Review: The Dark Angel

Peter O'Toole is Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas

A painting of Peter O'Toole in The Dark Angel

Starring: Peter O’Toole, Beatie Edney, Jane Lapotaire, Charlotte Coleman and Barbara Shelley
Writers: Don MacPherson (based on Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu)
Director: Peter Hammond
Price: £14.99 (Amazon price: £11.20)
Released: May 30th 2011

Sheridan Le Fanu is something of a neglected author. Although influential in his day with classics of the horror and gothic genres, such as Through a Glass Darkly, Carmilla and Uncle Silas, he’s now overshadowed by the likes of Poe, Collins and Stoker. Movie and TV adaptations of his work are few and far between.

Back in 1987, the BBC adapted Uncle Silas as the three-part mini-series, The Dark Angel. Directed by Peter Hammond (who directed many of Granada’s Sherlock Holmes episodes as well as 18 episodes of The Avengers and a whole lot more), it faithfully sticks to the book in seeing young Maud Ruthyn (Beatie Edney) having to live with her uncle Silas (Peter O’Toole), a noted wastrel and alleged murderer, even though if she should die, he would inherit from her one of the largest fortunes in England.

Cue the trailer:

When her father unexpectedly dies, young Maud Ruthyn becomes heiress to a large fortune that is held in trust for her until she comes of age. Romantically obsessed by a youthful, Byronic painting of her Uncle Silas, she readily agrees to being placed in his care – ignoring warnings of his behaviour as a known rake, wastrel and opium fiend. Unfortunately for Maud, things are not what they seem, and Silas’s benevolent demeanour hides a web of deception and terror.

Is it any good?
Well, when it comes to gothic, you can’t get much more gothic than Uncle Silas. You know the form: innocent young woman at the mercy of evil people who want her money, has to endure all manners of miseries. Unlike a lot of Le Fanu books, though, there’s no actual supernatural element here, beyond hints that Maud’s family home is haunted.

However, ‘spooks’ is tonally what The Dark Angel is all about. Rather than there being a huge mystery about whether Uncle Silas is going to turn out to be a baddie or not, with no huge shocks to deliver, director Hammond instead turns to the surreal and intriguing camerawork to unsettle the audience. As well as using strange mirror techniques and various unsettling angles to suggest hallucination, drug-induced visions and insanity, he also takes advantage of old reliable Pepper’s Ghost to give a Victorian supernatural feel to the visuals, without recourse to anything more modern.

Most of the unsettling nature of the story comes from the behaviour of the actors and characters, however, with the characters behaving oddly and unnaturally at random points in the story. We have Jane Lapotaire as a mental French governess who spooks young Beatie Edney (unless you’re a fan of obscure blonde actresses of the 80s as I am, you probably wouldn’t know her name, although you might recognise her as Heather in Highlander or as the star of the mid-90s ITV sitcom Dressing For Breakfast. She also popped up in a Wallander recently). Lapotaire’s Madame de la Rougierre is a sadistic piece of Grand Guignol, made up in white, bewigged, with long pointed fingernails and prone to do baffling, spinning dances in between bouts of drunken brandy drinking. As with Carmilla, there are hints at a potential lesbian interest on the part of Madame de la Rougierre, as she plays with Maud’s hair and runs fingers over her lips at odd moments. Not the creepiest moments, by far, though – that would be Edney kissing O’Toole.

But that sexual edge recurs throughout the story, with various characters acting in a way that suggests Maude is in sexual as well as physical danger from her oppressors. At one point, she’s chased by her creepy, menacing cousin who eventually pins her down and asks her to marry him. And it’s clear Uncle Silas has designs on her too, and would like to take advantage of her infatuation with his painting.

The story progresses slowly, it has to be said, with Peter O’Toole not even putting in an appearance in the first episode. It’s the slow build-up of claustrophobia that makes The Dark Angel more interesting in its second two episodes, with Silas’s clever schemes to isolate, dominate and woo Maude obvious to the viewer but not to Maude herself. Although Maude is a little too easily led around by modern standards, she’s a reasonably feisty character who’s even quite nifty in a fight, although she does end up getting doped with laudanum a lot. O’Toole’s louche Uncle Silas is a little too obviously an act for most of the story, but he has moments of brilliance.

This probably isn’t the most gripping or the scariest thing you could buy, but it is a good, solid adaption of a book that helped to form the template of the gothic horror. Interesting for fans, probably less interesting for everyone else, The Dark Angel is more of a curiosity than a must-have, but proves rewarding in the end.

Rating: 4/5

Extras: Not really


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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