PBS: ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ is a twisty murder melodrama

I love a good murder mystery and watched “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” after learning it was based upon a particularly sensational murder in Boston.  Yet there are two questions one must ask about this production:

  1. Is it a good murder mystery?
  2. Is it worthy of Charles Dickens?

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” was the novel that Charles Dickens was writing when he died and his notes were not specific enough to be sure of the identity of the murderer although scholars believe there were hints.

The tale is not really about the title character, but his disappearance. Drood is a young chap, rich, careless and engaged to Rosa Bud. Rosa is the star pupil of Drood’s uncle, John Jasper, who is a choirmaster and a drug addict. Jasper is in love with Rosa as is the newly arrived orphan Neville Landless. Landless and his twin sister, Helena, are from Ceylon.

Neville has come to England to study with Rev. Crisparkle. Helena will stay at the Nuns’ House boarding school where Rosa also stays. While Rosa and Helena get on well, Neville takes an instant dislike to the smirky Edwin. Neville soon regrets his violent outburst against Edwin because although they get together through the efforts of Crisparkle and dine together at Jasper’s, Edwin disappears soon after and Neville become the prime suspect.

Under the direction of Diarmuid Lawrence, this adaptation by Gwyneth Hughes has many twists and turns and veers too far into the melodramatic. Hughes previously wrote the TV movie “Miss Austen Regrets” as well as episodes for “Hunter” and “The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries.”

There is little mystery as to who committed the murder. Lawrence and Hughes give us broad hints and Matthew Rhys as John Jasper is a man with an obsessive dream and an uncontrolled desire to be with Rosa. We first meet him in an opium den and later two character comment upon his use of laudanum ( 10 percent powered opium-based painkiller that was unfortunately highly popular during the Victorian era). When we first see Edwin and his beloved Rosa, it is during one of Jasper’s opium dreams. Bathed in golden light before a church alter, the golden-haired Freddie Fox as Edwin and the likewise blonde Tamzin Merchant’s Rosa seem the perfect couple. Jasper dreams of choking the lad until he’s completely wiped that smile away while the sweet Rosa looks on approvingly.

When we meet them Fox’s Edwin is a bit spoiled, but not a bad chap. He needles the more serious-minded Rosa. They seem cozy, but not particularly in love. As Neville bitterly suggests, what Edwin needs is some suffering. And as played by Fox, you do want to slap some sense into the insufferably snotty chap, but not to the extent of Neville’s explosive anger nor do we utterly lose sympathy for him and cheer his every choking.

We also see that the Rosa of Jasper’s dreams is an illusion. She doesn’t smile at Jasper, but grows tensely quiet and uncertain. It’s Helena who provides the resolute spirit that Rosa later leans on, and while Amber Rose Revah is convincing as the practical outspoken Helena, she less convincing later as the more tamed version. Sacha Dhawan conversion to Edwin’s loving brother (who therefore could not be the murderer) is also unconvincing.

Where this drama gets dodgy is Hughes conceit that Neville and Helena are Edwin’s brother and sister and that even John Jasper is not quite who he seems. There is a murder and even that has one too many twist.  The least believable part is the romance that develops or rather is underdeveloped between Revah’s Helena and Rory Kinnear’s Reverend. No chemistry and none of that meant-to-be-together glow.

According to an article by John Welford , Dickens was interested in a sensational 1849 murder case. Dickens had met  Professor John Webster in 1942 and it is possible that he also met Dr. George Parkman. His friend Sir James Tennent wrote an article about the murder case that was published in December 1867. Dickens made a point of visiting the crime scene.

Parkman was at the time of his death 59. He had an interest in mental diseases and studied them in Paris and England. He served as an army surgeon during the War of 1812.  He had a practice in South Boston that served the poor and convinced the Massachusetts General Hospital to open up an asylum which he gave a sizable donation to. Parkman had opened up his mansion during the cholera and small pox epidemics in order to treat patients. Robert Gould Shaw, the Union Army colonel during the Civil War was his grandnephew.

Parkman was a well-known figure in Boston. He did not own a horse, but preferred to walk while collecting rents.

Dr. Webster was short and stocky while Parkman was tall and lean. Webster taught at Harvard Medical College and published books on chemistry. He had two daughters. His family had already given up their mansion and were leasing a house. He was kind, but lived well above his economic means, putting him in debt to many of his friends. Webster began borrowing money from Parkman in 1842. By 1847, he owed more money, but put up a cabinet of minerals as collateral. He would a year later, put up the same cabinet up for collateral on a loan to Robert G. Shaw, the husband of Parkman’s sister Elizabeth Willard Parkman (grandparents of the Civil War officer).

When Parkman found out, he was understandably angry. Webster invited Parkman to the college on November 23. Parkman disappeared, but Webster locked his rooms to prevent the janitor, Ephraim Littlefield, from entering. Littlefield and his wife lived in the basement of the college, next to Webster’s lab. Littlefield was under suspicion, yet he was in a position to notice changes in Webster’s behavior. Littlefield and his wife eventually chiseled their way into the dissecting vault to find dismembered part of a body that would later be identified as belonging to Parkman.

Welford points out these similarities (noted in 1983 by Jim Garner and in 2000 by Robert Tracy) between the murder case and “Edwin Drood”:

  1. The chief suspect is a respected and distinguished citizen.
  2. There’s an underlying problem. For Jasper it’s opium. For Webster, it’s money owed.
  3. The victim disappears and is found in an underground room.
  4. A working class man is the key to finding the body.
  5. A watch belonging to the victim is thrown in the river.

Hughes doesn’t include the specifics of the jewelry of Edwin Drood and Drood’s watch, chain and shirt pin aren’t part of her mystery although the ring which Edwin was to use to make his engagement official to Rosa is part of this story, but not, as scholars suggest, a vital clue to the identify of the murder victim.

Part of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is just how Dickens would have ended the story and if he would have drawn more parallels to the real-life murder. This BBC production presented on PBS is a bit disjointed, not only because of the drug haze of Jasper, but also because of the editing and some abrupt transitions. Lawrence uses subdued lighting, but some of the shots aren’t particularly well lit obscuring the faces without any purpose that I could discern. Hughes offers a viable solution that is mostly faithful to Dickens and Lawrence gives us a dark tale with a Victorian psychedelic haze to suggest the fevered mind fueled by obsessive love, bitter sibling rivalry and  opium addiction.  For Dickens and for a murder mystery, this movie is just a tad too contrived and melodramatic, but still a fun excursion into Victorian England for murder mystery fans.

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