Gormenghast DVD cover art

Film:
DVD:

Written by: Malcolm McKay, from the novels by Mervyn Peake
Directed by: Andy Wilson
Starring: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Andrew Robertson, Celia Imrie, Neve McIntosh, Zoë Wanamaker, Christopher Lee, and Stephen Fry

Features:

  • Making-of featurette
  • Additional production materials
  • Trailers

Released by: BBC Home Video
Region: 1
Rating: NR
Anamorphic: Nope. Presented in original 1.33:1 AR

My Advice: Own it.

I first managed to see the 4-part BBC mini-series Gormenghast thanks to a little channel called BBC America. Only available (usually) to subscribers to premium digital cable service, this means that a great swath of the interested American audience probably missed this one, unless they were fortunate enough to see it air on their local PBS affiliate. Consigned in this fashion to relative obscurity, Gormenghast delivered a staggeringly good performance as fantasy films go, long before Harry Potter and a certain band of hobbits convinced Hollywood that such a thing was possible.

The series is, in short, brilliant. Peake's novels, published at the end of WWII, have their share of rabid fans, and for the most part, the buzz is that they have been successfully appeased by the Beeb's presentation. The story revolves around the kingdom of Gormenghast, a place built on seventy-seven successive generations of tradition and power, that is starting to show its age. Dissent within the nobility, dissatisfaction of the lower classes, treachery from everywhere, and deception about all of these is brewing towards a potentially unpleasant future for the natives of Gormenghast. The old earl's going mad, the new heir doesn't want to be a noble, and the kitchen-boy is plotting to destroy them all.

The performances are nothing short of spectacular. The cast list reads like a roll call of BBC acting talent, and each part was cast to perfection. The brooding Steerpike, the rebellious Titus, the austere and commanding Lady Gertrude, all are incredibly well done, and had this been a standard theatrical release, there would likely be Oscar buzz regarding their performances. Stephen Fry turns in an entertaining performance as the doddering Headmaster of the school, which provides a subplot of welcome comic relief from the scheming and murder of the main storyline. Christopher Lee puts in a great supporting performance as Flay, a loyal servant who returns from exile to assist Titus in saving Gormenghast and claiming his birthright as its heir.

In addition to phenomenal acting, the production design for this series is amazing. The overwhelming architecture of the castle, filled with dark corners, forgotten passageways, and dank stonework, conveys all you need to know about Titus' reasons for feeling oppressed by history and tradition. If Joyce was right when he wrote that "history is a nightmare," Gormenghast proves that the nightmare comes complete with monolithic gothic castles and decaying tapestries. The score also serves to bring out the highlights of the action, staying nice and subdued when the mood demands, but swelling to fill the void when necessary. Unfortunately, a stand-alone soundtrack CD is currently unavailable (though an unrelated operatic interp from Irmin Shmidt of CAN is available, for what it's worth).

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Steerpike in Gormenghast

The DVD is a two-disc affair, nicely packaged with a great cover depicting the villainous Steerpike, and clocks in a running time over 4 hours. Audio consists of a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, English only. Video is crisp, clean, and presented in its original television broadcast aspect. The extras list above may look a little limited, but this is no standard 12-minute "featurette," with half the running time given to clips. The making-of materials are fairly extensive, and I'd love to see other DVDs include this much info when they claim to have "making of" features. Outside of the production documentaries, there's not much in the way of extras, but the set's worth it for the series alone.

Christopher Lee as Flay from Gormenghast

Andrew Robertson as Titus from Gormenghast

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