The Mystery of Edwin Drood was unfinished when Charles Dickens died in 1870. Since then, his tale about the disappearance of the young man has inspired various endings by assorted writers. The Masterpiece version, premiering 15 April on PBS, is penned by Gwyneth Hughes (Miss Austen Regrets). Like the novel, this two-part presentation focuses less on the title character than his troubled uncle, John Jasper (Matthew Rhys), but Hughes’ adaptation doesn’t provide much in the way of a “mystery.”
The opening scenes of The Mystery of Edwin Drood present a murder in an echoey haze: John Jasper is in an opium den, dreaming about the death of his nephew Edwin (Freddie Fox). On waking, he worries for a moment over what he might have muttered while dreaming, then rushes to the cathedral at Cloisterham village, arriving mid-service to lead the choir flawlessly. The sequence is hardly a subtle representation of Jasper’s psychological state, but it makes clear that he’s a barely functioning drug addict, explaining away inconsistencies in his behavior to friends with plausible enough excuses of illness, sleeplessness, and anxiety.
He’s so convincing that his friend Reverend Crisparkle (Rory Kinnear) offers something from his mother’s “famous medicine chest” (laudanum) to help him sleep, a gesture that suggests the Crisparkles might be more than mere enablers, and likely got Jasper hooked on opiates in the first place.
The source of Jasper’s unease is apparent in his dream, in which Edwin is engaged to Jasper’s music pupil Rosa Bud (Tamzin Merchant) and Jasper himself is in love with her. Knowing that Edwin and Rosa, both orphans, are engaged by arrangement of “will and testament” and not out of mutual affection, Jasper imagines she returns his feelings and that Edwin only stands between them. As a father figure to Edwin, he’s hardly in a place to win Rosa away. So instead he tries to repress both his desire for the girl and his jealousy of the nephew.
The arrival of Neville Landless (Sacha Dhawan) and his twin sister Helena (Amber Rose Revah) from Ceylon complicates matters for everyone in Cloisterham village while oversimplifying things for Edwin Drood. Neville has an outrageous temper and he and Edwin immediately dislike each other, for good reason: Edwin is a spoiled brat and a racist too, quick to assert his superiority over Neville. The tensions between them ensure that when Edwin goes missing, Neville has “usual suspect” written all over him.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood makes Helena troubling too, as she coaxes confessions from Rosa in a way that make her too like the wise, exotic, and dark-skinned maternal figure. Rosa tells Helena that Jasper has “forced me to understand him without saying a word and he’s forced me keep silent without uttering a threat.” That Rosa has been so thoroughly harassed and terrified is one thing: Jasper has managed to sexualize their music lessons, not physically, but, as Rosa puts it, “His voice is in the music, whispering, that he pursues me as a lover.” But Helena’s ability to unlock Rosa’s secret so instantaneously, is another sort of power, forcing her to speak, instead of keeping silent.
Still, Rosa’s “improvement” through her relationship with Helena is undeniable: Before meeting her new friend, Rosa is always acted upon and never acting, beyond sucking on a medicine drop to avoid having to kiss Edwin when he visits. After the conversation with Helena, initiated by someone from outside Rosa’s own culture, she questions what’s happening to her and starts to act out against it, taking meaningful action to shape her own future.
That doesn’t mean John Jasper doesn’t keep trying to influence her action. His deterioration following Edwin’s disappearance comes with the discovery of his appetite for destruction — at least in his opium dreams. The Mystery of Edwin Drood explores his struggle with this impulse, as it might situate him alongside the twins, as an outsider to a culture that demands conformity and sublimation, troubled and not so superior as he imagines.