The Woman in White

There have probably been more than one audio adaptations of Wilkie Collins classic Gothic suspense-mystery (I think there was also a Canadian one done for CBC radio). This is a 2001 BBC Radio adaptation written by Martyn Wade and serialized over 4 hour-long episodes.

It should go without saying that a good adaptation should hold up regardless of your familiarity with the source — that is, I’ve heard (and seen) classic adaptations that receive much praise from fans of the source novel…but really aren’t that compelling (or even coherent!) if you don’t already have a predilection for the story. (I’m not saying an adaptation shouldn’t be true to the source, I’m saying it shouldn’t be a Cole’s Notes of the source). In this case, this is a superb, compelling drama, and I say that as someone who had never read the novel or knew the plot (obviously Collins’ novel deserves the credit, but they bring it to life brilliantly).

It’s a mix of mystery and suspense (and Victorian romance!) yet isn’t simply a “body in the library” type whodunit? but a more complicated tale of characters with mysterious secrets, shrouded pasts, and ambiguous agendas, full of chance encounters (beginning with Walter meeting the eponymous Woman in White at the beginning) and coincidences, and where you’re not really sure where certain things are headed — but you’re interested in finding out. It’s deeply atmospheric (and benefiting from Elizabeth Parker’s musical score), well-paced, and with strong performances, where the heroes are sympathetic, and even some of the villains interesting and even charming (notably Philip Voss as Count Flosco). And it nicely straddles being both a “smart”, refined drama and a pulpy, entertaining romp. And also drawing upon the usual themes of Victorian-era Gothics (including the limited rights of women!) without being incessantly unpleasant or aggravating — that is, I sometimes find these sorts of tales less than “fun” simply because the protagonists are simply forced to suffer an unending stream of cruelties and iniquities till the climax. But this strikes a balance, perhaps because the villains are initially more sly, and the menace more implied.

The story concerns two sisters, Marian (Juliet Aubrey) and the beautiful Laura (Emily Bruni), the latter entering into an arranged marriage with a sinister nobleman, and the private tutor, Walter (Toby Stephens). who loves Laura. Funnily, Marian (particularly as voiced by Aubrey) is the more interesting, strong-willed sister (Laura is more a romantic paragon). Marian is supposed to be the ugly — but kind-hearted — one, but you can’t help thinking Walter should ultimately fall for her instead (but he doesn’t, of course).

Top drawer stuff.

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