Directed by Keith Gordon. USA.  2003.

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Based on Dennis Potterís classic BBC television series, Keith Gordonís film (with a screenplay by Potter) is a both a curiosity and a disappointment for those familiar with the original TV version.  Like most remakes, re-imaginings or reinterpretations of classic films and TV shows, the film version of The Singing Detective feels like an unnecessary update of an original work that was perfectly fine (or in this case, one of the best television programmes ever made) in the first place.  Although cinema viewers are currently being subjected to a glut of film and TV remakes, updates, (and sequels to remakes!) I donít object to filmmakers updating a work.  For instance, if itís for artistically challenging reasons, the resulting films can be interesting variations on the originals, updating certain elements that couldnít be explored the first time around due to censorship reasons or the improvement in special effects.  Of course, most remakes donít get greenlit so that film artists can try to try to explore or improve upon elements of the original work; they get made because a remake of an original work is easier to market (Brand recognition!) to an audience already familiar with the original version.  Judging by Gordonís past directorial work, with films like A Midnight Clear (1992), Mother Night (1996) and Waking the Dead (2000), Iím sure his intentions werenít simply to remake a classic so that he could more easily achieve commercial success.  This is simply because I donít believe Hollywood would consider Potterís work, however artistically brilliant, as commercially viable properties.  If this is the case though, why update The Singing Detective?  Does Potterís seminal work really need a rethink?

Iíll admit that my reaction to the film is based on my love of the Jon Amiel directed series, which I saw when it was originally broadcast in the UK in 1986.  Almost every comparison with the original series shows the film to be the weaker version.  The cast in the film is top drawer: Robert Downey Jr. as Dan Dark (renamed from the TV versionís Phillip Marlow), a bitter, cynical author who is hospitalised with a crippling skin disease; Robin Wright Penn as his wife Nicola; Jeremy Northam as Mark Binney (a composite figure from Darkís past) and Mel Gibson as Dr Gibbon, the psychiatrist who helps to put Dark on the road to physical and mental recovery.  As good as these actors are, none of them can hold a candle to Michael Gambon, Janet Suzman, Patrick Malahide or Bill Paterson, who played these roles respectively in the TV version.  Unlike the frequent fantasy musical sequences in the TV series (which commented on Marlowís state of mind), the few song and dance numbers in the film seem half-heartedly performed and are poorly shot, edited and choreographed, as if the filmmakers couldnít be bothered - or were too embarrassed - to feature them.  The only time when a song really feels suited to the film is when Dark, with the help Dr. Gibbon, succeeds in walking again, to the accompaniment (in Darkís mind) of Eddie Cochran singing Three Steps to Heaven.  This moment is such a victory for Dark that the audience is swept up in the joy he feels, and the song helps to convey that to us.  

Because the new version is - presumably - set in the 1990s or early 21st century, and because Downey Jr. is younger than his television counterpart, the setting of the fictional detective novel has been changed from the 1940s to the 1950s.  This change dilutes the film noir feel of the murder mystery story, which was an essential element of the TV series because Marlowís detective story masked - and eventually helped him to uncover - the mysteries and secrets from his real life.  Many terrific elements of the TV show have been pruned from the film version, most noticeably the scenes that featured the young Marlow, brilliantly played by Lyndon Davies in the TV version.  Itís understandable that a lot of sequences from the TV original couldnít be included here because of the filmís shorter running time, but as with many things in this remake, more is lost than gained by the change.  However, the film has not tarnished Potterís original work and there are some interesting things in the update.  

Although not as memorable as Gambon in the title role, Downey Jr. succeeds in conveying a tortured man fighting for his sanity.  Thereís one moment where Dark gives an anguished speech to a group of Doctors and this seems less like a confession from Dark the character, and more like an outpouring of emotional torment from Downey Jr. the actor, whose much publicised struggle with drug addiction must surely have influenced his approach to the role.  Thereís also an interesting moment towards the end of the film thatís a different take on a similar scene featured in the TV original (and which echoes a scene in David Lynchís 1986 film Blue Velvet), where Dark (playing the detective in his novel) hides in a wardrobe and spies on his duplicitous wife.  She turns to address Dark and confronts the author (and his literary alter ego, and, with the use of a POV shot, the audience) with Darkís negative feelings towards women.  Ultimately, the film is not without interest or merit, but like many recent remakes, it seems like a watered-down version of a classic original, and itís the original version of The Singing Detective you really should be watching.     

Martyn Bamber
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Material Copyright © 2003 Nigel Watson