THE WARBLING GUMSHOE
THE CROONING SHAMUS
THE DESCANTING FLATFOOT
THE ULULATING DICK
Yes, all synonyms for THE SINGING DETECTIVE, but which one?
This one. I had a mixture of high hopes and mild trepidation regarding Keith Gordon’s film of Dennis Potter’s adaptation of his own BBC series. The movie sort of fulfilled both.
Gordon is somebody who should really be in demand. He’s bright, gifted, and his films do things that other people’s don’t. Instead, he’s working in TV. Of his films, MOTHER NIGHT is a terrific piece, I’d say the best film adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut novel — and a relatively dull Vonnegut novel at that. Personally, I’d like to make THE SIRENS OF TITAN.
Somewhere in the flat is a copy of his highly-rated war movie, A MIDNIGHT CLEAR, which I must watch. Just added his 1999 noir WAKING THE DEAD to my rental list. So I guess I must have been impressed.
Why was I anxious? In part, because Potter’s series didn’t really follow a clear narrative path, not because it mingled fantasy, reality, memory and fiction, but because the reality part didn’t really round itself off in a satisfactory fashion. What made the series special was the quality of the protagonist’s dialogue, the authenticity of his plight, and the performances of everybody but especially Michael Gambon.
The plot — a crime writer crippled by severe psoriasis (a disease attacking the skin and joints) tries to work through his tormented feelings about life, love and sex. Though he is largely confined to his hospital bed, his mind roves freely through his memories, his pulp fiction, and his fantasies, until all these separate worlds cathartically collide.
Apart from the sheer difficulty of the job of adaptation, there was the fact that Dennis Potter is no longer with us. This gives the adapters a relatively free hand to mess about with his creation, safe from attack from the irascible author. It’s a bit like how, after decades in development hell, A HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY was suddenly in production, a relatively short time after Douglas Adams had passed away. While that film isn’t a complete disgrace, there are clearly things in there that Adams wouldn’t have tolerated, and for all everybody’s burbling on about how this was the film Adams had dreamed of, it notably has another writer’s name on it, and some of Adams’ time-honoured gags have been messed about with until they no longer work.
In absolute fairness, I think some of the filmmaking is very good, some of the off-the-wall casting really works, and some of the new gags and story elements are decent enough. But only SOME.
Gordon’S THE SINGING DETECTIVE is largely successful. It has Robert Downey Jnr instead of Michael Gambon, which is quite a big change, but obviously Downey is a superb actor so it totally works. One odd thing: since Downey is younger than Gambon, and the movie is being made decades after the TV show, they can no longer flashback to a ’40s world of childhood for the hero (and connect it to a ’40s world of noir fiction and cinema). So the movie is set in the ’80s, with flashbacks to the ’50s, leading to a completely different soundtrack. Some of these new songs are undoubtedly great, but I prefer the original. But I don’t actually mind. It actually took us about 45 minutes to realise this WAS the ’80s, since the music is all ’50s and the film takes place in a hospital environment with few obvious signifiers of period.
Gordon’s direction, along with Tom Richmond’s super-saturated cinematography, is stylish and stimulating, without intruding on the talk, which is the point of the thing. We get cartoony turns from Adrien Brody and Jon Polito as gangster/FBI men, adrift from Downey’s pulp potboiler and wandering through his memories and his reality like Vladimir and Estragon in snap-brim fedoras, with side-arms. The idea is funnier than the writing, maybe, but the “spirited playing” boosts it back up again. We particularly enjoyed the noir characters’ instinctive fear of sunlight and open space:
And there’s Robin Wright Penn, whose performance is, in its way, as detailed and compelling as Downey’s.
AND there’s an almost unrecognisable appearance by tiny racist Mel Gibson, who’s shaved his head and donned coke-bottle glasses to play Downey’s shrink. I guess he thinks he’s way too handsome normally to play a humdrum psychiatrist, so he has to disfigure himself. But the result is quite funny, and the performance is genuinely amusing. It might be the best bit of acting Mad Mel’s ever done.
(My friend and fellow director Morag McKinnon served him a burger at the BRAVEHEART launch party. “He’s a wee wrinkly man,” she reported.)
AND and AND there’s Jeremy Northam, one of the most versatile and unusual players working today. Here, Jeremy performs some intricate and filthy SEX ACTING, for our delectation.
Fiona: “That’s some of the best sex acting I’ve ever seen!”
Me: “I taught him everything he knows.”
We cut from the shag-shot to Downey’s face, strained in angst-ridden concentration as he imagines his enthusiastic cuckolding by the thrusting dirty Northam and then, doubtless because they’re playing Downey the tape on-set in order to show him what he’s supposed to be thinking about, Downey laughs uproariously. It’s great.
The original series featured a prominent supporting role for Patrick Malahide’s heaving buttocks, which are pale, wobbly things like unhappy jellyfish. I felt Northam was an improvement in purely aesthetic terms.
The biggest change from Potter’s original is the bit that was probably essential to get the film made, and which I’m still uncertain about. As I intimated, the TV series doesn’t really wrap up into a neat ball. The character’s contradictions and agonies don’t resolve, he recovers from his physical illness and appears to make peace with his wife and, perhaps, himself, but it’s not absolutely clear how he’s solved his psychological problems.
The movie has everything wrap up neatly — a new detail in Downey’s past dovetails with the plot of his book, and he’s able to achieve a Freudian breakthrough with his shrink which is absent, as I recall, from the series. It makes things neater and clearer, but it also turns the story into an ad for Freudian psychoanalysis, which the original was not. It’s the kind of story turn that would have been at home in a ’40s psychological drama like POSSESSED or THE SEVENTH VEIL. This new development arguably works better than the TV show, but I couldn’t altogether love it — it smacks of propaganda.
But this is a quibble, as is the fact that some of the new dialogue is not QUITE a sharp as some of the old dialogue. As memory serves, Gambon’s internal monologue of boring things, frantically called up to stave off sexual excitement as nurse Joanne Whalley applies cold cream to his aching body, was funnier and more un-PC than the version in the feature: for one thing, Gambon named names: John and Yoko were in there, as I recall. Downey doesn’t, and while his nurse, Katy Holmes, is pulchritudinous enough, she lacks Whalley’s down-to-earth reality: you don’t really believe Holmes should be entrusted with anything as challenging as smearing cream around a patient’s penis.
Asides from these nagging little insect-points, I think the film is actually DAMN GOOD.
“Am I not wrong, or am I not wrong?”