The BBC-produced “The Woman in White,” premiering on PBS, turns the oft-adapted Wilkie Collins novel into a five-hour miniseries and creates the most feminist version to date. Set in Victorian England, the gothic tale examines the twisted circumstances surrounding the arranged marriage between young heiress Laura Fairlie (Olivia Vinall) and the much older Sir Percival Glyde (Dougray Scott). She and her half-sister Marian Halcombe (Jessie Buckley) become embroiled in a grand conspiracy that also involves a mentally ill woman dressed in white. Despite its period setting, the dangerous consequences of gender inequality make this story disturbingly relevant.
The update comes from writer Fiona Seres, who returns to PBS after adapting “The Lady Vanishes” in 2013 from the Ethel Lina White novel that also produced Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1938 film. Like that project, “The Woman in White” explores the frustrations of a society that doesn’t listen to women or believe in their peril. Meanwhile, Carl Tibbets departs from his sci-fi directing resume that includes two episodes of “Black Mirror,” “Humans,” and the upcoming Amazon series “The Feed” for this foray into the 1800s. Here he creates a beautiful yet dangerous world, in which treachery lies just behind closed doors.
Inevitably, “The Woman in White” can feel familiar. Not only it is one of the earliest iterations of the mystery and detective novel genre, BBC and the program formerly known as “Masterpiece Theatre” also tackled it in 1997, as a TV movie. Nor were they the first: it was first adapted as a low-budget Warner Bros. feature in 1948, and it was a BBC miniseries in 1982. More recently, portions were adapted for Sarah Waters’ 2002 bestselling historical crime novel “Fingersmith,” which in turn inspired “The Handmaiden,” Park Chan-wook’s critically acclaimed 2016 feature adaptation.
However, this outing differentiates itself by continuing the more recent PBS tradition of exploring women’s agency through its literary adaptations, ranging from the 1999 miniseries “Wives and Daughters” and the more recent “Little Women” and “The Miniaturist.” Masterpiece’s 1997 version had a much different tenor, including scenes in which rape, threatened or otherwise, were used as a device to speed the storytelling along its two-hour runtime. Fortunately, the new version has the luxury of five installments and doesn’t need to resort to such problematic tropes. Instead, it takes its time to develop Marian, who’s given even more agency through the framework of a murder investigation, which was solely a man’s domain in the book.
“The Woman in White” begins with a black-clad Marian in mourning. She demands: “How is it that men crush women time and time again and go unpunished? If men were held accountable, they’d hang every hour of the day, every day of the year.” It’s a sentiment that, with slightly updated language, could very well be a tweet of feminine rage in response to the Kavanaugh hearings.
Part gothic melodrama, part detective tale, “The Woman in White” places Marian at the center of a mystery that reflects the social anxieties of the Victorian era. Men driven by fear, greed, and passion maintain their social standing by using the women at their disposal. The lies and manipulation come to a head with a woman’s death. Marian is one of many witnesses giving their accounts to a newly created character, scrivener Erasmus Nash (Art Malik), while flashbacks show exactly how the dark events unfolded. She is the first to speak and drives the murder investigation, which shifts the heroic role away from the novel’s protagonist, young drawing master Walter Hartright (Ben Hardy), who pines for the unattainable Laura.
While “The Woman in White” is faithful to its time period, the book always challenged social mores: Collins was a critic of the institution of marriage, and spent 20 years in simultaneous committed relationships. He uses Marian to express many of his sentiments and one speech from his novel, which Seres keeps intact, highlights the character’s outrage at marriage, which at the time made a woman a man’s property:
No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace – they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship — they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel.
Buckley is well cast as Marian, who is Laura’s half-sister from a less wealthy father, and thus has the freedom of not being pursued for her fortune. She’s refreshingly outspoken and forthright; when Walter first meets her, she’s wearing loose trousers — almost unthinkable for the 1860s. Buckley has strength and charisma to spare, which is fortunate since the lovelorn Laura and Walter lack chemistry and feel underdeveloped, and the dastardly Glyde and Count Fosco (Riccardo Scamarcio) challenge Marian’s resolve at every turn.
At the core of each of the previous iterations of “The Woman in White” is how bad men aren’t the sole reasons for the exploitation of these women. It’s the result of a toxic society that supports the claims of these men instead of — or even despite — believing women. Charles Dance plays one such man calling the shots as Laura and Marian’s invalid uncle Frederick Fairlie. He constantly bleats about and demands special treatment for his infirmity, but can’t be bothered to even look at his nieces when their very lives and happiness are at stake.
Once viewers power through the bafflingly slow first episode, the series becomes equally engrossing and enraging as patriarchal machinations push the siblings into intolerable situations. While this sort of foreboding isn’t strictly pleasant, it’s satisfying since the men are so clearly defined as villainous. This sets the stage for their inevitable downfall, as women — and justice — prevail.
”The Woman in White” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET from Oct. 21 – Nov. 18 on PBS, folliwng “Masterpiece.”