‘Dracula’ review: daring homage to Victorian drama

David Wiegand
San Francisco Chronicle, October 22, 2013

There’s something daring about the new NBC limited series “Dracula,” although at first, it will seem deceptively old-fashioned.

The British-American co-production, premiering Friday, stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers (“The Tudors”) as Vlad Tepes, otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler. He’s been re-awakened with a heaping helping of fresh human blood by Abraham Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann, “The Pianist”) and has barged his way into proper Victorian London society, posing as an American tycoon.

Although Van Helsing is Dracula’s vampire-hunting enemy in Bram Stoker’s novel, for now at least, he has revived him so they can both wreak vengeance on the Order of the Dragon, a group of select nobles who centuries before murdered Dracula’s wife and Van Helsing’s family.

“Dracula” takes liberties with history, as well as with Stoker’s novel. Did you know, for example, that the reason no one knows the identity of Jack the Ripper is that the Whitechapel murders were actually the work of vampires?

But that’s not anywhere near as daring as how series creators Cole Haddon and Daniel Knauf have fashioned “Dracula” as an homage to Victorian melodrama – not just by setting the story in Victorian London, but by replicating the sensationalist tone of 19th century pulp fiction known as penny dreadfuls.

The often stilted dialogue, punctuated by lustful stares and blood-hungry glowering, may be off-putting at first because we’re so used to actors in period pieces speaking in a present-day vernacular. Grayson/Dracula and his pals sound closer to characters from a ’30s film than a 21st century TV series. But over time, as our modern ears adjust to the melodramatically declarative style, the antiquated dialogue enhances the other-worldly tone of the series.

Wife burned alive
The show’s setup provides the writers with a way to offer both a through-story and more narrowly focused incidents for individual episodes as Grayson picks off his enemies one by one. At times, it just seems as though Grayson is finding ways to ruin (or kill) his new business rivals, but soon enough, we see the bigger picture, that they are all members of the group responsible for burning Dracula’s wife alive centuries before.

Other characters in Stoker make the transition to the TV series, but with minor adjustments. Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw, “Arrow”) is not a school mistress in the TV series but rather a young medical student and the daughter of a famed surgeon. Defying convention, she is intent on becoming a physician herself. Mina is in love with young Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, “Mr. Selfridge”) – not a solicitor as the character is in the novel, but an ambitious young reporter trying to find the courage to ask Mina to marry him.

Grayson is captivated by Mina as well because she’s a living ringer, so to speak, for his wife. But instead of putting Harker at the top of his hit list to get a clear shot at Mina, he offers him a job with such a high salary, he can’t say no. It would be easy enough for Grayson to possess Mina by turning her into a vampire, but one of his more sympathetic traits is his unwillingness to damn her for eternity.

If that ain’t love, what is?

Besides, Grayson’s primary focus is on the Order of the Dragon. After he slaughters a particularly arrogant member of the group, he blackmails another member by threatening to expose his affair with the son of one of his colleagues. And for his own recreation, after a hard day of tycooning and neck-biting, Grayson is also hitting the sheets with the icy beauty Lady Jane (Victoria Smurfit, “About a Boy”), who may have an agenda of her own.

Spots vulnerability
The writers walk a fine line with characterization in the series. At first, many of key figures are almost like caricatures, one-dimensional and seeming to lack nuance. Yet, as the series continues, many of them do evolve. Mina, for example, displays atypical independence for a woman of her time in her determination to succeed in an overwhelmingly male profession. Harker seems at first to be a highly principled journalistic crusader.

But one of Grayson’s talents is his ability to spot points of vulnerability in someone’s character. Just as he was able to blackmail the closeted Order of the Dragon member, he knows that Harker won’t let altruism stand in the way of his personal advancement.

This is, at heart, the enduring appeal of “Dracula” and the vampire legend: Evil though the character may be, his victims are often less than pure themselves, and that prompts us to consider what we might trade for seemingly unattainable gifts. Dracula trades his soul for immortality, and it is an eternal curse.

As we learn more about Dracula, and about his victims, the needle of our moral compass shifts. At first, we see Dracula as a monster, a growling blood-thirsty beast capable of ripping throats open in a flash. He continues to be an ornery cuss, but we soon cut him some slack – first when we learn about his wife and then when we meet the arrogant, ruthless and even more evil targets of his vengeance. Drac may be a bad guy, but he’s not necessarily the baddest guy.

And in the case of “Dracula,” that’s pretty good.

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