Having been a long time fan of the 6-hour BBC mini-series, when I heard about ‘The Singing Detective’ being made into an Americanized 2 hour movie, a chill went through my spine as I dreaded its fate. Then I heard that the screenplay was being adapted by series original author Dennis Potter and decided that regardless of what I heard about it, that it could turn out okay.
The news I heard made me cautious because I wondered how the cleaned up Robert Downey Jr. would fill the role once played by the brilliant Michael Gambon. And then why, was their character name changed from the author Phillip Marlowe, bedridden with a horrible skin disease to Dan Dark, the same bedridden author. Dan Dark sounds so much like one of the fictional pulp detective novel characters that their author characters had created that it seemed dorky, but then I saw the film and twenty minutes into the story held I could care less what the characters name had become.
The new adaptation of ‘the Singing Detective’ hits its mark and engages you in the same surrealistic dream like way that the BBC series did when it aired in the eighties. The plot unfolds through a multi-threading storytelling method that weaves us in and out of spontaneous musical numbers with Dan Darks’ gruesome reality. The film puts the tormented author character in his own private hospital room, which cuts out at least two or more hours of the delightful ensemble cast of the mini-series that put us through the day to day life of the patients and nurses around the author and allow us to hear Potters keen observations and commentary on the ‘people condition’. But again, you don’t miss it because ‘the Singing Detective’ movie keeps pulling you into the author’s delirious recovery cycle that you are enthralled as the shortened plot unfolds.
Robin Wright Penn provides an adequate shoulder for Robert Downey to cry on, but its Downey’s performance that steals the show. Whatever he’s been accused of in his off screen time doesn’t affect that Downey is a great actor and his time in ‘the Singing Detective’ brings him another notch up the ladder. Mel Gibson appears and is virtually unrecognizable as Downey’s concerned Doctor. His part is essential and he plays it in such a low-key way that I was very surprised to see his name as the credits roll.
So while the new ‘Singing Detective’ seems to be playing in limited distribution now, I hope that it reaches and infects new fans who can easily hunt down and watch the original six episodes finally available on DVD. Well worth watching as it adds several layers of depth to the storyline and is set in its native England. I also hope that the new ‘Singing Detective’ movie exposes the genius of Dennis Potter once more and will hopefully encourage the system to fund future projects from his fertile mind.
For Movie Magazine this is Purple.
© 2003 - Purple - Air Date: 11/19/03
The Singing Detective - The Movie
USA - 2003