A two-part mini series recounting the life of Victorian serial killer and black widow Mary Ann Cotton, Dark Angel is pretty chilling stuff to watch. Though I feel it could have been more effective of it had more episodes, Dark Angel still hits the creepy notes of disturbance and turmoil that evoked the hardships of life at the time and how one woman took murderous charge over her own. Be warned, spoilers will follow in my review of the series based on true events.
We begin with Mary Ann Cotton(Joanne Froggatt) in prison in Durham, England, awaiting her execution by hanging in 1873. From here, we flashback to many years before when she came back to her home along with her first husband William(Tom Varey) and a young daughter. She had lost five children through gastric fever and coming back was something of an attempted fresh start. She moves in with her mother(Penny Layden) and step father(Alun Armstrong) for a while, yet when William gets a job on a steamship they have to move. Several children later and several more deaths follow Mary Ann, who finds the bed sit she lives in a dirty and horrible place designed to crush her spirit. Importantly, she has to purchase arsenic to get rid of bed bugs in the dank home. When William returns from work with a busted leg which means the family won’t be able to survive with no one earning money, a light comes on in Mary Ann’s head. Knowing that William has taken out life insurance( which was just coming into prominence with many families at the time), she slowly begins poisoning him by lacing his meals and tea with arsenic. William eventually dies painfully and his death is put down to disease, as it was so rife at the time. Mary Ann collects on the life insurance as a result of this and survives from possibly starving. Seeing how easy this is, Mary Ann moves around the North East and continues to gain more husbands, who all perish( but one) when they become no use to her anymore or can’t provide for her. And it isn’t just husbands that drop like flies, step-children, her own mother and best friend all end up six feet under, ensuring more money for her and that she won’t be found out. It is only years later that a suspicious grocer finds the woman a little menacing and slowly deduces how evil this Mary Ann Cotton truly is; leading to her arrest and eventual hanging.
Kudos to Dark Angel for how it telegraphs the squalor of Victorian life and how dank it all was. With a grey and brown colour palette, the world is unrelentingly grim for Mary Ann, who obviously chafed at her lack of prospects and eventually turned to murder to assert some form of power. Seriously, Dark Angel is enough to put anyone off tea for a long time, watching as this was one of Mary Ann’s wicked ways of slipping poison to her unwitting victims. I never thought the words ‘Everything will look better after a nice cup of tea’ could carry so much malevolence. Now the issue of pace is something of a double-edged sword as far as Dark Angel is concerned. On one hand, it moves pretty rapidly that it can be hard to keep up with what time frame we are in and what exactly is happening. Yet in another breath, it also conveys the grim efficiency of Mary Ann and how she managed to elude detection for so long by moving about and insidiously worming her way into people’s lives. Overall, the uneasiness is pretty darn effective, though I couldn’t escape that lingering feeling that a few more episodes may have done the story more justice. For what it’s worth, Dark Angel is still alarmingly watchable, as there is something grimly fascinating about watching how an average woman of the time took devious command of her life after feeling so slighted by the hand it had dealt her. And though we know the end result, it’s the lead up the captures the most interest for a lot of it. Be warned that Dark Angel is more than a little squirm inducing as historians have estimated that she may have killed up to 21 people, though we don’t see this, what we do witness certainly makes it appear possible that she was capable of anything. We may never really know why Mary Ann Cotton did what she did, but this drama provides a compelling visualization of her emergence as a woman of greed and horror. The music used is pretty minimal and through this, out attention is drawn more to the darkness and stark nature of this horrifying true story.
Joanne Froggatt is the series ace in the hole, embodying the part of Mary Ann Cotton exquisitely. At first, there is some genuine sympathy that Joanne Froggatt projects as Mary Ann; you can clearly see that life is one long drudge of housework, child rearing and soul-crushing poverty in the beginning. It’s the following events as she becomes very selfish and callous, killing anyone who stands in her way to financial gain or security that make the part truly horrifying. Froggatt doesn’t miss a beat, charting the rise in her killer instinct and avaricious ways that are captured through nuances of seductive charm, boiled anger and unrepentant mind. I admire her commitment to the role and how she played it with a certain subtlety rather than going for an overtly dramatic approach. Alun Armstrong is particularly good as the stepfather; a hardworking man who can’t help but have that nagging concern that something is just not right. The same goes for Penny Layden who compliments him well as Mary Ann’s mother, who while caring for her daughter, just doesn’t have the strength to shake off her suspicions of foul play. Sam Hoare is seen the most out of the four husband’s as he plays the rich and grieving widower in need of a nanny for his children. Hoare gets the sadness of the character across, but wisely he is the only husband to live as he realises that Mary Ann is not the sweet girl who came into his house when he discovers her thieving of money from his account. Jonas Armstrong plays Joe, a bit of rough who engages in a long affair with the devious Mary Ann. The part doesn’t particular call for a lot, but Armstrong gets the uncouth manner of the miner right enough. Laura Morgan fares very well in the supporting part of Mary Ann’s unsuspecting best friend, while as two of the unfortunate men who are offed by the wicked woman, Tom Varey and Thomas Howes evoke sympathy in their brief tenures.
So while it could have benefited from some more expansion to it, Dark Angel successfully gets by due to the shock of it all and the excellent work from Joanne Froggatt as the murderous Mary Ann Cotton.
And if anyone wants to get an idea of the series, below is the trailer.