Gormenghast (2000)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christopher Lee, Ian Richardson, Stephen Fry
Extras: “Making of” Documentary, Trailers, Enhanced “Making of” Documentary

For the last week, I have tried on four separate occasions to sit through "Gormenghast, " the epic four-hour television production produced by the BBC. Life, in various forms, interrupted my attempts. I had requested the title for review, thinking I could breeze through it and churn a quickie summary. Faced with a deadline and my responsibility, I cleared a Sunday and forced myself to sit down and watch it from beginning to end.

Why the prologue? "Gormenghast" is quite plainly one of the best miniseries ever produced (on either side of the Atlantic) and not only builds its surreal premise credibly, but also continually wallops with invention and imagination all the way to its breathtaking resolution. Thanks to BBC Video and Warner Home Video, "Gormenghast" comes to DVD with an impressive two-disc set, offering not only the entire miniseries for viewing pleasure, but also a generous helping of behind the scenes interviews with practically every member of the sterling cast.

Adapted by Malcolm McKay from the novels by British author Mervyn Peake, "Gormenghast" follows a literary tradition dating back to Thomas More’s "Utopia" and Plato’s "Republic": creating a completely fictitious world in order to expose the foibles and follies of the human condition. At times modern, Medieval and futuristic, the monarchy of Gormenghast prides itself on maintaining its rituals and traditions to preserve society. The rich stay rich, the poor remain poor, and everyone knows their place. Yet like most utopian and dystopian literature, our story begins with the birth of change… usually in the form of a child.

There is much rejoicing in the kingdom, now that Titus, the 77th Earl of Groan and future lord of Gormenghast, has been born. The perpetually brooding 76th Earl, Lord Groan (Ian Richardson), sees fatherhood as another bothersome activity, keeping him from his library and his love for ornithology, particularly owls. Daughter Lady Fuchsia (Neve McIntosh) first greets her newborn brother with jealousy, but eventually overcomes her envy when she realizes that Titus may be the first opportunity to develop a "normal" familial relationship, a formidable challenge given the House of Groan’s natural eccentricities. As far as the aristocracy is concerned, it’s business as usual… until Steerpike (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) enters the story.

We first see Steerpike as an abused kitchen helper, terrorized by the corpulent royal cook Swelter (Richard Griffiths). Flay (Christopher Lee), royal manservant to the Earl, witnesses the porcine chef’s brutality and intercedes. Steerpike pledges his devotion and obedience to Flay. Steerpike very soon starts his path up the courtly ladder, gaining confidences and increasing his visibility amongst the privileged class. Proper deference and humility endears him to the hierarchy, all the better to conceal his pathological thirst for power and rebellion of Gormenghast’s caste system. Soon, Steerpike counsels Lord Groan’s scheming twin sisters, Cora and Clarice (Lynsey Baxter and Zoe Wanamaker), on how to wrest power away from the Earl and back into their hands. With a ruthlessness and bearing that would shame Machiavelli, Steerpike manipulates virtually all who cross his path, instantly sizing how their standing may or may not aid his rise to the throne. And that’s just in the first hour!

Sitting through the first 40 minutes or so without buckling under culture shock requires a supreme effort of will. I was not prepared for how complex both "Gormenghast" the movie and Gormenghast the mythical realm are. Lady Gertrude (Celia Imrie) cares about her baby right after birth, but then instructs Nanny Slagg (June Brown) to "bring him back when he’s six." Despite the child’s almost cherubic appearance, Lord Groan frets at Dr. Prune-Squallor’s (John Sessions) observation that the child looks "hideous" because of his "unnatural" violet eyes. The christening finds Titus’ and Steerpike’s fates intertwined when he falls out of a window over the ceremonial tent, where Titus was dropped on his head but survived because he "bounced back."

But wait! It gets even weirder. A wet nurse is sought for Titus, as Gertrude cannot be bothered with such trivialities. Searching from the "lowest of the low," Slagg finds the unwed but pregnant Kida (Olga Sosnovska) willing to nurse the baby. As Kida cradles Titus, she whispers rebellion in his ears, speaking of how her unborn daughter will be a future spiritual companion for him, much to Nanny’s dynastic dismay. Kida eventually gives birth, alone in the woods, just as Titus begins his initiation into his royal birthright. But like Mowgli, Kida’s child will find sustenance in the wild, as surely as Titus grows into young manhood, questioning what was never challenged before. All the while, Steerpike methodically engineers his ascension, indifferent to the rising body count.

The teleplay and design teems with historical and literary allusions. The synchronized appearance and movements of Cora and Clarice invoke a female variation of Lewis Carroll’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee from "Alice in Wonderland." An exchange between the young Titus and Flay, now bedraggled due to his banishment from Gormenghast, recalls Pip’s cemetery encounter with the criminal Magwitch from Dickens’ "Great Expectations." Even Shakespeare gets a nod when Steerpike clutches a human skull and riffs on the famous "Alas, poor…" eulogy. Palace guards sport reimagined German World War I uniforms and pointed helmets. Donning a makeshift moustache, Steerpike comically goosesteps for Lady Fuchsia to amuse her, but also foreshadows his monstrous rise to power. In less capable hands or in the service of pulp material, the references might seem clever but ring hollow. With Andy Wilson’s thoughtful direction and Christopher Hobbs’ surprising art direction, "Gormenghast" nourishes the eye and the mind.

Meyers’ Steerpike is light years from his previous turn in "Velvet Goldmine," his good looks increasingly and ghoulishly contorted. Almost Dickensian in scope are the peripheral characters. With an astonishing supporting cast including Christopher Lee’s imposing but compassionate Flay, Spike Milligan’s cameo as a petrified school headmaster, Stephen Fry as a befuddled bachelor professor, Sessions’ lightning-tongued Dr. Prunesquallor, Fiona Shaw as his buck-toothed, man-crazy sister and especially Celia Imrie’s loopy but ultimately grave Royal Mother, the sheer theatricality of the performances would be compelling on its own. Luckily, each episode ends with a review of the cast list, like getting an hourly reminder. They come in handy. Like a Tolstoy novel, one almost needs a scorecard to keep track of all the personae dramatis.

The full-frame transfer exhibits strong color fidelity and excellent detail delineation. Even though the costumes and art direction favor reds and purples, hues are strong but not brilliant, likely an intentional effect. Despite the numerous process shots and occasional photographic diffusion, the image reads sharp and clean. Originated on film, the source materials used for the transfer show no defects or blemishes. My only caveat to the picture is the contrast. In the scenes where the action is faintly illuminated (dungeons, castle passageways, rooms lit by firelight), the contrast levels are too low to extract anything in the shadows or darkness. Again, this may be on purpose, but it wears on the eyes after a while. Fleshtones are accurately rendered, but run the gamut from "normal" to downright ashen and pallid, according to the characters’ dispositions. I detected no digital or compression artifacts.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> stereo packs more punch that one would expect for a made-for-TV production. Each episode starts with a madrigal-like chant. With the Pro-Logic mode engaged, my home theater literally sounded like a cathedral. Richard Rodney Bennett’s music score reflects the timelessness of the setting, drawing upon Elizabethan and contemporary music styles. Dialogue is clear and intelligible. Surround channel activity occurs frequently, with whistling wind, forest sound effects and music fill. While not exactly subwoofer busting, there is some low-end energy in the soundtrack, primarily used in magnifying voice timbre and the heavier musical passages.

The two-disc set breaks down as follows: Disc One contains the first three episodes, with chapter marks for each. Strangely, the first disc does not count elapsed time. Disc Two contains the concluding chapter, as well as the supplements, consisting of a "making-of" documentary (also chapter marked) and BBC trailers.

Running thirty-two minutes, the behind-the-scenes documentary anchors the extra features. Shot on video during filming, the examination offers interviews, clips and production footage edited together. But what a lineup! Lee, Fry, Imrie, Richardson, Shaw, Sessions, McIntosh, Meyers all chime in with their thoughts about the characters, the story, the enormity of the production and how they connect the material to reality. (Watching Christopher Lee sitting outside on a sunny day, but in complete makeup, talking so earnestly about Flay seemed particularly incongruous but funny.)
Comments from director Wilson, producer Estelle Daniel and designer Hobbs walk us through the practical challenges of making the landmark production. For example, to help give the miniatures the proper scale and mass, they were shot underwater!

Chapters titled "Gormenghast," "Cast," "Design," and "Filming" allow for direct access to those sections, as well as watching the documentary in its entirety by hitting "Play in order." In the "Extra Features" menu, there is an option called "The Enhanced ‘Making Of.’" Click it and you return to the documentary, but in specific sections an icon of a stylized "G" pops into the bottom left corner of the TV screen. When activated, "biographical" information appears about the character (quotes from the novels) as well as links to additional options like costume design sketches. The "Character" annotations have their own chapter marking in the "Extra Features" section, as well as a macabre entry called "Deaths, " offering capsule summaries regarding…well, I’ll leave that section to reader speculation.

The two trailers promote another BBC TV production as well as BBC America itself. Snippets of CGI dinosaurs populate the "Allosaurus: A Walking With Dinosaurs" trailer, while a clay animated Queen Elizabeth pitches the BBC America channel from your cable or satellite provider.

During the documentary, Stephen Fry remarks that Peake’s novels are "books about the 20th century." Fusing Dickens, Tolkien and the absurdities of the last hundred years, pleasures and shocks await those willing to step into this whimsical, grotesque realm. Had enough of current film endings that don’t make sense? Then save a weekend afternoon and pop "Gormenghast" into the DVD player. After all, we cannot live by 5.1 explosions alone.