Artfully wrought and painstakingly brought to life, the Brit import “Gormenghast” is a grim fairy tale at its darkest. The production, five years in the making, is a visual sensation, utilizing 120 different sets and a cast of celebrated actors for a story that continues to fuel many an online chatroom discussion. This elaborate and long-awaited four-part mini, based on two novels in a trilogy of cult books by Mervyn Peake, is not simply Dungeons & Dragons gone respectable; it’s more like the U.K. equivalent of “The Wizard of Oz” — but even that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of this complex tale. It’s drama that defies logic. It’s funny, but nowhere near comedy. It’s ugly and beautiful, confounding and fascinating.
Peake, a crony of Graham Greene and Dylan Thomas, began the story of the mythical kingdom of Gormenghast while in the British Army during WWII. The idea of a place where antiquated notions are tossed aside by a new generation in search of something different obviously struck a chord with postwar readers. Boiling down the essence of the story, however, is not so easy. More or less, the mini follows the coming of age of the 77th earl of Gormenghast, Sir Titus Groan (played by Cameron Powrie at 13 and Andrew N. Robertson at 17).
Titus is to inherit a claustrophobic kingdom made of rock and to continue its arcane and seemingly meaningless rituals, just as his father and those before him have done for years. It’s not a particularly powerful or exciting monarchy.
Still, it becomes the ultimate desire of the devious Steerpike (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), an industrious kitchen boy, to rule the house of Groan. Inadvertently rescued from the cruel and torturous hands of the piglike Swelter (Richard Griffiths) by the foreboding Flay (Christopher Lee), Steerpike doesn’t take long to ingratiate himself with the royal family. Part one focuses on his rather violent rise to power.
Part two is devoted to the older Titus, who seeks to escape his royal duty. His only ally is his older sister, Lady Fuchsia (Neve McIntosh), who like Titus comes to hate the trappings of Gormenghast. Although the desire to leave is great, Titus must face down the ruinous Steerpike and save Gormenghast before he can completely reject it.
The mini features marvelous performances all around, especially from Celia Imrie as Lady Gertrude, a disinterested queen who prefers cats and birds to her regal and maternal duties. Imrie and Ian Richardson, who plays Lord Groan, bring a poignant realism to their over-the-top characters and elicit giggles as easily as goosebumps.
Rhys-Meyers is so dashingly good-looking, he could easily become the next Leonardo DiCaprio. But the part of the malevolent Steerpike is not the role that’s going to win over young female audiences.
Lee, a national treasure, gives the monosyllabic Flay the most empathy of any of the characters. His performance represents a welcome return after a long absence.
Together, director Andy Wilson and writer Malcolm McKay stay as faithful to the books as possible and create a truly unforgettable production. Considering this is the first adaptation of Peake’s work, and given the magnitude of the production, it will most likely remain the definitive version.
The mini has already won a slew of awards in Britain and doesn’t have an equal in terms of production and set design. By all rights it should be on Emmy voters’ lists a year from now as well. Set design by Christopher Hobbs is like being inside a dream that quickly dissolves into a nightmare. Lensing by Gavin Finney eloquently captures the mood, making great use of the myriad images that range from abstract artist Kandinsky’s banners to rotted animal carcasses. Original music by Richard Rodney Bennett and choral music by John Tavener effectively evoke the pageantry and haunting character of the kingdom of Gormenghast.