Friday, April 13, 2012

Dickens Bicentennial: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

John Jasper might be the most murderous choirmaster in English literature. We cannot be sure though, because Charles Dickens died before he could finish his final novel. What he left certainly led readers to suspect Jasper had nefariously dispatched his beloved nephew Ned Drood, known to rest of his acquaintances as Edwin. As part of their celebration of Dickens’ 200th birthday, PBS’s Masterpiece airs a new adaptation of the mystery-shrouded mystery, featuring a brand new ending that should please both Classic and Mystery viewers alike when The Mystery of Edwin Drood airs this coming Sunday (promo here).

Jasper is a haunted man, who seeks solace in London’s opium dens. He adores his nephew Drood, but harbors a dark and consuming love for the chap’s fiancée, Rosa Bud. Their engagement was negotiated by their late fathers and subsequently nurtured by their guardians, Jasper and solicitor Hiram Grewgious. It has been a convenient arrangement for Drood, freeing him up to think about other matters, but Bud is plagued by doubts. However, her prospective betrothal offers some protection against the unwanted attentions of her music teacher, John Jasper.

Events proceed on course, regardless of the hidden anxieties festering in the provincial cathedral village, until the arrival of the aptly named Landless twins, two Christian orphans from Ceylon, whose education is to be supervised by Jasper’s colleague, the Reverend Crisparkle. Suddenly, Bud has a confidant in Helena and Drood has a rival in Neville. Naturally, the two young men instantly clash. Yet, just when they have apparently buried the hatchet, Drood disappears under suspicious circumstances.

This is about the point in which Gwyneth Hughes shifts from screen-adapter to Dickens channeler. She shrewdly incorporates many of the clues dropped in the first act, but adds a whole mess of dark Drood family history that might be wholly original, but is certainly in keeping with the literary spirit of the time. She fits the third act revelations together quite convincingly, but she gives Mr. Tartar the hook, even though many Dickens scholars thought he was to factor prominently in the conclusion.

Jasper might have been one of the great Byronic anti-heroes in literature. He is often seen as a tragic, but strangely sympathetic figure, despite his ferocity. Indeed, Hughes eventually posits a backstory that helps explain his brooding nature. In a role previously filled by Claude Rains and Robert Powell, Welsh actor Matthew Rhys has a suitably dark, glowering look and presence, while still expressing all of Jasper’s doubts and self-loathing.

Conversely, the bland Freddie Fox’s Drood is a bit of a young twit, but that rather works in the dramatic context of Hughes’ adaptation. Tamzin Maerchant (of The Tudors) looks like an even younger and paler Jessica Chastain as Bud, but she handles the distressed heroine duties in a suitably Victorian manner. Rory Kinnear (Bond buddy Bill Tanner in 007 reboots) is particularly notable amid the supporting cast, expressing the fundamental Christian decency of Rev. Crisparkle in one of the more refreshingly positive television portrayals of a clergyman in recent years.

Director Diarmuid Lawrence wisely emphasizes the genre elements, heightening the mystery with evocative scenes of Jasper’s opiate-fueled hallucinations. A satisfying shot at completing the unfinished literary puzzle, the feature length Drood represents Masterpiece’s sixteenth Dickens production overall and a fitting way to observe the Dickens bicentenary this season. It airs this Sunday (4/15) on most PBS outlets nationwide.