Saturday, 30 September 2017

Adaptation: Edge of Darkness

The A-word.
It's the bane of cinephiles, everywhere.

That book you love; the comic you remember; the show you used to watch; the game you lost an entire summer playing? Oh, someone's adapted it and it's getting made into a movie! Whether a cause for pre-emptive celebration or foreboding caution, it leads to only one thing: expectation. And expectation is the death of the 'clean' movie-viewing experience; no matter how closely the film sticks to its source material, or how much it tries to distance itself, it will be faced with the hurdle of comparison.

And while the movie industry loves the pre-built marketing buzz of 'now a major motion picture!', they loathe the comparative references which will be made from the first review onwards. Because many punters will expect to get exactly the same reaction from a completely different medium, to a story they already know. And therein lies the problem.

In this monthly series, we'll look back at some of the most respected and best-loved properties which have made the perilous journey to the big screen; often with some controversy, and almost always with far too much hype. This isn't so much a review of the films themselves, more an appraisal of their suitability as an adaptation.

Edge of Darkness
Edge of Darkness
Lionheart / BBC TV (1985)

And so, the final stretch of Adaptation's televisual leg moves forward to its next decade, smack-bang in the middle of the 1980s when social and political unrest in the UK was a given, and everyone somehow got by with the perpetual fear that nuclear annihilation may well arrive before the weekend did (cf. what I was saying last month about 'inappropriate synchronicity'). It stood to reason then that a six-part conspiracy-thriller in the post-watershed 9pm slot would do fairly well, but Edge of Darkness flourished so much that the BBC2 drama was repeated on BBC1 a month later and went on to win six BAFTAs. While I was definitely of TV-consuming age in 1985*1, this type of thing wasn't exactly on my radar, hence me watching it for the first time now, and without the tinted lenses of nostalgia.

The story follows Ronnie Craven (played by Bob Peck*2), a police inspector from Yorkshire who attempts to unravel the murder of his daughter Emma (Joanne Whalley), an environmental activist trying to expose a cover-up at a British nuclear waste processing plant. But the path of truth (let alone justice) is never smooth nor straight, and Craven soon finds himself mingling with the top brass of the Ministry of Defence, the CIA not to mention those with a more commercial interest in the matter…

The mistrust surrounding the nuclear industry and governmental authority in general make this very much a thing of its time (there's at least more education these days about nuclear processes). Outside of our main protagonist, it's not entirely clear who 'the bad guys' really are at the start, middle or end of the tale, which only serves to make them all the more compelling. Among the supporting players are distinguished character actors such as Ian McNeice, Hugh Fraser, Joe Don Baker, Zoë Wanamaker, Charles Kay and John Woodvine; familiar faces to TV audiences, but always willing to submerge themselves in their roles, here as untrustworthy types all round.

Not that it's all po-faced realism, though*3. The series is as much a study of grief as it is a political / ecological / conspiracy thriller. Although Emma dies early in the first episode, Ronnie continues to both see and converse with her, as he tries to come to terms with what's happened, to the point where she leads him toward clues surrounding the case. Their interactions are at odds with the rest of the procedural-aspect but not unwelcome at all, being the one wild-card the screenplay has constantly up its sleeve. This surreal factor is grounded by the documentary-style camerawork and terse scripting, the length and frequency of Emma's 'visits' correlating directly with her father's level of emotional stability and focus.

Speaking of focus, there's some beautiful tracking camerawork on display, a bystander's point-of-view syncing with characters moving in and out of the lengthy shots. Generally speaking it's the kind of cinematography that the pacing of a film doesn't really allow for (certainly not to the extent it's used here), whereas director Martin Campbell has around five and a half hours to tell writer Troy Kennedy Martin's story, allowing for a lot of great 'character' moments. And while I'm on with the more technical aspects of production, as nice as it is to have Eric Clapton's guitar-work on the soundtrack, he's going to wear out that riff if he's not careful. Although like most TV before our current age this wasn't really meant to be binge-watched, so the hooks of weekly scheduling can quickly become repetitive*4.

From the outset, there's the feeling that the programme isn't sharing as many secrets as it could be. Not that it's saving them up for the finale necessarily, just that since the story is told almost exclusively from Ronnie's point of view, there'll be a fair amount that he doesn't uncover personally (with the writer being completely unafraid to leave behind previously-pivotal characters once the story's location shifts). Scenes 'external' to Ronnie's immediate thread take place to keep the audience in the loop, but only as much as the narrative flow requires.

So it was some relief when I watched the disc one bonus features (namely a segment from the long-running review show Did You See) and saw the critic-panel remarking that at three episodes in, they weren't entirely sure what was going on half the time. Which is good because I thought it was just me. All becomes clear in the end, or as clear as it needs to be at any rate. Although it almost didn't; Troy Kennedy Martin originally wanted push the reality-envelope and have Ronnie to turn into a tree. Spoiler - that doesn't happen. Well, not quite…

Intriguing in scope and satisfying in execution, if Edge of Darkness were made in this day and age it would probably explore the elements of psychosis and spiritualism more deeply. Of course, a movie released a mere seven years ago pretty much is in this day and age, so let's take a look...

Edge of Darkness
Edge of Darkness
Martin Campbell (2010)

Landing in our cinemas back in 2010, I watched this at the time (before I started reviewing everything here) but didn't recall too much about it*5 (which is partly why I started reviewing everything here). While Troy Kennedy Martin's story has been adapted for the big screen by William Monahan and Andrew Bovell, original series director Martin Campbell has returned, which lends a sense of continuity at least (and with BBC Films getting a production-ident).

Watching in relation to its televisual forebear however, the changes other than shortened run-time are interesting in their counterpoints. The heathland of Yorkshire becomes the rocky coastline of Massachusetts; Bob Peck's grieving British father becomes the American Mel Gibson, while the American 'security expert' and uneasy ally of Joe Don Baker becomes the British Ray Winstone (it's also curious to note that our hero goes from being Ronnie Craven to Tommy). The core storyline of an assassinated daughter and government/corporate nuclear conspiracy still remains, but how it's expanded out is markedly different*6.

The key divergence here is that Mel Gibson's Craven doesn't spend the film talking with Emma. His daughter's 'adult' voice is heard in the scenes immediately following her death, but the film doesn't go as far as having her physically appear*7, which undercuts the severity of Tommy's fight against total psychological breakdown. There are several appearances by his child-aged daughter, but they're framed more as vivid flashbacks than full-on hallucinations.

And naturally, Mel brings his own style to the proceedings. While his furtive brooding is certainly on-par with Peck's, this telling becomes less of a metaphysical conspiracy puzzle and more a procedural revenge thriller. Gibson can do a lot of things, but 'concerned everyman' isn't one of them, his theatrical scowling only topped by Mr Winstone in a role that's no longer Craven's behavioural diametric opposite. The nuclear aspect is also ramped up a little heavy-handedly, but the original BBC version probably didn't look particularly subtle back in '85 either, I imagine.

Best line: "…you're in a position where you'd better decide if you're hangin' on the cross, or bangin' in the nails.". I'd be lying if I said I'm not now looking for an opportunity to use this in a conversation at work.

So, they re-made the 1985 drama in this day and age, and didn't explore the things which made the original work interesting. Okay.

A serviceable (if ultimately forgettable) action-thriller, Edge of Darkness has a decent go of capturing the politics and mechanics of the original story at a brisker pace, even if that means jettisoning the philosophical baggage and going Full Neeson in the process…

Is the original thing any good, though?
It bears all the hallmarks of mid-80s televisual drama, but yes.

Is the film-version any good, though?
It's not as good as I remember. Then again, in 2010 I hadn't just finished watching a far more nuanced version of the same story.

So, should I check out one, both or neither?
Either will work as Sunday night entertainment, but you'll get more out of putting six hours aside for the company of Bob Peck.

Oh, is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There's not. In either version.

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
For the TV version...
Level 1: Nien Nunb, that Hoth Rebel Officer and that Rebel snowspeeder pilot are all in this.

For the film version...
Level 1: In a break from my usual front-of-camera comparisons, I'm going to go for Mr Steve Mair, who played double-bass in the orchestra for Edge of Darkness as well as for The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

*1 While I've mentioned plenty of times before that I generally navigate the chronology of my life by the release of Star Wars films, it's also true that my first fifteen years or so also use TV programmes as pegs in the ground, the next fifteen are attributed to the release of rock/metal albums and anything after that is cinema in general. [ BACK ]

*2 Man, I fucking love Bob 'they remember' Peck. Early on, I thought I was going to have A Macnee Moment™ in realising that Ronnie Craven, this dour, determined middle-aged man on the edge of breaking, may well be the same age me (a sprightly 44), casting chronological and dramatic disparity between the performer and the audience once again. Not to worry, though! Peck was born in 1945, which means that when Edge of Darkness was being filmed, he was actually 4-5 years younger than I am now… [ BACK ]

*3 Seriously, if you think computer-hacking sequences are painful to watch now, you should see how the BBC were doing it in '85. From the information the MI-5 computer gives out based on the 'commands' typed in, you'd think it had a psychic-awareness-modulator plugged into the back … [ BACK ]

*4 cf. the "Yeeeah-whooo!" sound-effect. [ BACK ]

*5 Other than being the start of my obsession with screen-performers mangling the Boston/Massachusetts accent, in particular. It's not even an accent I can do myself, I just know when it's being recreated badly. [ BACK ]

*6 Of course, it was only after watching the preceding six hours of television plus bonus content that I noticed that the movie DVD has a featurette titled 'adapting the Edge Of Darkness mini-series'. Which, I'll be honest, sort of makes you wonder why you bother. During this short add-on (it's three and a half minutes, which is less time than you'll spend reading this rambling), screenwriter William Monahan is on-camera as saying "The series… really shouldn't hang over this film at all. It's only the premise". And that, William, is why Adaptation is happening at all. Because it does hang over the whole thing. All cover-versions do. I suspect you're saying this because you know it's a lie but you feel it's a one you must refute, William. I'm onto you. And on a physical-media related note (and one which is not-at-all-the-fault-of-the-filmmakers), the DVD transfer of this movie is appalling. There are interlacing lines all over the shop and the default volume level is 'barely audible'. This disc was released in 2010, it's not like DVD was a new format then. Icon Entertainment should be mortified. [ BACK ]

*7 Although oddly, Emma does appear at the end of the movie, which I remember thinking odd when I saw the film in 2010. Without the context of Tommy speaking with his daughter throughout the story, it makes almost no sense and hints at another cut of the movie (or draft of the screenplay, at least) which explored this more thoroughly. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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