Saturday, 4 January 2020

Dracula (2020)

Leaving Demeter Running

Dracula (2020)
Airdate: 1st, 2nd and 3rd January 2020
BBC 1 Three Episodes

Warning: Yep... spoilers residing within.
Don’t read this if you don’t want to know.

So this was unexpected.

As you know I find the work of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss a bit hit and miss... sometimes I find it brilliant and at other times, beyond irritating and disappointing. Well, I have to say, this one exceeded any hopes I had for it and managed to be quite spectacularly entertaining throughout each of the three episodes. Quite wonderful stuff.

Now I complained bitterly just recently and on this very blog, when the BBC did a free and easy excuse for an ‘adaptation’ of War Of The Worlds... mutilated more like it (which I reviewed here). I would almost have been much more happy to accept it, I suspect, if there had been at least one ‘straight’ adaptation of the novel before the BBC did what they did to it... possibly not because, it was indeed terrible but at least there would have been a history of adaptation so that people could now have a go at legitimately subverting the source.

Dracula is completely different territory. There have been lots of good adaptations already... not of the novel which, I suspect, still hasn’t been done properly, but of the 1924 stage version Hamilton Dean wrote from the Bram Stoker novel, which had major simplifications to the book and which he knew would play better as a visual spectacle. In fact, it’s quite likely that most of the versions subsequent to the two 1931 versions of Dracula from Universal are based on the John L. Balderston revisions to that adaptation, if memory serves.

So I’m not uptight about bothering to do the novel again and also, there have been enough straight adaptations now of the play that I can easily forgive people doing their own thing with Stoker’s fascinating Count. After all, how would I be able to enjoy movies like Son Of Dracula, Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein or Dracula Vs Frankenstein without being able to let go of the original. So, yeah, I wasn’t expecting to see a straight adaptation which is just as well, although Moffat and Gatiss have certainly infused this new version with a lot of the same plot points, often disguised and embedded into the DNA of the thing rather than ticking the boxes in a more conventional manner.

Also, they have been rather clever for people who have enjoyed various versions of Dracula over the years and, I have to say, they won me over really quickly. After the setting up of a ‘start to mid-point’ framing device in the first episode (a flashback and then forward technique which they use, to an extent, in all three episodes), the first ten minutes or so of Episode One is almost a straight remake of the early scenes of the two 1931 Universal versions. Right down to the line readings and arrangement of the dialogue. Honestly, the only things which were missing and, it has to be said once I’d seen what they were doing, pining for, were the girl quoting “Around the rugged rock...” and the appearance of a total non-sequiter of an armadillo in Castle Dracula. And, honestly, if they had actually put the armadillo in I would have been ecstatic.

As it was though, the way the story is done in the first episode as a recollection from the now ‘vamped up’ Jonathan Harker (played by John Heffernan) and Sister Agatha Van Helsing (played by Dolly Wells, who also plays her ancestor in the third episode), was absolutely ingenious and though a good deal of the ‘surprise’ moments were, actually, not all that surprising, Moffat and Gatiss do have a few moments up their sleeve and, especially at the end of the second episode, did manage to blind side me a couple of times... so that’s good.

The second episode was actually my favourite, which tells of the journey to Whitby on the Demeter but, with a wonderful twist at the end and, honestly, quite a different version of the voyage which was established cinematically, originally, in the 1922 version of Nosferatu (one of my two blog title namesakes). And, frankly, the final twist of the second... which has a much different line reading from when we see it again when revisited in the third (Dolly Wells is definitely delivering it as Agatha at the end of episode two and as Dr. Helsing in the third)... is bloody brilliant and reminded me of why I loved some of the early episodes of Sherlock so much.

There’s absolutely loads of good stuff I could say about the set design, the scoring, the way the camera frames some of the set ups, the graphic, artifical dream landscape glimpsed in the third episode etc but this would have to be a long review and that stuff is perhaps much better touched upon in a book about the show. But asides from some brilliant direction and top notch pacing throughout... often maintained by cutting the story in a non-linear way to break the flow and stop things from going on too long... we have to give credit, too, to the two brilliant actors who absolutely make this show their own.

I don’t know who Claes Bang is but his portrayal of Dracula and what he makes of the sometimes exquisitely playful lines he is given are absolutely first class. The chameleon shift from charming to brutal and back again really does help lift the show past what it might have been and you have to love this stuff.

But then... even he is upstaged in this. Dolly Wells’ performance as Agatha Van Helsing and her modern day equivalent (and sometimes a cross pollination of both due to Agatha’s blood-memory being in the blood the modern incarnation of her drinks), is absolutely fantastic. The way she pulls off the wit of the lines and matches Claes Bang blow by verbal blow is just incredible and I would love to see more of this lady in this kind of role. Van Helsing and Dracula have absolutely brilliant chemistry together... which is quite right, after all.

And of course, the other thing is, despite there being no armadillo, the way that Moffat and Gatiss pepper the show with both subtle and often quite blatant references to, not just Dracula’s cinematic and literary history but also other gothic or cinematically sympathetic moments, is wonderful and enrich the show for some of us who might be getting a bit tired of the abundance of Dracula at this point.

So yeah, asides from the Universal and Balderston parallels I mentioned earlier, we had the castle in the first episode actually ‘played’ by the exact same castle that F.W. Murnau shot his 1922 Nosferatu variant of the story in. There’s a wonderful moment in the first episode, where Harker runs into the full on ‘younged up’ version of Dracula which is absolutely an obvious homage to the ‘animal predator’ version of Christopher Lee’s wonderful portrayal from the Hammer Dracula movies... red contact lenses too (or some CGI trickery).

My stand out favourites, among other things you may or may not have caught, were the opening of the second episode being an homage to The Beast With Five Fingers, a version of Vincent Price’s sunglasses from the AIP movie version of Tomb Of Ligeia and a blue version of the carpet pattern from Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining adorning Dr. Seward’s wallpaper. My favourite one of all, though, was the hospital room Dr. Helsing is a patient in during episode three... AD/072... being a less than subtle reference to my all-time favourite Hammer Dracula movie, Dracula AD 1972. Wonderful stuff.

it was perhaps less than wonderful to see the guy fro the annoying Cineworld campaign show up as the Texan, Quincey, from the novel but... I guess it’s good that he’s getting work in the business and I wish him well. However, the supporting cast of loads of modern character actors that you never really remember the names of was also superb and there were even some ironic vampire names amongst the supporting characters too (cough... Lord Ruthven... cough).

Finally... and I know some people had a problem with it... but I also loved the ending. Not just the sacrificial romantic sentiment but also the way it was shot... which was an absolute dead steal from the movie version of The Final Programme (reviewed here) which is one of my favourite movies of one of my favourite literary heroes. It almost even kind of made sense at this point because this version of Dracula, transposed to modern times, was beginning to get a little more like Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius character as the show progressed to its conclusion so, I’m absolutely convinced that Moffat and Gatiss would do something interesting with that character, should Moorcock ever give his blessing.

The only flaw I could find in the production... asides from Agatha’s floating dead body still being visible and 'out of time' in the shot as Dracula leaves his underwater coffin at the end of the second episode... was the fact that, at the end of the first episode... Mina definitely invites ‘Johnny’ into the chamber, specifically by name... and not Dracula. It could be argued, perhaps, that since Dracula was, quite literally, wearing Harker’s face at this point that he was also, in fact, Harker but I think that’s pushing it a bit. Still, there could be a case to be made so let’s just sweep that little slip up under the bloodstains and enjoy the production for what it is.

And that’s me done with the new Dracula. Absolutely loved it for many reasons and I’ll definitely be picking up the score CD at the end of January and the Blu Ray in a month or two. A solid and interesting effort and a worthy and blisteringly entertaining addition to the vast array of cinematic and television Dracula’s of the last 100 years. Beautiful work.

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