TV Review: In its pilot, BBC First’s The Moonstone re-invents the period drama

A diamond is a girl’s best friend, but according to The Moonstone, it’s a curse. If anything, it warns against steal any treasure, let alone a sacred one. The BBC have delivered another refreshing and breathtaking miniseries here, an adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ underrated classic, considered to be the first detective novel.

The Moonstone follows Franklin Blake (Joshua Silver) who, upon returning to England, sets out on a mission to solve the mystery of the missing Moonstone. The diamond was stolen on owner Rachel Verinder’s (Terenia Edwards) birthday and has since caused a series of misfortunes. Blake enlists her former butler Gabriel Betteredge (Leo Wringer)’s help in tracking down the culprit and the diamond. Meanwhile, three Indian priests are on a quest to recover the latter.

If you think this miniseries is going to be another aesthetically pleasing period drama, you will be surprised. The five-episode miniseries starts off with a rich montage detailing the Moonstone’s backstory, reminiscent of Moulin Rouge! and emphasising the Victorians’ obsession to exoticise India, the “Jewel” of the Empire.

After the backstory, the first episode jumps to a grim and near isolated English countryside, a stark contrast to the far away India. Here, Franklin Blake looks haunted by a ghost and desperately tries to reconnect with Rachel who has secluded herself after the Moonstone had been stolen. The sombre atmosphere tells us that this series is as serious and plot-driven as Sherlock. There’s no time for romance or fascination with costumes. In fact, romance is twisted into a catalyst entangled with the theft. The characters are there for a purpose and aren’t immune to investigative eyes. Everyone’s a suspect.

On diversity, I was impressed, as most period dramas set in Victorian England often overlooked the presence of overseas British subjects. The three Indian priests might come across as stereotypes – silent, serious, mystical and dressed in sparkling attire, accompanied by wild animals – but they weren’t flat characters. There’s still much mystery surrounding them and considering they’re the guardians of the Moonstone and disguising themselves as performers, it creates anticipation on what they will do next. Will their mission clash with Blake and Betteredges? Will there be a fight to get the diamond?

Much of the first episode’s plot falls on Betteredge. His memory of the night of the theft and analytic mind are crucial to uncovering the mystery. It was great and refreshing to see a POC Briton having such a role, equal to the protagonist.  Not just a sidekick, not a just butler.

The episode goes back and forth between the present and past. The lightning makes them distinct with the present painted in grey or gloomy tones that cause chills down your spine, and the more colourful past is tinted with a dreamlike quality. Within the first half, we are drawn to the case and though it might feel that the plot drags on, it’s the suspense, the linking up of events and suspects, and the backfire of possible leads and subsequent de-reconstructing the events each time that keep you hanging on. The frustration seeps into your veins, ensuring you’re going to get hooked to the series. And of course there are the characters who keep their real emotions and motives under typical strict Victorian composure and pretty facades.

Joshua Silver’s portrayal of Blake is commendable. He balances a Blake who struggles with his deep feelings for Rachel with the Blake who’s sharp and focused as an investigator, and not without a touch of naivety.

Terenia Edwards plays Rachel well. She knows where to hit the right notes during the character’s progression from independent and spoiled to reserved and haunted. She breathes a spark of life into the character but at the same time keeps her on a leash to distance her from the viewer – keeping it align with how the book offers nothing from her point-of-view but she’s viewed by other characters. As a result, with several players in an investigation this complex, you would be on edge when it comes to Rachel.

Leo Wringer, meanwhile, portrays Betteredge with a passion that would make you warm and fuzzy, but then he surprises with the character’s thinking that rivals the famous consulting detectives. Overall, these three actors drive the story with their completely different and solid characters.

By the first episode, The Moonstone has already recreated the haunting sensation and thrill that gothic/detective fiction brought in, mixing them up with fantasy perfectly. Fans of Agatha Christie and Sherlock will be intrigued in this diamond of a miniseries and shouldn’t miss it.


The Moonstone airs Fridays at 8.30pm on Foxtel’s BBC First


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