“Masterpiece” has enjoyed a cozy relationship with Charles Dickens, from “Bleak House” to the recent “Great Expectations.” Tackling the author’s unfinished “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” — not so much a whodunit as a why and how — isn’t on that level, but still provides plenty of atmosphere, twists that might have had even Dickens’ head spinning courtesy of writer Gwyneth Hughes, and a riveting central performance from Matthew Rhys. Not everything about the production works, but it’s certainly not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.
Rhys plays John Jasper, a choirmaster who is uncle to the title character, Edwin (Freddie Fox), an attractive and amiable if not particularly distinguished lad. Edwin has been engaged forever to the 17-year-old Rosa (“The Tudors’?” Tamzin Merchant), who isn’t so sure about going through with the marriage that her late father wanted.
While Edwin is extremely fond of his uncle, the dark, brooding Jasper harbors a simmering desire for Rosa, which complicates his feelings toward the “bright boy,” as he calls him. On top of that, a pair of mysterious orphaned twins arrive, Helena (Amber Rose Revah) and Neville (Sacha Dhawan), who hail from Ceylon and have an axe to grind against Edwin, or perhaps the Droods.
Directed by Diarmud Lawrence from Hughes’ teleplay — only the latest in a series of stabs at resolving a story Dickens died in the middle of writing — the movie seeks to create a sense of dread by capturing Jasper’s opium-fueled hazes, which are shot in a surreal fashion that soon grows wearisome. When Edwin finally goes missing, the story takes the first of several turns, leaving several unlikely characters to play the sleuth role.
Even those not particularly taken with the story can get lost in the Gothic cathedral, moody cinematography (by Alan Almond) and fine performances. Although that principally applies to Rhys — who brings touches of the Phantom of the Opera to his carnal, musically pursued desires — it also includes an assortment of Dickensian characters, from the tippling caretaker (Ron Cook) to the officious lawyer (Alun Armstrong) advising Rosa regarding her options.
“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” underscores why the author’s work remains so vibrant in a project timed to the 200th anniversary of his birth, and why its appeal to a PBS audience is hardly a mystery.