The idea of updating a cult classic like “The Prisoner” — creator and star Patrick McGoohan’s surreal limited series steeped in Orwellian fears of conformity and the Cold War — sounded exciting on paper. The result, however, proves perhaps not surprisingly frustrating — a very British six-hour, three-night event that features striking images and arresting moments but can’t overcome a persistent lack of coherence. Granted, Ian McKellen could hold an audience by reading from a dictionary; it’s just that at times he sounds as if he is, for all the good the script does in bringing clarity to the mystery.
In addition to McKellen, Jim Caviezel provides marquee credentials as Six, who awakens inexplicably in a cookie-cutter world known only as the Village, where everyone has traded in names for numbers. The Village is overseen by McKellen’s imperious and enigmatic Two, whose job is seemingly to break Six’s spirit — and give the lie to his conviction that a larger world exists outside his new Disney backlot-type surroundings.
Shot in Namibia and South Africa, the foreboding environment and yawning desert give “The Prisoner” a creepily distinctive look. But too much of Bill Gallagher’s self-consciously arcane script and Nick Hurran’s direction unfolds as if through a funhouse mirror, offering less in the way of clues than marking time until the vague, conspiratorial reveal in the closing chapters.
Night two is easily the strongest, but the strangeness of the hours that bookend it ultimately infuse the miniseries with an unsatisfying aftertaste. (To be fair, many were also put off by the cryptic ending of McGoohan’s original, which left its own breadcrumb trail mischievously scattered.)
Fortunately, McGoohan offered a powerful enough presence to keep that series watchable, as did the juicy twist of periodically replacing Twos.
By contrast, the weakest link here is Caviezel, whose perpetually baffled character is deficient in steely resolve. Inasmuch as we see the Village through his eyes, it’s a major drawback — though the jumpiness of the script does leave the “Passion of the Christ” star with another kind of cross to bear. The supporting cast is fine, including Atwell and Ruth Wilson (“Jane Eyre”) as the women in Six’s orbit, Lennie James (“Jericho”) and Jamie Campbell Bower as Two’s rightfully confused son.