The Singing Detective


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

The Singing Detective
"This screenplay, twisted out of shape to fit the demands of Hollywood, is a postumous reminder of Potter's unique talents."

Danny lives the dream. Literally.

He is incarcerated in a room at the hospital, unable to move without pain, fired by a fury that erupts out of his mouth in the form of insult and diatribe, tortured by hallucination and daymares, no longer in control of this sick joke called existence.

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His face and body is a pustulating mass of burst boil craters and scaley raw flesh. His fingers are twisted into arthritic shapes that make the use of them impossible. He is a writer who cannot write, a lover who cannot love, a contender who cannot contend.

Dream life folds into the real life, slipping uneasily into childhood memories of a mother's infidelity. Sex drives the engine of his rage, even though, as the hospital psychiatrist implies, he hates women, treates them like whores.

He is Dan Dark, author of trash novels that don't sell. He is The Warbler, a night club crooner. He is the singing detective who gumshoes likely/unlikely places for the scent of danger, scimming the ridge of his fedora, before lighting a Lucky in the cup of his hands.

"Am I right, or am I right?" he asks, expecting no reply. These characters, half of whom are imaginary, inhabit his head and when the nurses and doctors burst into song, it feels as natural as the appearance of two shady hoods (Adrien Brody and Jon Polito) at every twist of the tale. Paranoia stalks the waste ground where once his mind played. He is not mad, simply deluded. Reality has many guises. Who is to say which is the one?

It is 18 years since Dennis Potter's original version of The Singing Detective appeared on television as a controversial mini-series, with the unforgettable Michael Gambon. It would be unfair to compare Keith Gordon's film with that, even though Potter adapted his own script for an American audience, changing his autobiographical memories of the Forest of Dean to an isolated truck stop in Arizona.

The complex juxtaposition of present time, memory, fictional life and dream has been shortened and simplified. What once was an agonising personal journey for Potter has become an entertainment, with bitter residues. Nothing, however, can weaken the power of his language. This screenplay, twisted out of shape to fit the demands of Hollywood, is a postumous reminder of his unique talents. After all these years, the anger remains as fresh as a punch in the eye.

Robert Downey Jr is famous for all the wrong reasons. Never one to accept lazy roles, he has demonstrated an eagerness to take risks. With Dan Dark, he has it all and the energy of his performance carries the movie.

Let's not forget the music. Potter loved the oldies-and-goldies and here they come again, the classic ballads of the Fifties. Downey loves them, too. It's nostalgia for a tall mic in a small room, with the lights down low. Moments like these write their own epilogue.

Reviewed on: 13 Nov 2003
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The dreams of a psoriasis sufferer stuck in hospital.
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Director: Keith Gordon

Writer: Dennis Potter

Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Robin Wright-Penn, Mel Gibson, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Adrien Brody, Jon Polito, Carla Gugino, Saul Rubinek, Alfre Woodard

Year: 2003

Runtime: 109 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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