cast: Peter O’Toole, Beatie Edney, Jane Lapotaire, Barbara Shelley, and Guy Rolfe
director: Peter Hammond
180 minutes (15) 1987
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Network / BBC DVD Region 2
[released 30 May]
review by Jonathan McCalmont
The Dark Angel
Adapted from J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s gothic mystery novel Uncle Silas (1864), The Dark Angel is a profoundly strange piece of television. The heart of this strangeness lies in the fact that director Peter Hammond foregoes the traditional gothic imagery, of looming castles and flickering candlelight, in favour of the sort of stately homes and elaborate dresses that typically feature in Jane Austen adaptations. There is something very unsettling about watching a TV series that looks like it should be dealing in posh girls fawning over horsy gentlemen only for said series to devote the entirety of its plot to tales of drug addiction, murder, conspiracy and sadomasochism. The Dark Angel is a deeply weird adaptation of a novel that is quite rightly in the process of slipping from popular memory.
Maude Ruthyn (Beatie Edney) is the sheltered only daughter of a reclusive widower. A passionate devotee of Christian theology, Maude’s father spends his days locked in a library while his daughter hangs about with only the staff for company. Worried about his daughter’s development, Maude’s father hires a French governess named Madame de la Rougiere (Jane Lapotaire). Madame’s arrival is hugely traumatic for Maude as, rather than curtseying and agreeing with everything she says, Madame sets about forcing Maude to grow up, using a combination of shameless flirtation and sexualised physical abuse.
Her well-ordered world destroyed by this alien presence, Maude takes an interest in her world for the first time and comes to realise that her father is preparing for his own death and, as he prepares for his death, people are starting to sniff around Maude as she will soon be inheriting all of his money. Maude is initially terrorised by this prospect but is soon set on the right path by her cousin who warns her about Madame and her sinister Uncle Silas (Peter O’Toole), an infamous rake and gambler who has reportedly found God, and so reconciled himself with his long-estranged brother.
Prior to his death, Maude’s father makes her promise that she will do everything in her power to help Silas clear his name. When Maude’s father dies, Maude’s cousin attempts to warn Maude that Silas is not to be trusted, and tells of the suspicious death of one of Silas’ creditors, but Maude refuses to listen. Her father said that Silas is a good man misunderstood and that is the opinion she will have until other evidence presents itself.
With Silas as her legal guardian, Maude travels to Silas’ crumbling stately home. There she finds Silas to be a weak, vain, sensuous but ultimately kind man whose daughter Milly’s lack of refinement speaks as much of his financial problems as the condition of his stately home. Safely decanted to Bartram-Haugh, Maude spends a number of happy months roaming the countryside with Milly until Silas’ sinister son Dudley turns up. Much like Milly, Dudley is an unrefined and unfashionable creature but whereas Milly is kind, Dudley is cruel. As time passes, Maude soon comes to realise that, far from being a kindly weak man, her Uncle Silas is actually a cunning drug addict who plans to swindle her out of her inheritance by forcing her to marry Dudley. As the noose tightens around her neck, Maude is forced to confront a hideous conspiracy to deprive her of her money, her name, her happiness, and her virtue.
If judged as a thriller then The Dark Angel suffers for the fact that Uncle Silas is very much a book that is ‘of its time’. Indeed, much like Wilkie Collins’ similar but vastly superior The Woman In White (1859), Uncle Silas was written at a time when British law treated women as their husbands’ property. Upon marrying a wealthy woman, a man effectively took control of all of her worldly goods and the only way for a married woman to reclaim any of her money or property was through the death of her husband. To make matters worse, women were also subject to a hypocritical and rabidly misogynistic public morality that made them fear public scandal in the way that modern women fear rape and cervical cancer.
In short, if you allowed yourself to be seduced by the wrong man then your family could have you locked away and the men in your family could strip you of everything you own. Uncle Silas and The Woman In White both play upon the fear that a well-worn but ruthless man might target a wealthy woman and try to coerce her into marriage using the threat of scandal. Given that the law has moved on a bit since the 1850s, and most women no longer live in fear of scandal, the concerns that The Dark Angel seeks to invoke are no longer as potent as they once were.
The march of time having denied its subject matter the power to scare, The Dark Angel is forced to rely upon the technical prowess of its author. For example, The Woman In White deals with the same set of fears, but Collins’ ability to build and release tension whilst communicating quite how terrified the protagonist is means that the book retains the power to shock and entertain. Indeed, The Woman In White forms an interesting counterpoint as the book works in a way that The Dark Angel simply does not.
The Woman In White works as a thriller because it is, at heart, the story of a battle of wits between two perfectly matched and fiercely intelligent opponents. Over hundreds of pages, Collins commands our attention with an intricate game of cat and mouse in which each attempt to trap a wealthy woman is unravelled by a group of plucky underdogs who are constrained by the same legal and social framework as Le Fanu’s Maude. One of the reasons why Collins was able to do this was because he made the decision to use the trapped woman as a sort of plot coupon.
Indeed, throughout The Woman In White, Laura remains a pretty bird in a gilded cage while her romantically enthralled art teacher and her ugly but intellectual sister battle the sinister Count Fosco to keep Laura out of Sir Percival Glyde’s clutches. Uncle Silas uses many of the same genre tropes but without an art teacher or an intelligent sister to match wits with Silas, the book revolves around a pretty but really rather insipid Maude who tumbles blindly from one trap to the next until somehow managing to break free. Because Maude lacks agency and because, as a pretty young heiress, she could not be allowed to possess any intelligence or cunning of her own, there cannot be any replication of Collins’ masterful game of social kung-fu and so we are stuck with a story in which Silas plots and Maude shrieks.
The French-Canadian critic Paul Bleton argues for a theory of genre based on the image of the pearl necklace. For Bleton, all genre works are series of arousing set pieces held together with a thread of (largely unimportant) narrative.
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This theory applies to all genres because what changes between the genres is not the basic structure of the work but rather the nature of the arousal. For example, if you are reading erotica then the sex scenes arouse you and if you are reading horror then the chilling prose and the tension arouses you. Judged as a thriller, The Dark Angel is clearly lacking in tension, but tension is not the only kind of pearl.
Another way of looking at Uncle Silas is that its aim is not to terrify but to titillate. Indeed, it is possible to read Le Fanu’s story not as a society thriller, like The Woman In White, but as a coming-of-age story, in which a young woman is forced to learn to choose between the men that are right for her and the men who merely turn her on. As an older man with a reputation for being a libertine, Silas certainly fits the bill as a potential romantic bad boy and his fondness for kissing Maude on the lips certainly speaks of more than avuncular affection.
Similarly, Madame can be seen as a sort of lesbian dominatrix and Lapotaire’s profoundly eccentric performance in the role strongly supports this interpretation. Unfortunately for Hammond, the decision to cast Peter O’Toole completely destroys this interpretation as he spends the film looking not only drunk but also half dead. Though clearly aware of the sexual undertones in Le Fanu’s story, Hammond’s adaptation limits itself to making O’Toole suck face while an older woman does curious things with a cane.
More silly than scary or sexy, The Dark Angel is an amusing and perfectly watchable gothic thriller based upon a novel that is clearly starting to show its age. Featuring a number of eccentric performances but lacking real commitment to any particular vision of the source material, The Dark Angel is little more than a tolerable way of passing three hours.