“How is it that men crush women time and time again and go unpunished?”
That furious question comes in the very first scene of the BBC’s adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, which begins on Sunday 22nd April. An ageing male solicitor sits impassively, making notes with a quill; he tells Marian (Jessie Buckley) to compose herself. And when she makes an accusation, he tells her she is wrong.
Collins’ book was first published in 1859, and even today it stands out with its surprisingly progressive approach to gender and the rights of women. And now, in 2018, the TV adaptation will feed into today’s conversations about feminism and sexual violence.
“We’ve done a very different take on the story,” Ben Hardy, who plays protagonist Walter Hartright, says. That’s why the drama starts with Marian’s powerful words, before diving back into the past to explain how we got here.
“The actual themes of the piece, they’re more relevant now than they were when we filmed,” Hardy says.
Since the drama was commissioned in 2015, allegations about Harvey Weinstein and revelations about sexual abuse and harassment have changed the conversation. Hardy explains: “This idea of these two women living freely within the strict structure of Victorian society – and then a heinous patriarch coming in and spoiling everything. It felt very relevant.”
Kind-hearted artist Walter first meets those two young women when he accepts a job working for elderly hypochondriac Frederick Fairlie, curating his extensive art collection and acting as tutor to his nieces Marian and Laura (Olivia Vinall) at Limmeridge House in Cumbria. But before he even sets off from London, he has a deeply affecting experience: he meets the “Woman in White” on a moonlit walk.
Without giving too much away, Walter is drawn into a mysterious and disturbing story that reveals women’s limited power in Victorian society. We see how men exploit, manipulate, gaslight and control the women in their lives, using emotional and physical coercion to get their way. And we admire the rebellious Marian, who stands outside her 19th century gender role.
“I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of doing a Victorian piece,” Hardy admits. “But what really struck me about The Woman In White was just how ahead of its time it was… I was so surprised in reading it, I was really quite taken aback by how modern it felt.”
Collins was extremely forward-thinking in his time, and Hardy believes he put a great deal of himself into the “everyman” character of Walter.
“Walter is kind of the perfect man to go to Limmeridge House, because he’s very open,” the actor explains. “Maybe it’s partly being an artist, as well – he finds it inspiring how free [the women] are and how they live in reckless abandon – or what would be seen as reckless abandon – within the confines of Victorian society.”
On Walter’s progressive motivations, Hardy adds: “He has a great deal of respect for both Marian and Laura. It’s not like he’s the chivalrous knight in shining armour – it’s very much a mutual respect and he wants to help these women that he considers to be his equals.”
The Woman in White begins on Sunday 22nd April at 9pm on BBC1
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