Synopsis: The story picks up as Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) is recounting his tale of being trapped in the castle of Count Dracula (Claes Bang), in Transylvania. He is discussing the details with two Nuns. As the story unfolds, visa flashback, he seems at times as unsure if what he is stating actually occurred, as much as the viewer is. As the tension mounts it comes to light that it’s not just his story that may not appear to be what is it at first . . .
Telling such well-known tales is always a tough task. Adaptations must take the essence, but bring something different to the fold, go justify the project. What worked well in this episode was taking the basis of a key aspect of Gothic literature (Stoker’s seminal novel being one of the “big texts” of the genre), the unreliable narrator, and finding a way to make it work on screen. It’s not easy to provide exposition, whilst at the same time portraying that what;s happening might not be entirely accurate.
Once Harker has escaped the castle, and the action takes place in England, things begin to feel a little more straightforward, in terms of a reliably linear plot. The action takes place as if it is told from a third person perspective now. The switch from events being narrated to them just happening as they do in “real time” is managed well and doesn’t jar. It’s not easy to make insightful commentary on this section of the review, as the story is so well known.
The BBC have made some minor tweaks, but largely stayed true to the events of the book. What they have changed, the big one seeming to be a switch of roles between Jonathan Harker and Mina Murray, they have done fairly well and not gone for shock value by trying to be too smart.
The traditional myths surrounding how vampires have to behave, what can harm them and why is dealt with cleverly, in terms of the writing. The reasons are not entirely revealed (suggesting they will become clear in the next or final episode, and that this will be crucial to proceedings), which helps to keep the element of mystery and fear that has long been what makes Vampires and their legend so cool.
Some really strong performances here, and great depiction of genuine psychological terror. It’s hard to capture measurable physical impacts that behaviours have had upon a character. John Heffernan captures a thoroughly broken Jonathan Harker and brilliantly shows the dramatic and sinister conversion that he undergoes at the hands of the evil Count Dracula (Claes Bang).
There are no vampires in popular culture more well known, written about and discussed than Dracula. Even those who haven’t read the book have a mental image of the evil figure. Bang works hard to stamp authority on one of the most iconic characters (and undoubtedly always high on the list of top villains). He gets the combination of charm, raw sexual magnetism and pure evil absolutely bang on the money. With each scene he grows in stature as the terrifying Count.
Dolly Wells brings a commanding presence to the screen that the role she’s playing requires. It’s standout and doesn’t get lost in the other impressive acting, which it may easily have done if there wasn’t so much individual effort that went in to ensuring that was the case. This is also true of Morfydd Clark’s Mina Harker, who can easily switch between vengeful and tearful. She is not wholly one or the other, which really helps to keep the focus of that as theme, which is so crucial to the story of Dracula. A diverse hero in the making,who will no doubt continue to bring such strengths to the role in the next episodes.
The visual appearance of Jonathan Harker, as the story starts, was unsettling, without being over the top. It looked as if he had perhaps been experimented upon. When you saw him in the flashbacks scenes, before the events, he looked healthy and behaved as would be expected. This was clever use of the narrative to show him in different stages of health. Similar use was the way audiences saw Dracula in various guises. What worked well when he was shown as ancient was that it only happened in dream sequences, with flashes.
The castle itself is an important element of the story. It looked realistic and the way it was lit gave the feel that it was a place only illuminated in candle light. This might seem a basic piece of trickery to have to get right, but the feel is vital to the scenes between Harker and the evil Count. Making sure the surroundings are right is essential to setting the atmosphere
Towards the end of this first episode there is a scene where Dracula is outside the gates of the Nunnery he wishes to attack. His transformation from large, black wolf to his usual human-semblance is impressive, as he is seen “breaking out” of the animal, not just a sudden clean shift. However, the action and subsequent exchange of dialogue are a little unnecessarily drawn out. Some of the tension gets lost, and the sense of immediate danger is perhaps impacted upon too. What may have helped would have been some slower music to build the drama at points, which whilst not being notably absent could have made things truly chilling.
A focus on the psychological darkness and exploration of some of the latent content suggested in the novel seem the aim of this adaptation. It generally mixes this well with a genuine sense of foreboding. A talented cast help to capture the nuance that these characters bring to the story. The title of the episode serves as what a well thought out title should serve as: a guide to what you’ll discover. A good start to what promises to be a memorable adaptation, that should keep both general viewers interested and suitably impressed, as well as bringing something of the true essence of the novel to the screen, for those discerning fans of the Gothic, who have possibly tuned in to find out if it will.
- Incidental Music8.5