The Singing Detective review

Reworking Dennis Potter's classic 1986 mini-series, this screen version of The Singing Detective is a brave, honest meditation on such cheery subjects as sickness, misogyny and death. It's also a failure, director Keith Gordon needing a much firmer hand to control such thorny, recalcitrant material.

The Singing Detective Mark II opens with Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr) checking into a hospital with a severe case of psoriasis, his lizardy skin flaking and running with sores. Drugged up to his eyeballs - which, incidentally, are just about the only part of his body he can move - Dark seeks solace in fantasies, his mind roving between thoughts of his newly penned detective novel and the imagined infidelities of his estranged wife (Robin Wright Penn). Maybe kindly psychiatrist Dr Gibbon (Mel Gibson, in a silly baldy wig) can unpick Dark's tangled unconscious...

As with the original, this big-screen remake gives Potter sole credit as author. But while the '80s version was rewardingly rooted in British culture and Potter's own personal preoccupations, this adap is a mess. This is largely down to the unavoidable need to truncate the material to feature length - the series weighed in at seven hours. But it's also down to Potter's inability to grasp the nuances of American speech. Nothing a good old script polish couldn't have sorted out, but the makers have been respectful of the dead, all too aware of Potter's hatred for Hollywood's remake of Pennies From Heaven.

Still, total ignominy is staved off by some fitfully powerful performances, especially from Wright Penn and Jeremy Northam in a complicated role as Dark's nemesis. And Downey Jr? Well, he certainly came to the project with the requisite number of demons, but his so-so turn is totally eclipsed by Michael Gambon's towering earlier performance, rife with bitterness and tragedy. After all, whiny and petulant will only take you so far...

A good cast and even better intentions, but this flawed remake of Dennis Potter's classic quasi-musical is a fumbling, tone-deaf affair. Approach with caution.

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