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The Doll Factory review – this twisty period drama is sumptuously atmospheric


There are few worse ways to spend a dark and dismal evening than immersing oneself in The Doll Factory, a well-crafted tale set in the Victorian era. Based on Elizabeth Macneal’s bestselling novel, this six-episode series follows the trials and tribulations of Iris Whittle, a young woman who earns her living painting porcelain dolls. The show immediately sets a gothic tone, with many of the dolls resembling deceased children and being commissioned by grieving parents as mementos. Iris and her introverted sister Rose create these dolls from photographs, entertaining themselves with a morbid game of “dead or alive”. This provides some respite from their mundane existence, as they are both employed by the strict and stingy shopkeeper Mrs Salter, who holds their debt over them for taking them in.

Iris is a determined individual who often speaks out of turn, resulting in the loss of a day’s pay. Despite her lower social standing, she shows kindness towards street children and impresses her social superiors with her articulate manner. She harbors dreams of becoming an artist, but as a woman with no financial means in London during the 1850s, it seems like a mere fantasy. The objectification of women’s bodies is a prevalent theme, as they are objectified and controlled by men. Iris and her distinctive red hair catch the attention of Silas Reed, the owner of a curiosity shop who also engages in vivisection and taxidermy. Flashbacks suggest that Iris resembles someone from his past.

Silas is not the sole individual in London who holds a fascination for the doll-painter. The Pre-Raphaelites also make their entrance, depicted as a group of brothers resembling the Bullingdon Club, who roam the city and show a particular interest in its darker side. They are impolite, boisterous, and aggressive, often frequenting pubs and brothels in search of women to indulge in, both physically and otherwise. They harass Silas, giving him the nickname “Cadaver.” The most enigmatic member of this clique, Louis Frost, notices Iris and determines that he must have her as his muse. Her fiery red hair is what captivates him.

Iris longs to escape the confines of the shop, her overbearing boss Mrs Salter, and her domineering sister who was disfigured by smallpox at 16 and now hides behind a veil. Her sister Rose constantly belittles Iris’s artistic ambitions. When offered a new job opportunity, Iris acknowledges the harsh reality that modeling is socially frowned upon and equated to prostitution at that time. However, she sees the potential to strike a deal with Louis – if she poses for his paintings, will he teach her to paint? This could be her only chance for an education. Yet, women continue to disappear and both Louis and his sister Clarissa appear to be potential suspects. Iris may be walking into a dangerous situation.

At the beginning, it may appear this way; however, much like a captivating novel by Sarah Waters, it surprises and defies our expectations. It contains elements of Perfume and The Miniaturist, along with a generous dose of Dickens. While it starts off slow, the pace picks up towards the end of the first episode, which may have caused some viewers to lose interest. The story meanders, setting all the pieces in motion, while building a sense of unease. Although it may lack speedy progression, it compensates with vivid imagery, particularly through the use of specimen jars which symbolize its themes. As the second episode unfolds, the tension intensifies and the suffocating atmosphere of Iris’s world becomes almost tangible. It can be gruesome at times, earning its gothic label with distinction. In one scene, the men attend an anatomy class at university and the meticulous dissection of a human leg is vividly portrayed. Personally, I found it to be too graphic.

I enjoyed the artistic touches of the show, which sometimes venture into surreal landscapes. The characters fantasize about seeking revenge, but then we are brought back to a more ordinary reality. In the last episode, the show fully embraces theatrics and strays from its initial calm and familiar period drama tone. This prevents it from becoming dull and, together with excellent acting, especially from Esme Creed-Miles as Iris and Hardwicke as the mysterious Silas, it makes the show worth watching.

The Doll Factory can be found on Paramount+.

Source: theguardian.com