thu 07/07/2022

The Amazing Mr Blunden, Sky Max / The Mezzotint, BBC Two reviews - blundering Blunden eclipsed by M R James | reviews, news & interviews

The Amazing Mr Blunden, Sky Max / The Mezzotint, BBC Two reviews - blundering Blunden eclipsed by M R James

The Amazing Mr Blunden, Sky Max / The Mezzotint, BBC Two reviews - blundering Blunden eclipsed by M R James

Double dose of Mark Gatiss is a mixed blessing

Simon Callow as Mr Blunden, with Tsion Habte and Jason Rennie

Friday night was Mark Gatiss night.

His new version of Antonia Barber’s novel The Ghosts (filmed as The Amazing Mr Blunden in 1972 by Lionel Jeffries and similarly titled here) sprawled across two hours on Sky, while his adaptation of M R James’s ghost story The Mezzotint was awarded a mere 30 minutes on BBC Two. The latter won hands down.

Gatiss’s Mr Blunden (★★) stuck faithfully enough to the original story of a modern-day family being visited by a ghostly solicitor, the titular Mr Blunden (played here by the fruitily thespian Simon Callow as though he’d just popped in one from one of his Dickensian one-man shows), who brings them to a remote, apparently haunted country house and enlists them to disentangle a horrific historic wrong. What it lacked, however, was anything resembling poignant emotional resonance, which was a shame since it’s a tale of greed, murder, remorse and redemption which ought to provide enough fuel to twang a million heartstrings.

It’s also a tale of time-travel, but the jumps across a 200-year gap resembled mere gimmickry, failing to generate much mystery or to suggest a fatefully-ordained correction to a great injustice. Callow’s character did his best with portentous soundbites like “time is a great wheel turning”, which only served to separate him further from the contemporary family, the Allens. Brother and sister Jamie (Jason Rennie) and Lucy (Tsion Habte), who’d been living with their mother as she struggled to survive on benefits in a morale-sapping inner-city gloomscape, seemed as awkwardly disconnected from the ghostly back-story as Yungblud is from Beethoven. Tamsin Greig put in an enthusiastically grotesque turn as the evil Mrs Wickens, snarling and leering as she hatched her black-hearted scheme to steal a family inheritance, but this splash of music-hall slapstick seemed to belittle the darkness that supposedly lay within.

In start contrast, Gatiss’s reworking of The Mezzotint (★★★★★) rang with thrilling conviction, echoing the eerie claustrophobia and oppressive Edwardian conventions of both M R James’s stories and the classic 1970s BBC versions of them directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark under the A Ghost Story for Christmas banner. Gatiss is an avowed fan of his work and describes The Mezzotint as “a love letter to Clark’s style”. This is a unique space where the ticking of an antique clock can carry more menace than a bloodstained axe.

Gatiss had shrewdly cast Rory Kinnear (pictured above with Robert Bathurst and Nikesh Patel ) as his protagonist Edward Williams, the curator of a university art museum with a distinctly Oxbridgean air about it. The prevailing atmosphere of fusty, emotionally-stunted maleness was potently and economically conveyed, with Williams describing himself as “unmarried, without issue”. The notion that the college might contemplate awarding degrees to women is intolerable to Williams and his colleagues. His life is almost exclusively his work, and he is cloistered among academics of a similar bent.

He has been offered a mezzotint (a kind of engraving) depicting a country house, but considers the two-guinea asking price exorbitant. However, when his compatriots begin to show an interest in the piece he begins to modify his opinion. It seems that they have detected details within the picture which he has somehow overlooked (suddenly it depicts moonlight where there was none previously, while an indistinct but somehow sinister shape has appeared on the lawn). As the narrative progresses, the figure on the lawn disappears, but suddenly the house has an an open window where the interloper seems to have entered.

Always lurking at the back of Williams’s mind is his unsettling family secret, that his grandfather was illegitimate, and he has been carrying out research into the matter, with assistance from an enthusiastic amateur palaeontologist (a vivid little turn from Frances Barber). As he unravels the fate of his ancestors and unearths details of his own provenance, the meaning of the mezzotint emerges unnervingly. When he destroys it, the inexplicable arrival of a new mezzotint on Williams’s easel heralds the approach of an implacable fate, and the denouement struck with a force as shocking as it was inevitable. This was a real little gem, and Kinnear’s minutely-detailed performance was as good as anything he’s done.

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