One of the remarkable things we Americans should take away from our first look at the BBC production of Gormenghast is that this dark fantasy is not a rehash of anything else.
Based on the first two novels of a trilogy written in the 1940s by British children's-book illustrator Mervyn Peake, the Gormenghast film may bring to mind Alice in Wonderland, Satyricon, the films of Tim Burton, poetry by Edward Lear, paintings by Maxfield Parrish or cartoons by Charles Addams or Edward Gorey.
Still, it is its own idiom. With its combination of absurd humor, gothic visuals, and a certain, well, Gormenghast-ness nowhere else to be found, even if you don't care for the books or the film, you have to admit they're original.
Peake's trilogy introduces us to the royal family Groan, a cast of eccentrics ruling a city of stone called Gormenghast. Lord Groan is a book lover; when his library burns down, he goes mad and pronounces, "I am the white owl of Death." His wife, Lady Gertrude, is a mountainous sloth of a woman who keeps an albino rook as a pet. Then there is Flay, a dedicated servant who speaks only in nouns and grunts, played by horror legend Christopher Lee.
The story tracks the Macbeth-style rise to power of escaped kitchen slave Steerpike and the birth of Titus Groan, the prodigal son who shall inherit the Gormenghast empire.
The meandering plot is perhaps not as central to the work as the characters, portrayed by an all-star cast of British character actors. The adipose, unsymmetrical-eyed Richard Griffiths plays Swelter, the sadistic, child-molesting chief cook of the palace. Swelter's stentorian farts are so violent they render him unconscious. Stephen Fry plays a professor; he and his colleagues smoke footlong pipes as they lounge in huge dusty robes and mortarboard hats. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the long-faced Irish youngster you may recognize from Velvet Goldmine, Ride with the Devil or The Governess, plays the antihero Steerpike.
The film also offers a feast of visuals so rich that the 120 sets and many lavish costumes threaten to overwhelm the tale.
Of course, the main imagination at work here belongs to deceased novelist Peake. It comes as no surprise that he also illustrated editions of "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Grimm's Fairy Tales and Treasure Island and wrote nonsense poetry. The violence in the trilogy, it's been speculated, may come from his youth in China, where he watched his father, a medical missionary, perform operations. The horror may derive from Peake's experience as a World War II military artist present at the discovery of the Bergen-Belsen death camp; some have called the books an allegory for the concurrent rise of fascism.
Until now, the novels were considered only slightly less obscure in Britain than they were in the U.S. "It [Gormenghast] wasn't very well known, it has to be said," says the film's director, Andy Wilson. "It's gathered a following over the years. It was not so much of a big hit when it first came out, say, as Lord of the Rings was."
Unlike that trilogy, Gormenghast has plenty of humor. "I think it's only extremely depressed Goths who read these books and think they're dark and black, says Wilson. "They're not; they're jolly funny."