Helen McCrory's unsung Gothic Legacy
Remembering the actress' role in Penny Dreadful
by Rory Buccheri
Many born in the 1990s and early 2000s will have received the news of actress Helen McCrory’s passing and remembered her from the Harry Potter movies and Peaky Blinders. It is McCrory’s more obscure gigs, happening in the dim twilight of the Gothic genre, that often go unnoticed. And let me tell you what a shame it is. McCrory’s reign of villainous wigs and witchy vibes expanded far beyond the character of Narcissa Malfoy, and into the core of gothic queer shows on tv. McCrory was a dazzling actress, capable of casting her soul into a variety of character moulds and across media: TV, cinema, theatre. Yet, I believe there is a quality in her acting that cannot go unmentioned: McCrory’s stunning presence in the TV gothic scene. Often unremembered and hard to out-perform, her role as Evelyn Poole/ Madame Kali in Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (2014) is a true celebration of Gothicism and brilliant acting.
The show, aired on Showtime in 2014 and cancelled in 2016, gathered fans all across the globe with its unique mix of Victorian literature, horror, gothic and supernatural. If you’re a fan of gothic literature, what’s not to love about seeing characters such as Dracula, Dorian Gray and Dr Jekyll living and breathing on the streets of Victorian London?
McCrory’s character in Penny Dreadful is one of the most fascinating and articulated ones. Doubling (as many other characters do) as Evelyn Poole and Madame Kali, McCrory’s performance both challenges and fits the trope of the charming villain brilliantly. Hers is a complex character, exploring one of the trickiest territories of Victorian literature: the fictionalising of witchcraft, a theme inherited from the blood-stained reality of the past century. Yet, McCrory’s character does not simply embody this literary conundrum: it goes beyond the flat stock type of the witch. There are internal conflict, complication and depth in McCrory’s characters. Although not given the same relevance and screen time as Madame Kali, her Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies still shows some traits of that inner conflict and depth. And again, it is not unusual that, after such a stunning performance, she ended up playing Lady Macbeth at the Little Angel Theatre in 2013.
McCrory’s performance both challenges and fits the trope of the charming villain brilliantly. Her character explores one of the trickiest territories of Victorian literature: the fictionalising of witchcraft, a theme inherited from the blood-stained reality of the past century.
courtesy of Showtime
McCrory really stole the scene since her first appearance. Cast as a secondary antagonist, she ended up becoming not only a fan favourite, but also a source of inspiration. Years after the sad cancellation of Penny Dreadful, an Amazon spin-off saw Natalie Dormer resuscitate the old franchise. Dormer, who gave her heart and soul to the show, said about Helen McCrory that she was her “greatest inspiration” when embarking on the role, and “a true light” for actresses after her playing Gothic characters.
Helen McCrory will be remembered for many roles she brought to life a unique way, and I like to think of her role in Penny Dreadful as one of the strongest parts of her legacy.