There’s a curious credit in the opening titles of part two of The Mystery of Edwin Drood; it reads, “Completed by Gwyneth Hughes”, a nod to Edwin Drood’s biggest mystery of all: how it ends.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a co-production of the BBC and PBS Masterpiece and released on DVD this month, is based on the Charles Dickens story of the same name. Unfortunately, Dickens passed away before he could finish the work. Since that time, there have been several attempts—in print, on stage and on the big and small screen—to sort out the story’s ending. With Hughes’ thoughtful writing, solid direction by Diarmuid Lawrence and great performances by a talented cast, this latest entry in the Edwin Drood canon provides a praiseworthy finish to Dickens’ incomplete story.
This made-for-television film is broken into two hour-long episodes, and is divided as such on the DVD. Part one hews closely to the Dickens book. Most of the action takes place in Cloisterham, a fictitious stand-in for the actual town of Rochester. As its unsubtle name suggests, Cloisterham is a place apart, and much of the local activity centers on the cathedral. Choirmaster John Jasper, played by Matthew Rhys (ABC’s Brothers and Sisters), feels trapped in what he sees as a humdrum existence and seeks escape in an opium den. He also lusts after 17-year-old Rosa Bud (Tamzin Merchant, The Tudors), an orphan who lives in the Nun’s House of Cloisterham.
Severely complicating Jasper’s pervy aspirations is the fact Rosa is betrothed—by dint of her late father’s will—to the age-appropriate Edwin Drood, who also happens to be Jasper’s nephew.
Adding more complexity is the recent arrival in Cloisterham of two orphaned siblings from Ceylon, Neville and Helena Landless (a bluntly symbolic surname from Dickens’ pen). Helena (Amber Rose Revah) is taken in at the Nun’s House, where she quickly befriends Rosa. Neville (Sacha Dhawan, The History Boys), meanwhile, finds himself rather smitten by Rosa.
When Edwin (Freddie Fox, The Three Musketeers) arrives in Cloisterham, the tension ratchets up quickly: Rosa confesses she doesn’t wish to marry, Neville gets angered by Edwin’s racially insensitive remarks and brusqueness towards Rosa, youthfully gormless Edwin makes it clear he’s rather fond of himself, and all the while Jasper seethes with envy and lust while finding refuge in opium-fuelled fantasies of strangling Edwin. The stage is set for a murder mystery to unfold.
Providing a conscientious counterpoint to this widespread animosity are the story’s kindly characters: Rosa’s legal ward, Mr Grewgious (Alun Armstrong, Little Dorrit) and clergyman Septimus Crisparkle (Rory Kinnear, Quantum of Solace).
Edwin Drood is a vastly dark tale, and director Lawrence captures the mood by employing chiaroscuro with great effect: During Jasper’s opium hazes, Lawrence uses a color balance that emphasizes blue, creating a foggy dreamlike atmosphere; when Neville and Edwin come to blows, it’s on a darkened street and in Jasper’s dimly lit home; and when curious questions are posed or harsh accusations made, the action happens in darkly furnished spaces.
By contrast, scenes depicting the kindness of Mr Grewgious, the peacemaking efforts of Crisparkle and the compassion of Helena are bathed in warm light. And whether dark or light, the emotion is all heightened by a fantastic score by composer John Lunn (Downton Abbey).
As a Dickens story and a teleplay, the production is awash in strong characters, and the cast give outstanding performances. Rhys makes Jasper’s crippling rage and lecherousness crackle on screen. Revah’s Helena displays such sincere care for her friend Rosa that it would be no surprise if Revah and Merchant were best friends in real life. Kinnear’s Crisparkle and Armstrong’s Grewgious realistically portray decent human beings who, kind though they are, have their limits.
Minor characters also shine, such as newcomer Alfie Davis, who, as the ten-years-old-if-he’s-a-day street urchin Deputy, seems plucked off a Bermondsey dock in Dickens’ day. But nearly stealing the show in part two is David Dawson, who plays Bazzard, Mr. Grewgious’s sardonic assistant. Dawson seems to channel Alan Rickman, delivering deliciously acerbic lines with deadpan disregard for authority or propriety.
Most notably in part two, writer Hughes’ creativity comes to the fore. Although she is free from loyalty to a fully developed source text, Hughes fleshes out the rest of the story by drawing on clues Dickens left in correspondence. Hughes also puts other Dickensian devices to good use; specifically, coincidences, twists and a path to redemption, even if it comes at a cost.
It’s difficult to discuss the rest of Edwin Drood without spoilers. Hughes has a handful of story threads to resolve, and some do not escape a touch of mawkishness (to be fair, Dickens wouldn’t evade that criticism, either). But the best mysteries contain surprises, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood does not disappoint.