Dir: Keith Gordon. US. 2003. 107 mins.
There is a point where reverence for one's source material can prove damaging. That point is reached in Keith Gordon's film of The Singing Detective which follows the late Dennis Potter's script of his own landmark TV series to the letter, resulting in a flat and muddled feature film with few of the delirious highs or devastating lows that marked out the 1986 series.
Gordon, whose flawed but fascinating credits include Waking The Dead and Mother Night, takes his best shot at the material which Potter Americanised, shortened to feature length and moved from wartime Britain to McCarthy era USA. Chief among the director's assets is Robert Downey Jr, a natural screen actor who enlivens the proceedings considerably, even though he is far too young for the part and sometimes mistakes camp for venom. It's certainly a brave stab at reinventing a role made famous by Michael Gambon in one of the all-time great TV performances.
With a cast also including Robin Wright Penn, Katie Holmes and producer Mel Gibson, commercial prospects are stronger than many of the other independent films premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. But in a quirky picture like this, Gibson is no mark of box office success - Wim Wenders' disastrous The Million Dollar Hotel was proof of that. It will achieve modest exposure on the world's arthouse screens but perhaps only as a curio. Fans of the series, of which there are many, should avoid it. Those looking for a Cliff Notes version of the seven-hour miniseries should make a commitment to the original. Those looking for pure entertainment will feel cheated.
The story is told on three levels: the present in which Downey's character hack pulp fiction novelist Dan Dark lies in a hospital bed crippled by a devastating skin disease and ripping all around him to shreds with his acerbic tongue; reminiscences from Dark's childhood in which we discover that his mother (Gugino) cheated on his repressed father; and a fantasy world of private eye fiction in which he is the singing detective hired by a shady figure (Northam) to investigate the abduction (or was it murder) of a prostitute (Wright Penn) by two gangsters (Brody and Polito). Characters step in and out of each milieu: Wright Penn also plays Dark's wife, Northam also plays the man his mother cheats with as well as a man his wife might be having an affair with.
All the strands come together when Dark reluctantly starts seeing a hospital psychiatrist (Gibson, virtually bald and affecting a whimsical Jimmy Stewart accent) and comes to realise that the psoriasis and his general paranoia, mistrust and aggression are connected to his traumatic childhood experiences.
Through the film, Gordon retains Potter's technique of having actors lyp sync to 50s music tracks - as opposed to 40s standards in the series. But whereas the series was drenched in the mood of wartime Britain, the film version fails to capture a palpable mood of the time to go with the songs. Nor does the film work as a mystery. When the revelations about Dark's childhood are unveiled - they were, after all, the startling final piece of the puzzle in the TV series - there is no build-up, making for a suspense-less, somewhat antiseptic final act in what is essentially a tragic story of sexual fear and childhood wounds.
Prod co: Icon Productions.
Int'l sales: Icon Entertainment International.
Exec prod: Stan Wlodkowski.
Prod: Mel Gibson, Steven Haft, Bruce Davey.
Scr: Dennis Potter, from the TV series by Dennis Potter.
DoP: Tom Richmond.
Prod des & cost des: Patricia Norris.
Ed: Jeff Wishengrad.
Main cast: Robert Downey Jr, Robin Wright Penn, Mel Gibson, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Adrien Brody, Jon Polito, Carla Gugino, Saul Rubinek, Alfre Woodard