TV Review: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Broadcast on BBC One, Tuesday 10th and Wednesday 11th January. Available on BBC iplayer.

Following on from the impact of the production of Great Expectations over Christmas time and the apparent rise in profile of the already lofty reputation of Charles Dickens, the BBC took the chance to adapt the last and notably unfinished novel of the great Victorian writer. In a two-part special, the Beeb looked to answer the question of the mystery and develop another costume drama to bring in the masses.

What surfaced from this adaptation was a typically dark foraging into Victorian life, the centric plot surrounding the crippling jealousy of an uncle for a nephew. The titular Edwin Drood (played by Freddie Fox) is set to be betrothed to Rosa Bud (played by Tamzin Merchant), which raises the ire of Drood’s uncle choirmaster John Jasper as, despite the significant age gap and Bud’s aversion to him, is in love with the young girl. What follows is a disturbing look into the mind of Jasper as he descends into opiate abuse, leaving him unsure whether or not he has murdered his nephew as he imagined so many times in his dreams when his nephew happens to disappear.

Played excellently by Brothers and Sisters actor Matthew Rhys, Jasper is actually the real main character despite the title, and the compelling portrayal of the choirmaster whose heart is swallowed by hatred and loathing and his mind poisoned by the drug abuse ultimately creates a fascinating picture of an entirely broken man. Rhys’ performance is captivating, and if there’s one reason to go back and watch this again, it is for the Welshman’s complete and utter believability as a wretched, hate-filled man.

As a two-part special, the first half seemed to drag and act as set-up for the far superior second half. This may well be due to the fact that as with most of Dickens’ works, there are far too many characters to who each play a minor role in progressing the story along, and it is hard to establish in such a relatively short timeframe the relationships between the characters.

Take for example the (spoiler alert) relationship that forms between Reverend Crisparkle and Helena Landless at the very end of the second part. The affiliation is only established in one very minor camera shot that captures a look they share for the better part of three seconds and is the only time such a thing is alluded to. While it did tie up the ending for those characters quite nicely, it became obvious that time constraints for the two hour production meant that other characters needed more face time on screen to develop the plot and made this connection appear from seemingly nowhere.

The other characters outside of well-represented portrayals of Jasper, Crisparkle and Ellie Haddington as Princess Puffer are undeniably competent but unspectacular, while Alun Armstrong consistently bosses the screen and grabs attention with a wonderful turn as the sympathetic and overwhelmingly decent Mr Grewgious, and is by far the most watchable character after Rhys’ Jasper. Unfortunately, David Dawson’s approach to portraying Dick Datchery as a Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow rip off seems a poor decision, as flouncing about like Depp is only going to draw you comparisons that you simply cannot win, and marred an otherwise decent and fun character.

Overall, the special was well-executed but the problem lies in that the novel was unfinished and the ending of the book seemed to die with Dickens before he could finish it. This establishes problems when adapting it for the screen, as audiences typically need a strong narrative with a defined and interesting conclusion. However, this is what makes the text of The Mystery of Edwin Drood so fascinating, in that the conclusion is an enigma insofar as we will never know for certain the intended finish. Therefore, the ending of this production felt a bit too clean and tidied up for a viewing audience when a sense of uncertainty would have been far more effective. It is called a mystery after all, and that is what makes the text such an absorbing anomaly.

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~ by jrhett on January 18, 2012.

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