The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Review

Image from The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Matthew Rhys as John Jasper

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

18 thoughts on “The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Review

  1. I agree, Laurel Ann, I thought the resolution was really brilliantly thought out and very satisfying!

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  2. I was riveted to this show last night. I highly recommend it to any lover of gothic stories or mysteries. Great acting. The second hour was certainly one of the best hours of Masterpiece I have ever seen!

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  3. I highly recommend this show to anyone who loves gothic stories and mysteries. The acting was superb as were the characterizations and setting of place. The second hour of this show had some of the most riveting scenes I have ever seen in my many years of watching Masterpiece Theater. If you missed it, you can till catch it in a re-air later this week on many PBS stations or go to pbs.org where you can watch the entire show. I have watched many shows on PBS.org-excellent way to watch, if you miss something realtime.

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  4. I have read the book and I thought the solution of the mystery was terrible! Apparently to enjoy this it is necessary to know nothing of the actual book.

    Towards the end I was reminded of Austen’s “Love and Freindship” Letter 11 “But tell me (continued he looking fearfully towards the Door) tell me, have I any other Grand-children in the House.”

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  5. Somewhere during the presentation, there was a shift that seemed to take this from Dickens to Hughes. I am tempted to watch it again to see if I can find that place, but of course first I would have to read what Dickens wrote to tease out the two authors. My thinking is that Bazzard’s search for information is close to the time of the shift. It stopped being Gothic and became more Goth.

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  6. I very much enjoyed the PBS version of ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood.’ It deftly combined a moodily eerie atmosphere with a logical, though far from transparent, conclusion to Dickens’ unfinished novel. I recently read the original in preparation for something I am writing, so it was a pleasant surprise to learn this production was to be released. I too was reminded favorably of ‘Great Expectations’ with its several plot elements, relationships and mysteries all tied up neatly in the end. I fell in love with Dickens upon reading that novel of Pip, the escaped convict Magwich, the beautiful but coldhearted Estella and the mad macabre Miss Havisham as a teen. It captured my youthful imagination (I was still at the Catherine Morland stage of development) something ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was unable to do for me until I was in my early 20’s and had some experience observing the idiosyncrasies of real people under my belt. I particularly liked Gwyneth Hughes’ expansion of Dickens’ original hints of family ties, obligation and discontent.

    I was not as displeased by Edwin as you were. I did not find him so dissipated—especially in contrast to his uncle. Yes, he seemed a callow feckless youth, but then he was a very young man who thought he was obliged to carry out his deceased father’s wishes. It enhanced the familial plot scenario Hughes created. There was something Bingley-like in Edwin’s persona. I particularly enjoyed the scene where he comes to the school to visit Rosa and the other young ladies struggle to contain their curiosity. The break-up actually seemed quite amicable.

    I particularly enjoyed meeting Freddie Fox as Edwin—another member of that multi-generational show business family. His mother and sister had their parts in the 1995 P & P miniseries as Mrs. Gardiner and Georgiana. But, my favorite scion is his cousin, Laurence Fox, who is Inspector Lewis’ associate. That second generation crime drama set in Oxford is my favorite of all the PBS mysteries. Now that Laurence and Billie Piper (Fanny Price from the 2007 Mansfield Park)have two cubs, I assume there will be more Foxes to delight us in the future.

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    • Hi Beth, thanks for your thoughtful comments. The Jane Austen connections in this production through the Fox family was quite interesting. I did enjoy Freddie Fox’s performance, I just did not care for his character, which was intentional by Dickens and Hughes. If we had liked him and he was Bingley-like, then we would have sympathized with him more and that would have muddled the conflicts.

      I totally agree with you on your favorite in the Fox family. Laurence Fox as James Hathaway in Inspector Lewis is perfection. Smart, snarky and sexy, he is both a mystery and a project for any woman with a soft spot for Henry Crawford-like characters. I have written about many of the Lewis episodes here and adore the series. It is also my favorite of all of the PBS mysteries.

      Thanks for visiting today.

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    • There’s always room for debate and a healthy difference of opinion, Beth. Unlike most of us (myself included), you have actually read the original novel fragment, which gives what you say weight. I enjoyed the production last night, but it isn’t really my cup of tea. I’m grateful we have Masterpiece, but we needn’t treat them as if they can do no wrong.

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      • Shannon, thanks for reminding us that difference of opinion is healthy. I totally agree.

        Masterpiece productions have been overall enjoyable to me, but there have been a few that they did not get right. Maybe that was just my reaction and others enjoyed them? Ever production cannot appeal to everyone all the time. Imagine, some folks think Downton Abbey is an Edwardian soap opera. Yes, of course it is, but for me it is great fun.

        Thanks for visiting.

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  7. thank you Laurel Ann
    loved the movie loved the characters, Rhys is captivating with his portrayal of obsessive/ inner conflict role. with Edwin – true to character but i did not understand at the end where his explanation for leaving hastily (his disappearance) and throwing away the ring was that he was upset about the breakup – of which i thought was amicable. wasn’t anyone getting curious about Mr Grewgious meloncholy with the ring and the question of love?

    had hoped to see Mrs Crisparkle (Ms Marple) involved in solving the mystery but this would’ve been for my own delight of course.

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  8. I have never read Edwin Drood though I did see the old film starring Claude Rains when TCM showed it to celebrate the Dickens year — I think TCM has only shown it once. Anyway, I enjoyed this new version shown on Sunday on PBS very much. A couple of comments: Matthew Rhys who played John Jasper seemed perfectly cast to me — he also played Lord Byron in Beau Brummell: This Charming Man with James Purefoy as the Beau of my dreams — Rhys seemed odd casting for Byron, but as I said, he could not have been better as the tormented Jasper. I also enjoyed the beguiling performance by David Dawson as Mr. Bazzard who is also the mysterious Datchery. If I ever get around to reading Edwin Drood, I might find out more about Datchery. I thought the tone and look of this new Drood was right on target. As I love both Miss Austen Regrets and the Kate Beckinsale Emma, I can see the adaptation of the Dickens mystery was in excellent hands. I will add that I prefer the Beckinsale Emma to the one starring Gwyneth Paltrow in all particulars save one — Jeremy Northam will always be my Mr. Knightley.

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  9. Once again, I hear about a film production first here!

    I don’t write mysteries, but I enjoy the genre. And just because it is his last book and unfinished, there is something genuinely creepy about Drood.

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  10. I haven’t read the novel either. I liked much of the casting, but found the pacing to be extremely slow at the end of the first act and in the middle and I fast-forwarded, which I almost never do. I thought Rhys was terrific and didn’t find the character of Drood as played by Fox to be overly obnoxious; he seemed like a self-focused young man of great expectations.

    I did have a problem with Tamzin Merchant and the character of Rosa because I did not find her beautiful or deserving of being the focus of attention of three men.

    I haven’t erased it yet and will try to watch it again.

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