The decadent worlds of spirit mediumship and film-making come together in this forthcoming feature from French director Rebecca Zlotowski.
Planetarium tells the story of the Laura and Kate Barlow, American sisters who arrive in Paris after touring Europe with their chic spiritualism performances. There they attract the attention of avante-garde filmmaker André Korben, who becomes their patron in a project that aims to fuse art with the occult – but which also seems to portend the rise of the Third Reich.
Planetarium will have its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival (August 31 – September 10).
Edwardian-social-issues-of-the-week: Spiritualism and the deep emotional bond between parents and children
“Supernatural” crime: Spiritualism (?)
H&D has really hit its stride, with another strong story following last week’s lively Spring Heeled Jack caper.
We open by following the mysterious Madame Korzha as she leads a group of police constables and distraught parents through the shadowy streets of London in search of a kidnapped child named Julia. Madame Korzha certainly seems, in this scene, to possess some sort of preternatural powers, as she unerringly guides her followers into the subterranean tunnels, where they discover the girl, clutching a doll and upset but unharmed, along with a note written in blood:
Houdini, Doyle and Stratton are naturally intrigued to learn that a psychic appears to have been of actual use in a police investigation. Harry and Adelaide are sceptical of her abilities and suspect that she may have had inside knowledge of the kidnapping, but Doyle is, inevitably, more open to the possibility of spirit guidance. The enigmatic Madame Korzha further ingratiates herself with Doyle by revealing that she is a fan of his Sherlock Holmes stories.
We then meet dock worker Mitchell Pearce, the father of a girl who was kidnapped and murdered under similar circumstances about a year previously. Suspecting some connection between the two cases, the police ask Madame Korzha to investigate alongside Houdini, Doyle and Stratton.
The team learns that the message on the wall was not written in Julia’s blood and that the doll she was found clutching was not hers. After having purportedly consulted with her spirit guides, Madame Korzha then guides them to the kidnapper’s deserted lair in an abandoned doll factory. Houdini is ever more convinced that she must somehow be in cahoots with the kidnapper(s).
The normally phlegmatic Inspector Merring, who seems to be taking these abductions very much to heart, reveals that yet another girl has been kidnapped. Young Julia, fortunately, has now recovered from her ordeal enough to be able to reveal that the masked man who took her was bearded and that she had managed to scratch his face. Houdini notes darkly that Madame Korzha’s assistant has a beard …
Shortly thereafter, Doyle, Houdini and Stratton attend a seance at Madame Korzha’s residence. Despite Harry’s ability to predict some of her pronouncements via his knowledge of cold reading, she also appears to be unaccountably privy to certain details about Doyle’s life and his relationship with his wife. At the dramatic climax of the seance, Madame Korzha and her assistant appear to instantly and impossibly swap places in the room; but Houdini remains unconvinced. Later, Houdini returns to Korzha’s residence, apparently so as to expose her as a fraud, but they end up sleeping together. Houdini steals her passport, then realises that Korzha has stolen his wallet.
It turms out that Madame Korzha’s Romanian passport is a forgery and that she actually hails from Croydon; her real name is Edith Pilkie. Houdini is now almost certain that she has organised the kidnappings so as to cast herself as a heroine by rescuing the children, and so drum up more business as a psychic investigator.
However, re-examining the photographic evidence, Houdini then realises the Hargreaves and Pearce girls were bound differently – and recognises the knots used on Julia as those commonly used on London docks. The team confronts Mitchell Pearce, who has evidently gone mad with grief, and who confesses that he kidnapped Julia and the latest missing girl to draw attention to the failure of the police to solve his own daughter’s abduction and murder. During a struggle with Houdini and Doyle, Pearce accidentally shoots himself and dies.
Heading to the London docks, the team finds Pearce’s latest victim bound to a ladder and about to be drowned by the rising tide, but Houdini leaps into the frigid water and is able to release her just in the nick of time. She is revived and reunited with her parents.
Doyle, meanwhile, has deduced how “Madame Korzha” was able to function so well as an investigator – she has been using Sherlock Holmes’s methods of detection! She hands him an enigmatic note (and returns Houdini’s wallet) before disappearing into the night. Following clues in the note leads Houdini and Doyle to the London Public Records Office, and to photographic evidence that Adelaide Stratton has been hiding her real identity from them.
The highlight of this tautly-plotted episode is definitely the mysterious Madame Korzha herself. The ultimate reveal that she is actually a genius-level detective and magician, posing as a sophisticated foreign psychic in order to help people because Edwardian Londoners would not take a working-class woman seriously as a detective, is a brilliant premise. If H&D does get a second season, we look forward to this character’s return.
It’s nice to see Inspector Merring do something other than stand gruffly behind his desk. The reveal that he lost his only son during wartime, which has especially sensitized him to missing child cases out of empathy with the parents, offers him some more depth and humanity.
Houdini’s guilty admission that he, himself, once worked as a fraudulent medium is historically true; it was early in his magic career and he stopped doing it when he realised the potential harm he was doing to true believers.
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Eight ibangs out of a possible ten for episode five, which introduces an intriguing new character, deepens the mystery of Adelaide Stratton’s real identity and offers a solid blend of mystery and action.
This 2015 ITV telemovie is very loosely based on Neil Spring’s HP-inspired novel, The Ghost Hunters(2013).In effect, being filtered through two different fictional media, the detail of the movie’s plot admits only a little historical accuracy; but of course, as a work of fiction it makes no claim of documentary realism and can only be fairly judged on its own merits.
The story opens with HP (Rafe Spall) conducting a dramatic seance at a home in London during, or very shortly after, the First World War. As it then transpires, Price has gimmicked the sitting for maximum spooky effect. Clearly, he is riding high as a ghost racketeer – until, shockingly, a disturbed young soldier who has bought into Price’s line of afterlife patter commits suicide right in front of him.
(Cut to the opening titles, a nice montage of the tools of the ghost-hunter’s trade – ’20s-vintage cameras, phonographs, metronomes and other such apparatus.)
Several years later, a sadder and wiser Harry Price has changed tack and is making his living as an investigator of seemingly paranormal phenomena, with the cloud of his former charlatanry hanging heavily about him. He is hired to investigate the strange case of Grace Goodwin (Zoe Boyle), the young wife of fast-rising Liberal MP Edward Goodwin (Tom Ward); Grace has recently been discovered wandering the streets of London, naked and disoriented, and seems to be suffering from a case of ghostly possession.
Price visits the couple’s home and quickly learns that it is a former workhouse. Sarah Goodwin’s strange visions seem to revolve around the ghost of a young boy who died there many years before.
HP is assigned the couple’s maid, Sarah Grey (Cara Theobold) as an assistant and discovers her to be a natural skeptic and a shrewd detective in her own right. Sarah has her own reason to distrust psychic mediums; her mother is a seance groupie, spending money they can’t afford in a series of attempts to contact her late husband. The point is effectively made that mediums, for all their frequent chicanery, were often the closest thing to therapists available to ordinary people during the early 20th century.
In an interlude from the main action, Price disrupts and debunks one of these public seances, for all the good it does; the true believers in the audience boo him off the stage and then the angry psychic strikes a nerve in aggressively cold reading Harry backstage, provoking Harry to knock him down. Eventually, we gather that Harry’s wife was sadly lost to insanity and that Harry seems to blame himself for not being able to help her.
Harry and Sarah proceed to puzzle out clues and mysteries towards discovering the real source of Mrs. Goodwin’s bizarre behaviour, calling upon the additional help of two of HP’s associates as the case becomes ever more convoluted.
Albert Ogoro (Richie Campbell) is a chemist by day and faux-voodoo witch-doctor by night. His main function in the story, other than to provide chemical analysis, is to illustrate another perspective on the ethics of the ghost racket. From Albert’s point of view, his clients are in such desperate straits that, if his sham-shamanism offers them some comfort, what’s the harm? He applies that logic in “assisting” Harry during a late-night vigil at the Goodwin home, but in this case his trickery (in the form of a rather implausible mechanical spider device secreted inside a grand piano) does no particular good.
Vernon Wall (Lewis Reeves), a hard-nosed young reporter who clearly has some unresolved “history” with Harry, nevertheless also agrees to help and tracks down a former secret lover of Mrs. Goodwin’s, whose presence in the Goodwins’ lives seems to have sparked the current dire situation. As it transpires, the politician is insanely possessive of his wife and, upon discovering her infidelity (and that she was pregnant with another man’s baby), he began secretly dosing her with home-brewed barbiturates, causing her to miscarry and then suffer terrifying hallucinations as she withdrew from the drug.
Goodwin reacts violently when Sarah confronts him with the truth and knocks her unconscious. Very curiously, as she comes to, she seems to see the same ghostly young boy who has been haunting Grace Goodwin. Charitably, it might be assumed that Sarah is now so deeply involved with the case that her imagination conjured a spectral child; less charitably, this vision reads as an incongruous “maybe it’s all true after all” cop-out on behalf of the writer. There’s no time to worry about that, though, as Mr. Goodwin has gone berserk and is attempting to drown his wife in the bath tub – but Harry Price arrives in the nick of time and saves the day.
The story ends with Harry inviting Sarah, who is now out of a job, to become his full-time assistant. She says she’ll think about it – leaving the way open for their adventures to be continued in some form, perhaps as a regular series …
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Seven ibangs out of ten for this effective, atmospheric and well-acted ghost-hunter procedural.
The ten-part Edwardian mystery/drama/action series Houdini and Doyle teams friendly rivals Harry Houdini (Michael Weston) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Stephen Mangan) as freelance investigators of crimes that appear to have a supernatural slant.
The first episode begins with a murder of a senior nun in one of London’s notorious Magdalene laundries, in which young women – often unmarried mothers – were effectively imprisoned and forced to work. The twist is that the murderer is said to have been the ghost of a former “Maggie”, or young resident, who had been cruelly tormented by some of the nuns and had died some six months previously.
Both arch-skeptic Houdini and true believer Doyle are fascinated by the case because of its apparently otherworldly nature, but there the similarities end. Houdini is convinced that a mortal murderer has exploited the laundry’s resident ghost story to cover their tracks, whereas Doyle is equally convinced that a restless spirit is to blame.
Essentially bullying their way in to the Scotland Yard investigation on the strength of their celebrity, they are assigned the help of the progressive and forthright Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard), the Yard’s first female police constable, by a condescending Detective Inspector who wishes to be rid of both H&D’s amateur sleuthing and of his female constable. The Inspector, of course, has significantly underestimated Houdini, Doyle and Stratton, who combine their talents to solve the mystery behind the bloody crimes.
As it turns out, Houdini was right; the motive for murder was personal and punitive revenge. The murderer exploited the ghost story to cover her tracks and hoped to establish a legend that might, perversely, lead to less cruelty by the Magdalene nuns in the future.
The Maggie’s Redress is an effective procedural that strikes all the requisite beats at a rapid clip, including numerous allusions to the lives of the real Houdini and Doyle while also playing very fast and loose indeed with historical accuracy. Although Houdini and Doyle were, in reality, friends and mutual admirers, they did not actually meet until the 1920s. That friendship only lasted a few years, ending acrimoniously due to their vehement disagreements about the reality of spiritualistic phenomena. That said, their fictional relationship in the show is layered and the interplay between Doyle’s optimistic embrace of all things numinous and Houdini’s rational humanism is well portrayed.
The character of constable Adelaide Stratton is fictional and, in real history, the first female constables in London were not appointed until the outbreak of the First World War, some fifteen years after the period portrayed in Houdini and Doyle.
Some of the dialogue is painfully anachronistic – no more so than when Houdini seemingly coins the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” some eighty years before it actually gained any currency – but the sets, costumes and other production design elements are all effectively evocative of London circa 1900. Everything is ultimately explained, though the rationales for some of those explanations do strain credibility; if you like the show you may be inclined to forgive those trespasses, and if not, they’ll probably bother you.
All in all, The Maggie’s Redress is an enjoyable if lightweight 45 minutes’ worth of entertainment, noteworthy for its nuanced treatment of skepticism and gullibility. We look forward to the remaining nine episodes of this intriguing new series.
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With all due ceremony, we award episode 1 of the Houdini and Doyle series a total of seven ibangs out of a possible ten (note – one full ibang deducted for “garbage in, garbage out”).