In 1870 Charles Dickens was in the midst of writing a new novel entitled The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was left unfinished when he popped his clogs. As part of the BBC’s celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth (and a festive season stuffed fuller than a turkey with all things Dickens), this two-part adaptation is set to adorn our screens with an all-new ending, completed by writer Gwyneth Hughes.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Dickens at his darkest; a psychological thriller telling the story of John Jasper, an opium-addicted choirmaster who is desperately tormented by ambition and an unrequited love for his nephew’s fiancée Rosa. Despite the author often portraying a rather simplified sense of Christianity in his novels, Drood gives way to a deeper discussion of morality. The anti-hero Jasper is a figure whose soul hovers between the dark and light, and at times the man is often lit in a way to not-so-subtly reflect this fact; his face shed in half-darkness reflects a portrayal filled with melodrama and gothic brooding.
With an anti-hero at the heart of the story, there is no light-hearted Christmas cheer to be found here. It is clear that the drug-addled brain of Jasper is at war with itself, and the first episode sees him experience murderous visions about his nephew ‘Ned’. With the occasional glimpse of possible redemption (a necessity which saves him from the viewer’s total alienation), we watch as he struggles to contain his growing psychological decline.
In contrast to the more mainstream Great Expectations shown on BBC1 this winter, the lesser-known cast of this BBC2 drama is a reflection of its unsung and darker nature. Young Freddie Fox (brother of Emilia) stars as Edwin, and Brothers and Sisters actor Matthew Rhys features as Jasper. Alongside is Rory Kinnear providing a source of light against which such darkness is contrasted; as Reverend Septimus Crisparkle he provides an aspect of comedy as well as some of the traditional archetypal morality and ‘goodness’ we are used to.
You get the feeling that the producers of Edwin Drood enjoyed the freedom that comes with adapting a lesser-known Dickens. With no ending to compare it to, it is not as if they could get it wrong so to speak. In contrast to Great Expectations (which was described by Diarmuid Lawrence as the ‘perfect companion piece’ to this BBC2 adaptation), it does not suffer the burden of being too familiar, leaving the viewer to enjoy it without constraint or previous assumption. The exterior shots of Rochester cathedral provide a faithful and appropriately gothic setting, and the performances strike a great chilling chord.
Fascinated by the Wilkie Collins-school of genre, it was a crying shame Dickens never got the chance to fulfil his wish of writing the ending to his mystery. Thanks to the BBC however, here is your chance to appreciate one of the author’s lost treasures. Despite its gothic nature perhaps being too melodramatic to suit all tastes, my advice would be to simply embrace the darkness. Another belter of an adaptation – it is one to be savoured.