Gormenghast

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy is "fantasy" literature only inasmuch as the novels take place in a fictional, kingdom-like estate in an unspecified era. Nothing especially fantastical happens there—no magic, no dragons, no sword-wielding barbarian adventurers—and the tone of the books is only slightly surreal. The BBC's four-hour television adaptation of the first two books of Gormenghast maintains the Peake tradition. Director Andy Wilson and screenwriter Malcolm McKay emphasize the interplay of the series' eccentric characters, and the hysterical pitch that's reached when their single-minded purposes come into conflict. The BBC Gormenghast is loud and busily episodic, investing less attention in Peake's gloomy plot arc and more in his digressive setpieces—particularly the gothic character of the titular city-sized castle. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers stars as an abused kitchen boy who sneaks around in dank corners and takes advantage of the arrogant egotism of the estate's upper echelon. The villain's rise corresponds with the ascension of Gormenghast's 77th Earl. As the new lord grows from babyhood to young adulthood (at which point he's played by Andrew Robertson), Rhys-Meyers maneuvers through the corridors of power until he becomes the assistant to the only man in the castle who can understand the ancient traditions and rituals that make the dysfunctional community function. The filmmakers make much of the absurdity of Gormenghast's daily ritual, and push the comic elements of Peake's work whenever possible. At times, the frenetic energy and offbeat production design, as impressively imagined as it is, becomes exhausting. But the time spent exploring Peake's asides pays off in the series' final hour, when Rhys-Meyers' treachery is made public and the characters' individual reactions are perfectly comprehensible, given the time Wilson and McKay have spent with them. Peake wrote the Gormenghast trilogy in the years after WWII, and his combination of whimsy and satire was intended as a close skewering of the British royal family, the aristocracy, and what he saw as a doomed class system. The cast and crew of the BBC Gormenghast are clearly aware of these roots, but they also pull out the universal aspects of Peake's story, extending his work beyond the realm of fantasy. Beneath the farce and the fancy, Gormenghast is the story of two young men on either end of the socioeconomic spectrum, both choking on the misery of duty and expectation.

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