- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

“The Singing Detective” qualifies as an eccentric labor of love. It remains to be seen if it’s also too much of an afterthought for the homage to attract attention.

There are reasons to sit up and take notice, a figure of speech that has painful connotations for the protagonist: Robert Downey Jr. as a self-loathing writer subject to feverish flights of imagination and self-pity while being treated for the disfiguring and crippling effects of psoriatic arthritis, a recurrent affliction from adolescence to middle age.

The late English writer Dennis Potter suffered from that malady, which began to surface conspicuously in his work in the original version of “The Singing Detective,” a remarkable six-part stream-of-consciousness psychodrama about a bedridden and embittered writer that was produced by the BBC in 1986. Michael Gambon, a distinctive supporting player in “Sylvia” this season, had the principal role of P.E. Marlow, first name Philip, aggrieved author of detective novels. Janet Suzman was cast as the estranged wife, Nicola, who cared enough to stick with him through recovery and convalescence, despite being the target of venomous insults and a pulp-fiction fantasy life in which she was caricatured as lecherous and treacherous.

The extended narrative scheme of the miniseries has been pared down to bare-bones subplots in the movie, which uses a rewrite completed by Mr. Potter in 1992, a couple of years before his death. The digest of his first notable television play, “Pennies From Heaven,” had emerged as a scintillating but far from popular movie musical in 1981, under the direction of the late Herbert Ross. “Detective,” which also inserts vintage pop songs as ironic commentary or reverie, seemed to tantalize a number of actors during the 1990s before ending up as a curious re-entry vehicle for Mr. Downey, who appears to be on intimate terms with his stricken and belligerent character, renamed Daniel Dark.

The greatest single reduction is achieved by eliminating the boyhood episodes of the teleplay, steeped in the author’s seemingly autobiographical reflections on a troubled youth that coincides with World War II. That prodigious set of emotional associations is gone, along with the songs that defined the war years in one way or another, from “Dem Bones” to “We’ll Meet Again.” The song selections are now drawn from the first decade or so of rock ‘n’ roll, which opens the door to some evocative possibilities, especially when “It’s All in the Game” or “Mr. Sandman” enhance the soundtrack.

There are some tentatively funny casting brainstorms, notably Jeremy Northam and Carla Gugino as a sultry match in the James Cain tradition and Adrien Brody and Jon Polito as a set of bewildered thugs, uncertain of whether they belong in real or fictional settings. Robin Wright Penn is also a striking reincarnation of the heroically patient and forbearing Nicola.

The feature reduces the dilemma of Marlow-Dark to matrimonial and medical crises, but those will suffice. All the hero’s encounters with Nicola and a cagey psychotherapist called Dr. Gibbon loom larger because so much competing fantasy material and Freudian underbrush have been eliminated.

It would be difficult to argue that there was compelling need for another version of “The Singing Detective,” but this remake can’t be plausibly scorned as an unauthorized version. Underbudgeted, ill-advised and uprooted from England, right enough, but highlights with the distinctive Potter imprint do survive.

**1/2

TITLE: “The Singing Detective”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor, with interludes of nudity and simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by Keith Gordon. Screenplay by Dennis Potter, based on his own television play. Cinematography by Tom Richmond. Production and costume design by Patricia Norris

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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