Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Signing Detective - Parts 2 and 3 ("Heat" and "Lonely Days")

*This is part two of a series of reviews on the 1986 British mini-series written by Dennis Potter, directed by Jon Amiel, and starring Michael Gambon

After the first episode, I surmised that things could be heading in a bad direction for Mr. Marlow. But that may not be the case. After two more episodes, and now a full half-way through, it seems he may have a chance. But then again, it can't be doom and gloom the whole time. Who knows? I'm terrible at predicting what happens, so I'll likely be surprised no matter what happens.

"Heat" introduces us to two new elements of the story, broadening the scope from the already interesting play between Marlow's real experience and his imagination. To the fantastical world of Marlow's sophisticated detective and the grueling world of life in the patients' ward, Potter has introduced the more familiar device of childhood flashbacks. This world is less novel, and obviously less fun, then Marlow's alternate detective story, but as a path to recovery, I think it's a more helpful place for Marlow to dwell.

The other new piece of the story is the psychiatrist Dr. Gibbon (Bill Paterson), the likely impetus behind Marlow's reminiscences, but also the closest thing to a cliche character Potter has written so far. Maybe he only seems cliche in light of Good Will Hunting (the dynamics of the meetings resemble the Robin Williams Matt Damon tete-a-tetes), but it seems like I've seen scenes like their first encounter many times.

Though the show is still strong, I won't deny that I was a bit disappointed by the return to familiarity of the last two episodes. "Skin" was such an onslaught of original thought, speech, and staging, that it makes difficult demands on the rest of the show. I'm still highly moved and caught up in the drama, but it has moved out of the transcendent TV experience...for now.

All this to say however that the show retains many qualities, even if the musical numbers and detective world are beginning to seem more tame. One thing I appreciate about Potter's writing and Amiel's directing is just how much time and space they devote to every scene, like the story is just a beat or two off the normal pacing of TV life. Two examples should suffice, but almost every scene has moments when you can look and think without being distracted by some information meant to move the story along, or some novelty thrown in to make you laugh.

In "Heat," I'm thinking of the scene where Marlow's father is signing in the bar. It's a silly old maudlin song, obviously lip-synced, but the steady shot of the father cut with scenes of the young Marlow and the crowd (whose emotions aren't always easy to grasp) just grasp the melancholy and vagueness of nostalgia. In "Lonely Days," this scene returns, only it's now interlaced with another flashback of young Marlow riding the train after leaving his father. Staring out the window, he sees a scarecrow, while at the same time some army boys are eyeing his mom. This looping of scenes must take something like 15 minutes, and it keeps coming back to the scarecrow, sometimes waving like Phillip's father, but sometimes just there. And you keep wondering why, and if the army guys are going to do something nasty to his mom, and as it keeps looping the scene takes on even weirder and weirder elements - like the scarecrow turning into Hitler - and then you get it.

It's astonishing, really, how many times Potter and Amiel introduce the fantastical world into the mundane without anyone realizing it until the end. In "Lonely Days," the next of Marlow's tragically fated neighbors goes out in an astonishing scene, one cut with scenes of the young Marlow watching his mother sleep with a stranger - a stranger played, incidentally, by the same man who plays the possible bad character in Marlow's fictional story (Patrick Malahide), who himself is being stalked by a woman played by the same actress as Marlow's mom (Alison Steadman). It's mostly sickening, and it comes from almost out of nowhere, as it appears at the beginning to just be two men having a conversation.

This is the stuff that continues to make the show great. I'm still a little annoyed by the psychiatrist scenes (though Gibbon does do a good job of mocking the traditional psychological explanations, even as the show exploits them), and I share Marlow's fear of seeing more his ex-wife, though for different reasons (she simply looks out of place), but I'm definitely ready for a great final three hours.

Review - Part 1

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