I regret to report that despite its status as the first British detective novel, I have never read Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone." But I promise that my next trip out will include a visit to the library to help correct such matters.
You see, I've just finished watching the 1972 BBC miniseries adaptation of Collins' esteemed novel, and I'm certain that there's something missing in this production that has to be in the book. So many nifty ideas abound, yet they never quite pull through. Do we have the filmmakers or Collins himself to blame?
The story involves an ancient jewel, the Moonstone, that made its way from the heart of India and into the possession of 19th century debutante Rachel Verinder (Vivien Heilbron). Ah, but the jewel was stolen ages ago, and now Indians have arrived to reclaim it, warning of the gem's curse: "The Moonstone will have its vengeance yet… on you and your own!" Meanwhile, prodigal cousin Franklin Blake (Robin Ellis) has returned in time to celebrate Rachel's birthday - and just in time for the Moonstone to go missing. With the police unable to solve the crime, the great Sergeant Cuff (John Welsh) is brought in to figure things out.
More than just a quick drawing room mystery, the story (adapted for the small screen by playwright Hugh Leonard) takes a grander scope, spanning a year and giving us unrequited love, conspiracy, and tragedy. Indeed, while the mystery is the centerpiece of this affair, it's set aside often to allow for the trappings of most literature of Collins' time.
The problem is, there's not enough meat to the rest of the story to make these side steps worth it. The characters are a bit flat, their actions rather uninspired. There are attempts to breathe life into the participants (for example, the butler, played by Basil Dignam, is often quoting "Robinson Crusoe" as an inspirational text, and it's a character gimmick that here feels slightly uneven - not funny enough to work as comedy, but too peculiar to work more seriously), yet these bits don't mesh with the more stolid tone of the rest of the piece. When things pick up for a more active final act, we've already started zoning out, and it can't quite pull us back in.
The series' best moments come when Sgt. Cuff is hard at work, delivering a healthy dose of pre-Holmesian deduction. Despite a payoff that's a bit too limp (a fairly common occurrence in the early days of mystery writing - heck, a fairly common occurrence these days, too), the mystery at the core of "The Moonstone" is involving, and the clues Cuff uncovers gets you to sit up and lean in. The threat of shadowy enemies ready to play out the jewel's curse adds a nice ominous touch, while a few mid-story twists and turns, while a bit too stretchy, keep the puzzle going.
Leonard's experience as a playwright might explain why things don't quite work for television. He's streamlined Collins' novel, which is told from multiple points of view, into a work of singular narration, one with a more structured timeline; it's arguably the only way to translate such a work, yes, but in doing so, Leonard makes things awfully, well, stagy. Leonard has obviously treated his adaptation as a play and not a screenplay, and although director Paddy Russell does film action out of doors, and the editing does allow for cutting between locations that a play could not, it's a rather stationary work. Russell is content with merely filming a play, and so scenes begin to drag because there's nowhere for them to go.
More troubling, the series, broadcast in five forty-five minute episodes, could probably have been cut down by one episode and not lose much in terms of story or character development. Several scenes in the middle act stagnate, ideas are often repeated. In fact, a good chunk of the beginning of the fourth episode is littered with flashbacks to previous chapters. It's a way to avoid clumsy "previously on…" exposition, and the distance of air dates does require some sort of catching up for the viewers' behalf, but it ultimately only serves to stretch things out more than they need to be.
What we do get, however, is a very strong cast, the kind of top level performances one would expect from a costume drama produced for the BBC (and later aired Stateside on "Masterpiece Theater"). Heilbron and Ellis, while stuffy, make for effective leads; Welsh mesmerizes as the clever inspector; and Dignam charms as the wise servant. It's Anna Cropper, however, who makes "The Moonstone" worth visiting - her role as the heartbroken maid is quite affecting. She pulls plenty of emotion from just a glance. Her moments on screen elevate the series into something just that extra bit special.
Acorn Media collects all five episodes of this miniseries onto two discs. Episodes 1-3 are on the first disc, episodes 4-5 are on the second. Both discs come in keep cases which are then housed in a cardboard sleeve. There is no "play all" feature.
The DVD comes to us with this disclaimer:
Due to the age of these programs and the improved resolution that DVD provides, you may notice occasional flaws in the image and audio on this DVD presentation that were beyond our ability to correct from the original materials.
While not nearly as bad off as such wording might suggest, the image is still problematic, often due to that "improved resolution that DVD provides." We can now see the striking difference between the interior and exterior footage (as with all BBC productions, "The Moonstone" was recorded on video for indoor shots and film for outdoor ones), with excessive grain popping up every time somebody heads outside. The video footage is notably cleaner, although that, too, suffers at times, as the flaws of early 1970s video come in with much more clarity than they were ever meant to.
Having said all that, it's not nearly as bad as some other transfers of British television programs I've seen; in fact, I don't blame the transfer but the source material. It's passable, considering.
Presented in the original 1.33:1 broadcast format.
The disclaimer also covered its bases on the audio side of things, but it didn't need to. The mono soundtrack is quite clean, with no problems with aging detected at all. There are no subtitles included.
Just a detailed text biography of Collins and selected filmographies for the cast.
"The Moonstone" may be a quality work, but it's a stuffy, dry quality work, the kind that grabs your attention then fails to keep it. There's just enough here to satisfy for a single go-'round if you're a fan of the "Masterpiece Theater" line of stagy television productions or if you're interested in mysteries of the Dickens-era variety. Rent It.