Well-known for producing period dramas of the highest caliber, MASTERPIECE switches gears from light-hearted romantic dramas to a dark tale of desire and murder. ITV’s Dark Angel is an engrossing story of Britain’s first female serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton.
Make no mistake, this is a chilling tale riding the edge of obsessive love and material desires. Moreso, because it begins so innocuously. A dramatic romanticization of Mary Ann’s story, Dark Angel will leave you breathless with both heartbreak and horror.
Mary Ann Cotton – The Dark Angel
I have to admit, I had a difficult time watching Dark Angel. Not because it wasn’t good – it was – but because of how vicious and cold star Joanne Froggatt (Downton Abbey) portrayed Mary Ann Cotton. It was brilliant. Despite real heart-ache in her life, you do not feel sorry for Mary Ann. In fact, you end up absolutely loathing her. You wait breathlessly for her to be caught. You want her stopped.
Mary Ann Cotton killed at least 21 people, including her mother, children, step-children, husbands, a lover or two, and friends. She did so ruthlessly. Coldly. Mary Ann used poison to kill. Arsenic-laced tea brewed in a teapot gifted to her by her mother. Froggatt is brilliant as Mary Ann Cotton. The expression on Froggatt’s face as she brews her special tea is eerily blank; the comforting words she murmurs as she encourages her victim to drink is chilling. Froggatt shines, using the flicker of a glance or the clasping of her hands, to capture her true intent. I’m pretty sure the next time someone asks if I want “a nice cup of tea,” I’m going to be extremely suspicious.
Director Brian Percival (The Book Thief, Downton Abbey) does a fantastic job of pulling you into Mary Ann’s story. The story is methodical, moving effortlessly from one moment to the next without losing the emotional beats. At no time did I feel like Percival or Froggatt were attempting to humanize Mary Ann. On the contrary, despite introduced as a tragic figure, it was clear in Mary Ann’s manner that she was on the edge. Any sympathy was mixed with uneasiness. Part of that was because you already know the history. The other reason is that Percival, along with Froggatt, captured Mary Ann’s duality perfectly. One minute she’s a loving mother and in the next, a murderess. This whiplash effect was effective throughout the series.
In addition to the characterization, Percival ratcheted up the tension after each successful murder. It was a slow build, but not so slow as to drag on. Adding to the menace was how everyday items of the time period became instruments of death. Especially the teapot. Every shot of the teapot will make you wince.
An Obsessive Affair
Dark Angel is not a romantic period drama in the traditional sense. There is very little romantic love. However, part of Mary Ann’s story in Dark Angel involves a sordid affair between Mary Ann and coal miner, Joe Nattrass (Jonas Armstrong, Robin Hood). Both married to others, their relationship lasts for years. Neither appears put off by the “darkness” in the other. Instead, they seem to feed off of it. From the beginning, it’s clear this relationship is unhealthy.
Yet, it remains one of Mary Ann’s obsessions until the end. Much that is wrong in this relationship sets Mary Ann further down her murderous path. The desperate passion between them contrasts with Mary Ann’s bloodless killing. It’s shiver-inducing to watch her be warm and passionate in one scene and then become a stone-faced killer in the next. Armstrong and Froggatt have an insane chemistry which makes their scenes spark. Armstrong’s smoldering stares are difficult to resist! So much so, you may find yourself yelling at your television for him to stay away from Mary Ann!
Final Thoughts on Dark Angel
Dark Angel is a darkly chilling tale of one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers. Disturbing, yet engrossing, Dark Angel is relentless in its portrayal of Mary Ann Cotton. This is not a feel-good story, but it does drag you in deep. Mary Ann’s belief that she is a victim will keep you on edge until the very end. With an amazing cast and fantastic direction, Dark Angel is a series you don’t want to miss!
Dark Angel also stars Sam Hoare, Alun Armstrong, Emma Fielding, and Laura Morgan.
Content Note: Dark Angel is rated TV-14 which means it contains some material that parents or adult guardians may find unsuitable for children under the age of 14. In my opinion, I would also warn of a few sexually explicit scenes that go beyond TV-14. There is no nudity; however, the scenes are explicit even while the actors remain fully clothed.
Photo Credit: ITV