Peter O'Toole provides the chills in 'The Dark Angel'

March 21, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Peter O'Toole is deliciously dissolute, mysterious and downright creepy in "The Dark Angel," an ultra-Baroque thriller at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

But tonight's installment in the PBS "Mystery" series is not really about the character O'Toole plays, Silas Ruthyn. Instead it is about Silas' niece, Maud (Beatie Edney). The central story line of the heroine's passage from adolescence to adulthood is what makes "The Dark Angel" such a nifty 2 1/2 hours of TV.

The plot is simple and profound the way fairy tales are simple and profound. It is the stuff of psychiatrist Carl Jung and mythologist Joseph Campbell -- without the bias of males-only in the role of hero.

The teen-age Maud lives in a mansion with her father, who is socially isolated, scholarly and, perhaps, mad. Maud is pretty, virtuous and innocent (so much so that people keep commenting on her trusting nature). She's even nice to an opium-addicted governess who physically abuses her.

One day, her father dies. In his will, he entrusts her to the care of Uncle Silas, the dark angel, until she is 21.

The "thriller" business comes in connection with Silas and his history of scandal. The heroine-in-danger is kicked up a couple of notches to heroine-in-big-trouble the second Maud walks into Silas' spooky mansion.

The first meeting between the two is all spider-and-the-fly. Innocent Maud letting Uncle Silas stroke her hand. Innocent Maud trying not to notice the long and rather lurid kiss Uncle Silas says good night with.

There are, along the way, many of the elements of fairy tale and myth. There's a woods with strange people and tough choices. There's a dashing

young man in a military uniform who proclaims his love for Maud. There's an aunt who tries to guide Maud on her journey.

And all of it is layered with a lavish atmosphere of the Gothic -- gargoyles, mansions, graveyards and portraits with lifelike eyes. The atmosphere and O'Toole's performance are what stand out most. But Maud's journey, the heroine's quest to womanhood, is what sticks and resonates in memory.

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