The Mystery Of Edwin Drood debuts tonight on PBS as a part of its Masterpiece series. It will air at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets, but you should check local listings.
Toward the end of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, John Jasper wakes up in a London opium den, unable to remember the details of the night his nephew disappeared and his potential hand in the events, lamenting, “If only I could see the end.” That echoes the sentiment of any fan of Dickens wishing that Edwin Drood was more than an incomplete work, unable to stand with the author’s best, and similarly unable to be adapted into something more than pedestrian period drama.
As far as final, unfinished novels go, Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood has enjoyed a comparatively lengthy life through media adaptations. Early cinema adapted the story twice, and there is even a stage musical, the Clue-style Drood, in which the audience literally votes for whom they think committed the crime during the show, and the actors then play out the chosen scenario with a predetermined number. Dickens only completed around half of the novel in serialized installments, leaving the titular mystery with several strong hints but no satisfying conclusion. Screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes aimed to adapt the story for a 21st century audience, and as far as one can tell, that involves a lot of brooding in the dark and cerebral melancholy.
Giving away any of the plot would spoil the palpable mystery even from the start, but a few character notes will do. Matthew Rhys—of Brothers and Sisters and the Dylan Thomas-centered film The Edge of Love—plays church choirmaster John Jasper in a constant opium-addled haze, plagued by mysterious inner demons. He loves his nephew Edwin Drood, but secretly covets Drood’s fiancé Rosa Bud, one of his private pupils.
The gorgeous Tazmin Merchant—who played Daenerys Targaryen in the original pilot of Game of Thrones as well as the magnetic Georgiana Darcy in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice— is largely wasted in the flimsy role of Rosa. She flits about with no real purpose, bemoans her impending marriage to Edwin after a betrothal planned since their infancy, and breaks down whenever she’s in the same room as Jasper, for she despises his obvious affections. Even Neville is taken with her, but she exhibits no positive characteristics to warrant such comprehensive attention.
The usual array Dickensian minor characters populate the rest of the story. The Reverend Septimus Crisparkle and his mother take in twin orphans from Ceylon, Neville and Helena. Sacha Dhawan, perhaps known from his role as Manmeet on NBC’s Outsourced, gets a dramatic role as Neville, but not a better one, since he is relegated to being the epitome of the angry, vengeful foreigner, suspect simply because of his emotions and his origins. Hiram Grewgious is Rosa’s guardian, overseeing her dead father’s will and providing guidance; Durdles works around the cathedral carving inscriptions in the crypts; Deputy is the standard Dickensian ragamuffin street urchin, begging and doing odd jobs like being a lookout. Edwin Drood isn’t a story about characters; they are all in service of the plot, the central mystery of Edwin’s disappearance after a night dining and drinking with Jasper and Neville.
Miniseries like this always struggle to depict the passage of time, but it’s actuely apparent in Edwin Drood, as events rush together in brief scenes only concerened with urging the plot forward. Rosa and Helena become friends exceedingly quickly. Helena and the Reverend have affections for each other out of nowhere. There is no character development, they change as the scenes from the book fall into place in order.
Edwin Drood doesn’t carry the same institutional indictments in the background of its story like other Dickens works, such as A Christmas Carol, Nicholas Nickelby, or Oliver Twist. The mystery of Edwin’s disappearance is paramount, tossing all other developments to the side. There are a few scenes that inspire a bit of pause: Jasper and Durdles’ journey into the crypt is wonderfully spooky, as is Neville and Edwin’s nighttime stroll through the cathedral. Several of Jasper’s opium hallucinations are intriguing, but Drood feels as unfinished as it was when Dickens died over a century ago.
If there’s a social theme, it’s the issue of legitimate parentage and willed property. A few characters show shades of Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester in King Lear, and when the story stops swirling enough to give a speech some breathing room, Drood shows some teeth on 19th-century succession. But it’s nothing new, and something that Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, or Dickens himself in other works, wrote better. Hughes does an admirable job of taking the various threads left by Dickens work and weaving them all together. She even picks out a theme around which to hinge the twists in the final act. Unlike the “choose your own adventure” style of the stage musical, Hughes goes along with the prevailing assumption of Dickens’ intentions, and ties everything into a nice bow. The satisfying ending gives the impression that something more impressive came before, but it can only do so much to mask the wealth of missing material Dickens never wrote. Every character is an unfinished sketch, a dissatisfying half-mystery that will always need more than modern adapters can provide.