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!
|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.