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The Singing Detective
cast: Robert Downey Jr, Robin Wright Penn, Mel Gibson, Jeremy Northam, and Katie Holmes

director: Keith Gordon

109 minutes (15) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
MGM DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Roger Keen
Remakes are tenuous projects at the best of times, but to remake Dennis Potter's near seven-hour TV masterpiece as a regular-sized feature film is akin to re-writing War And Peace as a 250 page airport novel - a recipe for guaranteed failure. Yet the project has legitimate origins. Potter wrote the script in 1990, on the back of the TV serial's surprise success in America. He believed the action would work if condensed and transferred to an American setting, but his collaborators had their doubts and it never got made. Much later Mel Gibson's company Icon entered the scene and, 17 years on from the original, attempted to give it present day sheen. Potter said that the new script was totally rethought, and not a précis of the original, but what comes over is essentially the same story, heavily pared down and with American settings and cultural references substituted for the British ones.

Detective fiction writer Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr) is hospitalised with severe psoriasis. He is aggressive, misanthropic and prone to hallucinatory episodes. Moreover, he doesn't want to face his condition and accept the help he needs to recover. At the same time he is visualising one of his own detective stories come to life as a film noir, starring himself as the crooning private eye, the 'Singing Detective'. After considerable resistance Dark agrees to undergo psychotherapy with Dr Gibbon (Mel Gibson), and details about his childhood and his downbeat attitude to sex emerge. This is projected into the present as the hatred and suspicion Dark harbours towards his wife, Nicola (Robin Wright Penn), who also features up as a prostitute in the detective story strand. Also cropping in the various strands is Dark's sinister bête noir Mark Binney (Jeremy Northam): he is Dark's dubious client in the detective strand, the seducer of his mother in the childhood strand, and Nicola's imagined lover and co-thief of Dark's literary property in the present. But Dark finds some solace in his contact with pretty nurse Mills (Katie Holmes), who has the unenviable job of greasing his volatised skin, and getting an embarrassing result for her efforts.

There are big problems with the level of compression required to get everything into a time frame of 109 minutes. Dark is barely established as a character before the first big set piece and musical number, where he pours out his soul to a consultant and his team making an examination. Because we don't yet know who Dark is, his torments make little sense to us. Also we don't see a single other patient in the hospital, so Dark's standing within the 'community' - a key character reference in the original - is lost. From there on it gets worse. The main tenets of the story are sketched too lightly to have any impact, and the impression of witnessing events in 'fast-forward' is very strong. The players in the childhood strand are mere ciphers, and the detective stand, though better realised, doesn't really develop. We barely have time to get a grip on Dark's problems before we see him recovering, and the overall sense of what traumatised him remains hazy.

What does survive of the original, in reasonable detail, are Dark's sessions with Dr Gibbon and here there is some real dramatic tension. Gibbon reads out the purple passage about sexual intercourse from Dark's novel in full, as in the original, and in fact this same passage came verbatim from Potter's own novel Hide And Seek, and was always intended as an autobiographical conceit. Robert Downey Jr is a fine actor, and a good choice for Dark, and Mel Gibson is clearly enjoying playing against type as the balding, sartorially challenged medical man. When these two are bouncing off each other the film briefly flickers into life, but elsewhere Downey struggles with his under-realised character, seeming to be searching for lines that have been cut. That aside, his performance is commendable, and he looks particularly good in the noir strand, sharp-suited and derby-hatted, like a reincarnation of Dick Powell in Farewell My Lovely.

Another disappointment are the musical sequences, so sparkling and innovative in the original, under Jon Amiel's superb direction, incorporating Potter's trademark device of lip-synching to the lyrics. Here there is little lip-synching, and little of the impression that the sequences are an extension of Dark's fantasy life. They just happen with the abruptness and staginess of an old-fashioned musical - hardly Moulin Rouge!

So The Singing Detective is an honourable project, made for all the right reasons, but overshadowed from the start because it could not hope to compete with its illustrious original. The fact that the original is now also available on DVD probably won't help the remake, though it does make comparison easy, for those interested. At the heart of the original lies an Englishman's fantasy of being an American hardboiled detective. An American's fantasy of being an American detective, an American doing a side-of-mouth accent...? It's not quite the same, is it?

DVD extras are slight, with a string of cast and crew interviews, and a trailer. The interviewees talk reverentially about the project, Potter, and what he intended, but what they say and what we see in the film don't quite match up.
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