Review: Another ‘Downton Abbey’ Heroine Goes Dark

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Joanne Froggatt as Mary Ann Cotton in “Dark Angel.”

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Justin Slee/World Productions and MASTERPIECE

The “Downton Abbey” diaspora continues. Actresses keep fleeing the genteel personas the show saddled them with, finding refuge in seamier characters. Jessica Brown Findlay: from Lady Sybil to a prostitute on “Harlots.” Michelle Dockery: from Lady Mary to a sexy con woman on “Good Behavior.” Laura Carmichael: from Lady Edith to the loathsome mistress in “The Maids” onstage.

Now one of the downstairs residents of Downton has made a similar move, and it’s the most extreme of all. Joanne Froggatt, whose lady’s maid Anna Bates may have been the most sympathetic figure in the show, returns to PBS on Sunday in the “Masterpiece” movie “Dark Angel.” She’s playing Mary Ann Cotton, a real-life Victorian woman who was believed to be a pioneering female serial killer. Anna Bates may have been suspected of killing Mr. Green, but Mary Ann was the real thing, thought to have committed from 13 to 21 murders in the 1860s and ’70s.

Ms. Froggatt does a variation on her “Downton” performance — darting intelligence beneath a reserved, fretful manner — and the director, the “Downton” veteran Brian Percival, does handsome, competent work. You could ask for a little more psychological complexity, though, from the script by Gwyneth Hughes (“Miss Austen Regrets,” “The Girl”).

Why would a woman kill husbands, lovers and inconvenient children with chilling regularity? “Dark Angel” doesn’t offer much beyond garden-variety sociopathy and a generic weariness with the uselessness of men, the hard lot of Victorian women, and repeated rounds of childbirth and child burial. When Husband No. 1 comes home without a job, Mary Ann reaches for the arsenic as casually as if she had just thought of a new way to spice up his tea.

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