Gormenghast: Ep. 4

“Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra: the immemorial masonry: the towers, the tracks. Is all corroding? No. Through an avenue of spires a zephyr floats; a bird whistles; a freshet bears away from a choked river. ”

Mervyn Peake

Here’s a secret: I actually watched this last episode in the Gormenghast series over a week ago, so this review might be kind of fuzzy. Reading Shakespeare does have its downsides, after all. I’ll do my best, though.

So episode 4 sees Titus the Seventy-Seventh Earl of Gormenghast all grown up (well, seventeen), and still in deadly contention with the dastardly Steerpike, who’s managed, by dint of some very dastardly deeds indeed, to rise to the position of Master of Ritual. What’s more, he’s courting impressionable, lonely Fuschia, daughter of the Line, in order to extend his power even further – but now, the formidable Countess and the sharp Doctor Prunesquallor are on the lookout for rebellion.

And it’s here that the Gormenghast adaptation begins to go downhill, because this last critical endgame, to have any of the brilliance and the import of the original, should rely almost wholly on the disparity between the impulsive, hotblooded Titus and the deadly cold of Steerpike’s genius. Sadly, Titus in the BBC’s hands becomes almost a cipher, a weak, spoiled boy whose rebellion against Gormenghast plays out as nothing more than wilfulness. What’s worse, Steerpike becomes a soliloquizing, emotionally overwrought madman, and that’s all wrong, too. I realise this is an odd criticism I’m about to make, but he is simply too sympathetic a character here. We feel too sorry for him. Steerpike’s attractiveness as a villain comes from his sheer devilish cleverness: his barefaced evil, the intricate perfection of his plans, his cold rationality. We should not pity him, and yet here we do, a little. The twin pivots upon which the story turns, who should, to mix my metaphors a little, be poles apart, are just brought too close together, and the whole thing collapses.

And though the supporting cast is as terrific as ever – Celia Imrie as the Countess is particularly impressive – they cannot make up for such disastrous miswriting (I don’t say miscasting, because I do think Jonathan Rhys-Meyers would have been perfect as the original Steerpike). Gormenghast promises, but doesn’t deliver in the end.

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