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If You'd Like a Ghostly Mystery Without the Bloodshed, Watch 'The Woman in White'
October 21, 2018  | By David Hinckley

At a time when the supernatural on television tends to turn graphically violent, the BBC and PBS deliver something closer to intrigue bordering on elegance in the classic quasi-ghost story The Woman in White.

Based on an 1859 novel by Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White has become enough of a classic to get resurrected regularly over the years. This latest five-part BBC adaptation launches Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

Set in dark forests and shadowy corridors of Victorian England, The Woman In White revolves around a young artist, Walter Hartright (Ben Hardy, top), who chances to see a woman dressed in white and so ethereal she almost seems spectral.

She scurries away when he asks questions. By happy coincidence for the drama, he soon overhears a policeman saying a young woman in white had escaped from a local asylum and was considered dangerous.

This is the point at which your standard contemporary supernatural story would become a horror story, with dismembered bodies scattered around the moors by dawn.

The Woman In White takes a more tantalizing direction.

Walter is headed toward the village of Limmeridge, where he has taken a job as an art instructor for the two nieces of the wealthy Frederick Fairlie (Charles Dance, right).

When he arrives, he meets the gregarious niece, Marian Halcombe (Jessie Buckley), who introduces him to her much quieter half-sister Laura Fairlie (Olivia Vinall, bottom).

He can’t help noticing Laura has a remarkable resemblance to the woman in white. He mentions this to Marian, who tells him a mysterious woman did live at Limmeridge not so long ago. Her name was Anne Catherick, and she wore white all the time.

This gets Walter’s attention and stirs his imagination. Ours, too. Then things start to get downright complicated when Walter develops an attraction to Laura, who is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde (Dougray Scott).

Percival’s the kind of oily guy we know immediately to dislike, though Laura seems untroubled by anything about him.

Not so Anne, who makes it clear Percival is responsible for much of her still largely unexplained distress.

It gets more complicated from there, and at times a bit more lethal. Pretty much all the characters except Walter (and his mother, who seems to be a very nice woman) are either a little off-center, noticeably guarded or just stiffly mannered.

The story is, after all, set in 1859.

As adapted here, The Woman In White plays more like a mystery, with perhaps a hint of Agatha Christie, than a horror story.

But the specter of the supernatural is always out there somewhere, hanging in the bog mist, and it soon becomes clear that some of the folks here are up to no good.

It’s a lively interpretation, with a modern flavor too, in particular, several of the female characters. It also has the BBC/PBS look, with splendid lighting and a generally rich texture.

If you’d like a Halloween season mystery with some menace, but would prefer to stop short of slashers and gore, The Woman In White provides that entertaining alternative.

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