Saturday, July 7, 2012

REVIEW: The Mystery of Edwin Drood (BBC/Masterpiece)

Review of the 2012 BBC production of Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood as presented in the United States by PBS Masterpiece.  Written by Gwyneth Hughes, based upon the unfinished novel by Charles Dickens.  Starring Matthew Rhys, Freddie Fox, and Tamzin Merchant, with Rory Kinnear, Ron Cook, Ellie Haddington, Amber Rose Revah, Sacha Dhawan, Alfie Davis,  Alun Armstrong and Julia McKenzie.  Directed by Diarmuid Lawrence.  120 minutes (2 episodes).

Grade: A

SPOILER ALERT: While I do not intend to reveal any secrets of either version of the story, I can't guarantee that I am not inadvertently giving away something.

It was pure coincidence that, during a bout with insomnia, that I stumbled across a late night showing of  The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a 2012 BBC adaptation of the unfinished Dickens novel.  Before this, the only version of the story I was familiar with was the Tony-winning musical version, which is about to be revived by the Roundabout Theater Company this season.  In a lot of ways, it was exactly what I though it would be.  It is full of high brow and excellent British acting.  It has superior production values, including some alarmingly beautiful scenery of the English countryside and period architecture, lush costuming, and masterful camera shots that guide the intricate plot with appropriately moody lighting.  (No one does darkness - literal and figurative - like the people at the BBC!)

One assumes that the first hour adheres closely to the original Dickens work, while the second hour focuses on solving the titular mystery.  As such, it is pretty interesting to contemplate that themes Dickens touched upon, not the least of which include a scathing look at British Imperialism, drug abuse, questionable paternity, racism, class struggles and the role of religion in society.  You have to wonder just how the novel would have played out had it been finished.  A good dozen or more major characters are introduced from a variety of backgrounds, and all but a few reveal ominous details about their lives that make them mysterious at best, suspicious at worst.  There's a lot to digest, but thankfully, it is well-directed (by Diarmuid Lawrence) and terrifically acted by an attractive and varied company of actors.

Fans of the musical version will be happy to note that for a good portion of the film, the story goes in the same order as the show, and will even recognize some key points of dialogue.  Of course, there are differences - a main character is Rosa Bud's guardian/legal counsel (the detailed, pompous and endearing Alun Armstrong) who doesn't appear in the musical, but instead is combined into the role of Mayor Sapsea; and the Princess Puffer in this version is much less of a role (though creepily played by Ellie Haddington), and it is very interesting to see how the roles of Bazzard and Dick Datchery are incorporated here.  I find it interesting that both roles go uncredited both in the show (figuratively) and in the film (literally).

The second hour attempts to solve the mystery of Edwin Drood, and in almost no way resembles any of the possible endings in the musical.  Yes, they travel down to the catacombs in search of clues, and it is hinted at that young Drood might have just disappeared and was not murdered,(I kept waiting for Betty Buckley to leap from the shadows, singing "The Writing on the Wall"!) and, yes, it appears that John Jasper is the would-be murderer.  It goes as most mysteries do, for some time, eliminating suspects.  There is one fantastic plot twist involving Jasper, Drood and the Landless twins, and finally makes you REALLY think about the title of the piece.  You are reminded that Dickens was a true wordsmith.  The ending as it is is satisfying, and even a bit sad and shocking.  It should appeal to mystery lovers and fans of the show, especially since, as I said, it ends in such a way that could not possibly be in the play version.  Thus, nothing is really spoiled.  In fact, the main roles are so well-played, the film could act as a route toward deeper understanding of the musical's characters!

Freddie Fox as Edwin Drood

Sacha Dhawan as Neville Landless and
Freddie Fox as Edwin Drood

The performances are uniformly good, all with just the right balance of realism, irony and cloak-and-dagger excess.  As you will see the camera and the "good guys" love the light, while the camera and the alleged "bad guys" love the darkness and shadows.  Both Ron Cook and the cheeky young Alfie Davis provide a bit of humor and a super hint of danger (think Fagin and Artful Dodger) as the drunken Durdles and the orphaned waif, Deputy.  They rule the catacombs with a toughened fist.  In this version, both play a pivotal and significantly larger role.  It was of some interest to me to see The Reverend Crisparkle played by a younger man, as in this case (Rory Kinnear), mainly because it changes the lusty urges of the holy man from creepy stalker to sexually charged.  His youth comes into play in the film's final moments, too!

Both the lovely Amber Rose Revah and rakish Sacha Dhawan manage to make Landless twins a pair of enigmatic dualities: they are both exotic and not unlike their British counterparts, both sincere and ominously mysterious, both the picture of calm and of rage unchecked, and both give off an innocence and aggressive sexuality.  In short, you can't take your eyes off of them, making them the perfect suspects and the perfect sympathetic duo.  After seeing the film, I have come to the conclusion that it is the character of Rosa Bud that grates my nerves, not the actress playing the role (no offense to anyone I've seen in the role previously).  Tamzin Merchant is a pretty young woman, and she is the least "helpless" Rosa I've seen, but is still too emotionally extreme for me - she makes Liza seem steady.  In the play, I am always delighted to see her selected as murderer, because it is fun to see her unleash the beast that dwells within.  Here, that isn't even a choice, and one wonders why Drood even pauses when she calls off their childhood betrothal.  As played by the youthful, marvelously arrogant, and smoking hot Freddie Fox, Edwin Drood is exactly the kind of guy that polarizes everyone.  Love him or hate him, you have to pay attention to him, or he will mow you down and not look back.  In his relatively short screen time, Fox makes Drood important enough to warrant all of the attention his disappearance causes.  I should note, the first time he appeared on screen, I found the fact that he is actually played by a male a little bit jarring.  But he won me over quickly!

Matthew Rhys as John Jasper, Tamzin Merchant as Rosa Bud
 and Freddie Fox as Edwin Drood

Finally, and most importantly, the main character, choirmaster John Jasper, is played by Matthew Rhys (TV's Brothers and Sisters, the revival of Look Back in Anger), and he is a revelation here.  He plays the villainy to the absolute hilt, but never wavering into melodrama.  He is so seriously depressed, conflicted, angry and hurt, that as he paces at every locale, you are reminded of an agitated tiger stalking his own cage.  And yet, he is entirely sympathetic and even a bit endearing, as he mourns the loss of his nephew and best friend, feeling the guilt of having killed him in a lust borne rage of jealousy over Rosa Bud (or so he thinks, maybe...).  Rhys lets fists fly, epithets hurl, and tears flow.  The camera loves him and he works it like a master.  Instead of a two-dimensional bad guy who twirls his figurative mustache, he gives us a flawed, dangerous man to fear AND a man to pity who has lost everything. 

I find mysteries where the good guys have it coming to them and where the bad guys get my sympathies much more interesting.  This version of The Mystery of Edwin Drood is all that and much more.  Dickens, I think, would be pleased, and so will fans of the musical.  This is the perfect way to reacquaint yourself with the story and multitude of characters, without spoiling the fun of the forthcoming revival.

You can order this version from Amazon.  Click HERE.

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