The novels created the world of the castle Gormenghast, a dry, dusty place where tradition controls the lives of the royal family of Groan and the people that live in the area.
I have always enjoyed long, descriptive novels or better yet, series of novels. The kind of books that create a world of imagination and draw you in. When I met my wife a few decades ago, she introduced me to a favorite of hers and it rapidly became one of my favorites. The books were the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake.
The novels created the world of the castle Gormenghast, a dry, dusty place where tradition controls the lives of the royal family of Groan and the people that live in the area. This tradition has not changed for countless years. Each day is dictated by a huge book that outlines in details each ceremony, festival and occasion. The current Earl of Groan (Ian Richardson), 77th of his line, grinds through his day being told each move by his Master of Tradition, Barquentine (Warren Mitchell), an ancient man bent by a life of being hunched over the scared book. One day, something happens, a male child is born to Lady Groan (Celia Imrie). This child Titus would be hailed as the 78th Earl of Groan. In a place where emotions are mostly lost in the past, each member of the household reacts to the birth. His sister, Lady Fuchsia (Neve McIntosh) is jealous of her infant brother. The Royal Nannie (June Brown) is elated at the prospect of a new Groan to care for. The Earl’s manservant and Major Domo Flay (Christopher Lee) is also happy but since is life is so under control he cannot express it. He goes to the bowels of the castle, to the kitchen run by the head chief Swelter in order to find someone to reveal the news. There, the brutal Swelter (Richard Griffiths) expresses his hatred for Flay and takes it out on one of his apprentices, Steerpike (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Now here is where the story picks up. Steerpike is a young man of ambition and a hope to better his life. As with all people in Gormenghast his future is bleak, laid out before him in stone. He manages to insinuate himself into the royal household and plots to gain power.
Basically the teleplay covers only the first two books of the trilogy, which is a shame. The final book answers many of the questions that arise about the origins of Gormenghast and the fate of young Titus. The story is not for those brought up on modern TV where something new must be presented every few minutes. In capturing the dryness of the place and people the plot moves forward with slow, deliberate care. This is for someone that can take the time and pay attention to the details that unfold.
For most American audiences the only name they will recognize will be Lee. Best known for his many ‘B’ horror flicks, and the original Star Wars, he embodies the role of Flay extremely true to the book. Flay lived for the service of the Earl and the royal family. His devotion is absolute. His life is secondary to Gormenghast, Groan and tradition. Flay is a stick figure of a man whose unique body language is nailed by Lee. Rhys-Meyers as Steerpike is the consummate villain. Charming and personable, he slowly gains the guarded trust of those around him as he uses people to gain a constantly elevated position. Along the way he courts the young Lady Fuchsia. In that role McIntosh is wonderful. She is played as a young woman, not beautiful but unquestionably attractive. She is used to the best and expects nothing less. McIntosh delivers a performance worth watching. Each role, large and small, is cast to perfection. If you have read the books you will without a doubt have a mental image of the characters, aided by the author’s drawings found in some editions. The actors will not disappoint, they bring this motley crew to life.
The director of this epic is Andy Wilson. While not a household name he is a director of considerable talent and vision. His only major film here in the USA is ‘Playing God’ a little tale of a disgraced doctor being pulled into the mob. There he got to direct Angelina Jolie and David Duchovny. In Gormenghast he as a cast actors better known in the UK then over here. He truly captures the murky, dank feeling of the book. He had to oversee numerous main roles, many side plots and the large cast of extras. This type of atmospheric set had to affect the decisions of any director, here Wilson chose wisely. He uses camera angles and lighting that provides a voyeuristic feel for the audience.
You feel as though you are walking the dark halls of castle Gormenghast, dist at your feet, the smell of countless generations in your nostrils. Wilson sets the mood but also uses it as a character in the drama that unfolds. Pacing is critical in a mini series like this. Wilson holds the work together on such a manner that you will be hard pressed to stop watching.
The Gormenghast disc is very well done. Those that are prejudice against low tech DVDs will be missing something here. The sound is Dolby Stereo with full screen video. The features are also light but the ones there are wonderful. There are cast interviews where they explain the process they use to bring their characters from the pages of Peake’s books to the screen. This is one that is not for everyone. You really have to pay attention to the dialogue and action over an extended period. Still, if you are in the mood for a good story well told and well acted get this one and enjoy.Review by Doug MacLean of hometheaterinfo.com
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