summer absolutely riveted by the classic 19th-c. gothic mystery/ psycho-sexual thriller, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. What a great read: originally published in 1859-60 in installments, this novel begs for a top-shelf interpretation with great actors.

It seems, at first, to be a love story between a poor drawing teacher named Hartwright and his wealthy, lovely pupil, Laura Fairlie, a love forbidden by the class gulf between them and, even more so, by Laura’s engagement to Sir Percival Glyde. But don’t be fooled. The real story features Laura’s half-sister, Marian Halcombe, a woman so intelligent, pragmatic, and adventurous that graphic novels should make her their heroine. Her counterpoint is Sir Glyde’s best friend and consigliere, the insinuating evil genius Count Fosco, surely one of the most iconoclastic villains in novelistic history.

What are Marian and Count Fosco fighting over? The very soul and freedom of women.

It’s got to be a miniseries, because the plot uses too much minute character analysis, requires hairpin plot turns, and demands certain set-piece scenes — like when Marian climbs onto a roof during a raging storm to overhear Fosco and Glyde laying out their evil plans. I reckon it demands a full six hours. The only decent treatment it ever received was a five-hour series in 1982 with Diana Quick doing a superlative job as Marian, but the low-budget stationary BBC cameras and poor film quality of that time, as well as the disappointing Alan Badel as Fosco just seem dated today. Don’t even get me started on how disappointing the 1997 version was, despite starring the fabulous Tara Fitzgerald — it butchered the plot to winnow it down to two hours.

So, to begin: can I recommend Jennifer Ehle as Marian? She’s too pretty, of course, but we know from her sneaky turn as Lionel Logue’s middle-aged wife Myrtle in The King’s Speech (right) that she’s still willing to do period work; and what we really know from the six-hour Pride and Prejudice (1995) is that she can do a lot of screen time while being riveting in every single scene, and that she can manage the subtle psychological cues in 19th-c. conversation.

I’m at a loss for the right man to play Fosco. He’s got to be fat, good with an Italian accent, and a consummate actor. Most important — and this is where both Badel (from the 1982 version) and Simon Callow (from 1997) went wrong: he needs to show how he completely controls his own wife with a combination of evil misogyny and gaslighting, and he needs to show that he falls for Marian — but it’s not love, exactly. That’s where the psycho-sexual drama gets the most creepy: Fosco is the one man who realizes Marian’s true genius and admirability, yet he’s also the one man you are most afraid of. It’s a rare opportunity for a male actor, if you ask me: to show how he observes her with a combination of erotic desire, feeling challenged intellectually, and feeling the need to exert full mastery over her, like a cat who wants to kill a mouse, yet also wants to play with it.

What I want to see with my miniseries, in the end, is that the pat love story between Walter Hartwright and Marian’s sister Laura becomes overshadowed by that fun-house mirror version of a love-hate story between Marian and Fosco.

The gothic creepiness of the story — the occasional appearance of the titular woman in white, who bears a weird resemblance to Laura; the way Fosco and his wife are gifted with poisons and drugs; Fosco’s skill in manipulating everyone from servants to his friend Glyde — all of this unfolds in a way that would make for the most delicious of all mid-winter miniseries indulgences. It shows that recurring theme of 19th-c. literature, the marriage plot, in its darkest shade. It’s a radical story hidden inside a gothic mystery, which a clever director and screenwriter can unpack.

Producers: believe me, this is TV gold. In case Andrew Davies isn’t available to write the screenplay, my email address is didion [at] ymail [dot] com!

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2 Responses to “Feminéma’s miniseries pitch: “The Woman in White””

  1. servetus Says:

    Wish we could turn all the vampire girls onto this novel.


  2. […] probably did. As a matter of fact, I agree that The Woman in White is a feminist novel, and I hope Feminéma gets to write the screenplay for the mini-series. She’s right about the ending & the […]


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