In 41 years of producing movie adaptations based on classic literature, Masterpiece Classic (formerly known as Master Theatre), has had a very productive relationship with author Charles Dickens. We have enjoyed two Bleak House’s, two David Copperfield’s, A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times, Martin Chuzzlewit, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, two Oliver Twist’s, Little Dorrit and The Old Curiosity Shop. Ten out of fifteen novels adapted is amazing. Many of them outstanding.
In honor of the 200th anniversary of Dickens birth, Masterpiece has added The Mystery of Edwin Drood to their long list. Written in 1870, it was Dickens’ final unfinished novel. He died before he completed it, sparking the literary debate of who murdered Edwin Drood. Other authors quickly wrote completions of the novel, notably one American who claimed he had ‘ghost-written’ the ending by channeling Dickens’ spirit! This new completion by screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes (Miss Austen Regrets) does not claim any unearthly connections to the venerable author, but it does bring us a compelling and powerful story, so steeped in Gothic mystery that Jane Austen’s character Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey would be delighted. I was too!
Regular readers of this blog will remember that I adore a good mystery. I was immediately intrigued by the announcements online last year that the BBC and PBS would co-produce The Mystery of Edwin Drood. How would the story be completed? It was a mystery within a mystery. What a huge challenge for any screenwriter to finish a classic author’s work. Granted, their choice of Gwyneth Hughes seemed very fitting. Her bio-pic Miss Austen Regrets (2009) was great, capturing the historical details and spirit of my favorite author beautifully. Another plus was the choice of Diarmuid Lawrence (Emma, 1996, with Kate Beckinsale) as director. He always finds the dark side of characters and brings that forward. The list of all British cast was stellar too. With all of these factors lined up, it appeared to be the most interesting new adaptation of a Dickens novel in years.
Since it is a mystery, I do not want to reveal any spoilers. However, I will write a bit about the plot and my favorite characters. Set in the mythical town of Cloisterham, John Jasper (Matthew Rhys) is a choirmaster that detests his job. To escape, he frequents opium dens in London to fantasize about murdering his dissipated young nephew Edwin Drood (Freddie Fox) and then marry his nephew’s fiance, the beautiful Rosa Bud (Tamzin Merchant) who he is obsessed with. When brother and sister Neville and Helena Landless arrive from Ceylon, their murky connections to the Drood family raises questions. Soon Neville is obsessed with Rosa too, causing a violent riff between him and Edwin. On the night of their mutual reconciliation, Drood mysteriously disappears. Because of his previous contentious relationship with Drood, Landless is pinned for his murder while uncle John is secretly convinced that he killed his nephew in opium induce rage.
Filled with both sinister and delightful characterizations that Dickens in known for, this dark tale is a creepy Gothic mystery unlike anything else that he had written. Many of the key scenes with Jaspers are in the dark, dank cathedral crypt, where stone mason Durdles (Ron Cook) has created monuments for the dead; holding secrets that will unravel the mysterious death of Edwin Drood.
Matthews Rhys gives a disturbing performance as the deranged choirmaster obsessed with a young, innocent girl whom he should have no designs on, but cannot stay away from. There is something that is compelling and hypnotic about watching an obsession. You feel like you are ease-dropping on the characters intimate failings. It makes you uneasy, but you just can’t stop. You must know why he is driven to the point of madness. It is a great plot devise that Dickens used several times: Miss Havisham in last week’s Great Expectations immediately comes to mind. Jasper’s other obsession, killing his nephew to make way for this true love, is the axis of the mystery. I can’t say that I had much sympathy for Edwin Drood when he disappeared. A dissipated and spoiled young gentleman with no redeeming qualities, actor Freddie Fox is so convincing in the part I just wanted to slap him, and, his fiancé Rosa, who should have nothing to do with him.
Dickens and Hughes’ prose blended seamlessly for me. Admittedly, I have not read The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but I know Dickens’ style well from his more famous works. Her resolution of the whodunit was both surprising and satisfying. This new adaptation and completion will both shock and amaze; the true test of any good Gothic tale worthy of a peek behind the dreaded black veil.
Image courtesy of Laurence Cendrowicz/BBC for MASTERPIECE