Singing Detective, The (2003)

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The ViewAuckland Review

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Review byMatthew Turner11/11/2003

Three out of Five stars
Running time: 108 mins

Despite a script by Potter himself, impressive production design and some good performances, this is like reading the abridged version of a masterpiece: flawed but still enjoyable.

Dennis Potter’s 1986 BBC TV series The Singing Detective was, quite simply, one of the best TV dramas ever made. Given that it was roughly seven hours long, it seems somewhat pointless, let alone foolish, to condense those hours into a film version lasting just under two hours, since you’re obviously going to lose something in the translation.

Unsuccessful Compilation Attempt

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happened - despite some good performances and a screenplay written by Potter himself (giving you some idea of just how long it’s taken to get made), the overall effect is like ‘The Singing Detective's Greatest Hits’ - a compilation of all the best bits of the TV series, stripped of its complexity and the slowly unravelling puzzle element.

Robert Downey Jnr stars as unsuccessful thriller novelist Dan Dark, laid up in hospital and undergoing treatment for crippling psoriasis. His diseased skin mirrors his own inner torment – he’s haunted by memories of his tortured childhood and paranoid suspicions over the activities and motives of his estranged wife, Nicola (Robin Wright Penn).

At the same time, his fevered imagination blends together elements of his own trashy detective novel, his past and his present, interspersed with various impromptu song and dance numbers from those around him in the hospital.

Director Keith Gordon describes The Singing Detective as “your basic comedy drama 1950s surrealist lip-synching rock and roll musical absurdist expressionist film noir pastiche naturalist character study”, which presumably gave the marketing department a few headaches. The switch to the 1950s from the 1940s of the series is unfortunate and doesn’t really have the same impact, since the fantasy 1940s element originally dove-tailed with his war-time experiences. It’s also a shame the lead character couldn’t keep the name Philip Marlow…

Far Far Too Obvious

The main problem with the film, aside from the obvious condensation issues, is that it doesn't even trust the audience to get the basic idea: a few minutes in, Doctor Alfre Woodard says 'Now, Mr Dark, you're never going to get better unless you get rid of some of that bitterness...'; similarly, later on, Dr Mel Gibson (sporting an amusing comb-over and milk-bottle glasses) tells Dark straight out that his problems all stem from his attitudes to sex. Well, duh.

That said, the basic story just about survives and it's imaginatively staged and well-acted. Downey Jnr is excellent, managing the difficult feat of maintaining our sympathy while being an utter bastard for most of the film. No-one else really stands out, though Jon Polito and Adrien Brody are good value as the mysterious thugs, as is Jeremy Northam as ‘Binney’ – the fictional client and also Dark’s real-life agent, who may or may not be shagging his wife.

Katie Holmes is also on hand as Nurse Mills and the famous ‘penis-greasing’ scene remains intact, though it somehow lacks the eroticism of the TV version with Joanne Whalley and her part is significantly cut down.

In short, it’s well written and well acted, so if you’re a fan of the TV series, then this is still worth seeing as a curiosity piece or as an abridged version of the best bits. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, then it’s still enjoyable, but probably a little more confusing. Flawed but fun.

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Content updated: 28/02/2020 16:31

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