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Gormenghast

Between 1946 and 1959, English author Mervyn Peake wrote three dense novels that did for dark, brooding, Gothic fantasy what Tolkien did for elves and wizardry. Sort of a laudanum-dream merging of Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe, the classic trilogy of Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone accomplished the mythic, complex, imaginative world-building that defies easy translation to other media. Not that folks haven't tried. In 1984, Sting (yes, that Sting) tried to get a film version off the ground and ended up with an award-winning BBC radio adaptation. Director Terry Gilliam, an ideal candidate, has also tried and given up in frustration. In 2000, with advances in CGI able to do what was previously impossible, the BBC tapped into Peake's world again to create an extravagantly designed four-hour television miniseries. Titled simply Gormenghast, the 9 million series sports an impressive cast in a condensed, stripped-down interpretation of the first two books. And while there are things here to please Peake's legions of fans as well as viewers unfamiliar with the novels, this production is a mixed bag that ultimately falls short of capturing the essence of its source and of standing on its own as a meaningful dramatic screen event.

The story centers on the eccentric inhabitants of vast, decaying Gormenghast Castle, a self-enclosed microcosm where a caste-bound society, rote rituals, and obscure ceremonies have helped keep life unchanged for a thousand years. The hereditary rulers of Gormenghast are the ancient family of Groan, a bloodline as crumbling and desolate as the timeless stones enclosing them. Their dynasty is threatened by the seductive and diabolical Steerpike (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who plots and murders his way from his menial position as a kitchen-boy to the heights of power, out to control the House of Groan itself. As Steerpike charms, outwits, and terrorizes the castle's inhabitants into submission, Titus, the young and timid 77th Earl of Groan (born in the first episode and a comely youth of 17 by the last) must prove himself by standing in Steerpike's way or die trying.

These four hour-long episodes show off a number of strengths. The costumes and scenic design richly evoke an eclectic Neverland that blends Renaissance Europe with Asian influences (Peake spent much of his youth in China). The characters are a gallery of grotesqueries, and in fleshing them out here strong performances abound: Ian Richardson as mad Lord Sepulchure Groan; John Sessions as Dr. Prunesquallor; Celia Imrie as Lady Gertrude; Stephen Fry's Professor Bellgrove; Fiona Shaw's Irma Prunesquallor; Zoë Wanamaker and Lynsey Baxter as Titus' doll-like and simple-minded identical twin aunts, Cora and Clarice; Neve McIntosh as child-woman Fuchsia; and — particularly — Christopher Lee, who delivers one of his best performances in years as the ever-loyal manservant Flay.

However, the pebble in this cast's shoe is Rhys Meyers as Steerpike, who doesn't exhibit the range required to pull the story's central character above the level of a paper villain. Only in the final chapter does he break much above emoting melodrama, and by then it's too little too late to save the most important character from being the least interesting. To be fair, Rhys Meyers isn't well served by either the script or his director, both of which don't bother much with his motivations or dimensionality, thus preventing him from becoming even a love-to-hate-him antihero.

While any screen interpretation of such massive and beloved material requires often painful editorial decisions, and the Brits are masterful at this sort of thing, Peake purists may gnash their teeth at how much of the story isn't here. The books' rich world is distilled down to a fairy tale level just above American TV's recent The 10th Kingdom fantasy miniseries. The comical elements are accentuated at the expense of meatier depths. This reduction is underlined by the warmly colorful and ornate costumes and sets, which were probably deemed a TV necessity but are miles away from the cold, bleak, timeless gray dreariness so powerful in the books. Plus, the production's ragged screenplay and uneven pacing sometimes meander as if in search of their purpose, which can try one's patience even if taken in two two-hour chunks, never mind the entire series in one sit-down marathon. This sumptuous vision looks great, serves up plenty that's pleasing, and although is somewhat flat is not bad. It does, though, take Peake's extraordinary achievement and makes it, well, ordinary.

*          *          *

This Warner/BBC Video two-disc DVD package presents a reasonably clean (some speckling) full screen (1.33:1) transfer with excellent Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound. The main bonus is a half-hour making-of documentary, along with slide galleries of costume designs, characters, and (eye-rollingly trivial) a catalog of assorted deaths. It all comes in an attractive dual-disc digipak.

—Mark Bourne



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