Unfinished works might excite a flurry of promise in fans of a popular author but does that mean that screenwriters should attempt to better it by putting finishing touches on it? That theory is tested in this, the unfinished manuscript by Charles Dickens.
The relationship John Jasper (Matthew Rhys) has with his orphaned nephew is a curious one. Long holding the position of choir director at their village cathedral, he may appear one way to parishioners, those he has known for years but in reality he is hiding behind an addiction – or two. His one secret habit lies in his frequent trips to opium dens; his second is craving the attentions of a young schoolgirl named Rosa Bud (Tamzin Merchant). He has long harbored feelings for the pretty-faced Rosa, but much to his chagrin, the girl has been intended for his young nephew Edwin (Freddie Fox) by the two young people’s fathers long before the men died. Edwin is a young man with grand ambitions, determined to see the world. His betrothal to Rosa leaves Jasper enraged – and plotting revenge. Despite the hindrance that Edwin is set up to inherit a large fortune upon his marriage, Jasper is not about to give up on wanting Rosa. Into this already sordid triangle walks a set of twin siblings.
Newly arrived on British soil from India, the siblings are brought here to be educated in proper British social graces while the orphaned pair must overcome prejudice at their arrival. Helena (Amber Rose Revah) gets on famously with Rosa, who soon confides in her new schoolmate about being terrified of Jasper. Meanwhile Helena’s brother, Neville (Sacha Dhawan) and Edwin often clash – Neville despises how Edwin treats Rosa, and then Edwin disappears. Unable to see her friend caught between a man she has been asked to take as husband since childhood and a man who mistreats her, Helena takes her concerns to the pastor that Jasper has more than appropriate feelings towards Rosa setting into motion a chain reaction that will forever change the lives of these people.
Long before I knew when I’d be able to see this (I watch all British productions on DVD – usually some good six months after its premiere), I had read and heard that it was undoubtedly Dickens darkest yet. Respectfully, I disagree. The two-part film is sometimes… disturbing but I think those who frequently watch Dickens will not find this any more so than the others to come from this author’s brilliant imagination. I’d even argue that some of the prior BBC adaptations are much, much more sinister. Like most stories Mr. Dickens penned, each have their share of “dark” shadows hanging over its characters and in that, also us but what I appreciate about his unique style beyond any philosophical meanings is his ability to write a happy ending. This ending feels a bit overrated or hurried or not set up well but then that, ultimately isn’t something that is going to earn this otherwise decent film a demerit from me.
To say the least, this film is interesting. There is something consuming about the story but to be honest, it is a twisted one. Taking place a great deal of the runtime in the outdoors makes the filming and film-work is “lighter” than usual balancing out the darker potential. As the villainous character, Jasper is one of the “best.” He is intensely unlikable and we love to detest him because Rhys makes it so easy to do so. His lurking in the shadows and possessive or obsessive nature is deplorable; whether he is under the influence of an opium daze or in control of his faculties, he is still… creepy! Then there is Edwin. For once, we don’t even hold a genuine desire to cheer for Dickens young hero. Once his ending rolls around we do get a better impression of him – almost as if the rejection he is given has made him see things differently and he has grown up in the best sense. The entire cast brings something to the movie, and it was fun to see Tamzin in something again as well as the supporting cast consisting of Alun Armstrong and Julia McKenzie.
Despite audiences’ skepticism, I think the writer did a bang up job of completing this story. It felt true to the character of Dickens and seemed an appropriate tribute to him. Most of the screen time is either full of crazy antics and its characters or strange behavior but there are rare moments when laughter is the only appropriate response. It feels like a cliché because other reviewers felt the same way but I cannot help that but agree: I think part one had much more vigor and a lot more plot going for it. Part two is equally entertaining and retains the characters but I think there were too many flaws in the how certain subplots were wrapped – additionally, I found it interesting to see the end to Rosa’s story considering she questioned what “true love” would feel like more than once. That felt like one string that wasn’t neatly tied up – but then, I can “accept” it. Despite the few flaws that I would have liked to see furthered or challenged, the writing is easily commendable and weaves a tight, fabulous mystery – one that might even leave you with your mouth agape. If you like Dickens, then this is a wonderful addition to your library – it may not be exactly how Dickens planned on completing the novel but if it is one thing, it is approached as typical Dickens. Bravo to the filmmakers on a job well done.
(Points of concern: Content equates to a soft PG13-rating. There are a dozen flashes of a man being strangled [non-graphic] and there is a suicide in which we see the person lying in their own pool of blood; a man is punched. There are some minor implications as regards Jasper’s thoughts of Rosa; he once tears her dress as he grips her arm possessively. One or two scenes take place in an opium den.)