Art and artifice: ‘Edge of Darkness’ (1985/2010)

Edge of Darkness (2010)

Edge of Darkness  (1985)

They say that comparisons are invidious.    They also say that Hollywood can take a great storyline and bend, fold, spindle and mutilate it until it bears no resemblence to the original.  Both statements may well be true but in approaching  the 2010 Hollywood version of Troy Kennedy Martin’s ‘Edge of Darkness’ we should also bear in mind that Tinseltown has now and again managed to honour the spirit of an original  TV series whilst possibly adding a little gloss here and there.

Only last year, Kevin Anderson’s ‘State of Play’ showed that this was distinctly possible.  However,  it has to be said that for every ‘Naked Gun’ or ‘Traffic’ or ‘Twin Peaks: Fire walk with me’, there are a whole host of insipid ‘Charlie’s Angels’ or ‘Dragnet’ type catastrophes to contend with. 

Of course, the logic behind such transformations from small to large screen is inescapably commercial.  After all, you are tapping into an established fan-base and curiosity alone should dictate that you are therefore likely to pull in reasonable initial box office returns. 

In the case of this year’s ‘Edge of Darkness’ remake, you are also drawing on the considerable and justifiable critical approbation earned by the original 1985 BBC mini-series.  There is also an element of continuity inasmuch as New Zealand-born director Martin Campbell made the original ‘EoD’ whilst still a young whippersnapper and returns to it now as an established Hollywood force with 2 ‘Zorro’ and 2 well-received James Bond movies on his CV.

The original TV version of Edge of Darkness was made at a time when the social fabric of the UK was severely stretched.  The country was groaning under the yoke of  a Thatcher-led Tory government that had secured a huge majority in the wake of the perceived ‘victory’ of the Falklands War and Mrs T. was exploiting our lack of a written constitution to centralise power at the heart of her Whitehall web.  However, for every action there’s a reaction – Clive Ponting was leaking documents to the press, the Miner’s Strike pushed the State to (and sometimes beyond) its limits before coming to an inglorious conclusion and there were inner-city riots in most major English cities during the autumn of 1985.

The late Troy Kennedy Martin in 1985

Troy Kennedy Martin, the original screenwriter for Edge of Darkness,  said that he wrote it out of some very real fears about the state of mid-80′s Britain allied to a sense of irritation at the completely apolitical nature of BBC programming during this era.  He also said that he never expected to see it made.  However, the fact that the storyline tapped into a whole range of prevalent liberal neuroses – about the proliferation of nuclear technology (even pre-Chernobyl), about Reagan’s SDI ‘Star Wars’ initiative, about the increasingly secretive nature of the British government and about environmental issues to name just four – struck chords with sympathetic individuals within the BBC.

The gestation of ‘Edge of Darkness’ may have been far from straightforward and even once production was under way there were disputes between Campbell and Martin and a wholesale mutiny among the cast about Martin’s original ending where Craven is transformed into a tree.  Nonetheless, the BBC assembled a stellar cast and crew with Charles Kay, Joanne Whalley, Joe Don Baker, John Woodvine, Ian McNeice, Hugh Fraser and Zoe Wanamaker supporting the marvellous Bob Peck in the central role of Ronnie Craven.  Eric Clapton & Michael Kamen supplied the haunting soundtrack and producer Michael Wearing had also been centrally involved in another high-water mark for 80′s TV, Alan Bleasdale’s ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ , an extraordinary saga of Liverpudlian life during the Thatcher years.

Charles Kay as the shrewish but dangerous Pendleton shares his thoughts with Bob Peck’s Craven

Bob Peck actually said at one point that during production, there was a growing sense among the cast that they were involved in something really special and once ‘Edge of Darkness’ began its initial run on BBC2 in November 1985, the public seemed to agree.  Viewing figures were high and critical response almost universally positive, leading to a rapid re-run of the series in three double-episode chunks on BBC1 before the end of the year.  The series was to win six BAFTA awards the following year.

“I told her to stay away from that Val Kilmer” – Peck & Whalley looking relaxed on set

‘Edge of Darkness’  departed from the standard policier/thriller format in a number of ways, but perhaps the most notable was the blending of hard-edged realism with new age mysticism.  Initially, this is mostly personified by Craven’s daughter, Emma, but is then taken up by Craven himself and eventually by Joe Don Baker in what is almost a show-stealing turn as the maverick CIA operative, Darius Jedburgh. 

Emma is killed inside the opening half-hour of the first episode, but returns (both as the ‘ghost child’  and eventually as her adult self) to act as Craven’s ‘spirit guide’ , emerging at key moments to counsel, cajole and even scold her father as he attempts to shed his functional everyday persona and become an enlightened being.  Emma has of course been involved with the eco-terrorist group GAIA (echoing the work of James Lovelock with his ‘Gaia Hypothesis’  which sees Planet Earth as a single organic entity) and, had she not been shot by McCroon would almost certainly have died from radiation poisoning as a result of GAIA’s clandestine and illegal attempt to penetrate the Northmoor facility. 

Craven eventually begins to believe in GAIA’s philosophies and finds common cause with Jedburgh, who clearly pays lip service to the CIA’s Reaganite stance only  because it allows him a free rein to pursue his own agenda.  That agenda, as gradually becomes clear, is that Jedburgh is actually operating outside the system and has in fact become a highly moralistic crusader against the forces of the State and Commerce that are ranged against him.  His address to the assembled ‘top brass’ at Gleneagles about the ‘new age of plutonium lunacy’ and his depiction of Grogan as a ‘Teutonic knight’ shows that he has become the proverbial loose cannon as far as the power-that-be are concerned.   Even so, his depiction of Grogan taps into another mythical thread, this time about the Knights Templar who ‘guarded a special wisdom in the Temple of the Rock in Jerusalem.’  The following exchange between Craven and Jedburgh would suggest that the conventions of the standard ‘policier’ have been abandoned in favour of something rather more fanciful;

Ronald Craven: Why do you hate Grogan so much?
Darius Jedburgh: Because of who he is.
Ronald Craven: And who is he?
Darius Jedburgh: He’s part of the Dark Forces who would rule this planet.
Ronald Craven: You believe in all that stuff?
Darius Jedburgh: Yeah, sure.

Jedburgh makes his point about plutonium at Gleneagles

The mysticism that underlies so much of ‘Edge of Darkness’ is a product of Troy Kennedy Martin’s philosophies about television.  He wrote a polemical article in 1964 (‘Nats go home’) attacking documentary and narrative realism in televison and demanding a new vocabulary, punctutation etc that aimed to tell stories in visual terms and be prepared to take on new challenges.  New age mysticism and police thrillers do not necessarily make sympathetic bedfellows, but the characters in Martin’s script were so finely drawn that they were able to take this on board,  bypassing the rationalists and nay-sayers and reaching an audience who genuinely wanted to believe that the overwhelming hegemony of State and the Military/Industrial Complex could be resisted.  Ironically, at a time when we were all low on optimism, ‘Edge of Darkness’ hinted at the possibility of  better times ahead.

“Edge of Darkness embodies an avant-garde sensibility in a popular thriller, stretching the conventions without quite breaking them, and pushing on the boundaries of what popular television can do.”  (Tenpercent.wordpress.com.)

All of which brings us back to the 2010 remake of ‘Edge of Darkness’, again directed by Martin Campbell and with a new and fundamentally different script by William Monahan and Andrew Bovell.  Perhaps Campbell’s principal problem with this remake was that he was trying to tell the same story in a third of the time.  For this reason, the whole GAIA/mysticism subplot is ditched as are the elements of political chicanery where Bennett and Grogan play footsie with the British establishment.  Little time can be devoted to character development, particularly as Mel Gibson is on screen almost throughout and dominates proceedings in a way that Bob Peck’s Craven was never allowed to.

Of course, Hollywood has relocated the action to the USA – no surprise there.  Gibson’s Craven plays a seasoned Boston cop who loses his daughter much as in the BBC version.  From that point onwards the paths of the two productions diverge.  Peck’s ‘voyage of discovery’ becomes Gibson’s revenge mission – I lost track of how many times he pulled a gun on someone.  In this American ‘EoD‘ there is one  nice reversal with Darius Jedburgh  played by an Englishman (Ray Winstone).  Winstone is less jolly and more threatening in the role, but never has the scope to build his character beyond cameo status.  Also, frankly, the plot contrivance that has him suffering from a fatal illness is risible.

Not too subtle; Mel’s got his gun out – again…..

Gibson continues on his mission to avenge Emma, encountering bland corporate smoothie Danny Huston, who is light years less credible in the role of Bennett than Hugh Fraser was in the original.  There are no equivalents to Pendleton and Harcourt; indeed the US government’s only involvement is via Jedburgh, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Northmoor crew.  One of the shocking elements about the original was to see the aftermath of the Gleneagles conference where all parties – Grogan, Bennett, Pendleton, Harcourt and the military – are seen hobnobbing over drinks whilst Craven and Jedburgh are hunted like vermin.  That kind of shock is avoided here ; after all it’s 2010 and it’s  Obama, not Reagan, in the White House.

So, what we are left with at the end of the 2010 remake is a fairly humdrum revenge thriller.  If you like Mel Gibson (personally, I’m indifferent) then you may be happy enough, but so much is lost in this abridged version.  The moments in the movie where Craven discovers that his daughter possesses not only a pistol but also a Geiger counter have only a fraction of the punch of the 1985 version. The dramatic scenes where Craven hacks into a Ministry of Defence computer to obtain a map of Northmoor and the story of Craven’s own expedition into Northmoor are missing – and sadly missed.

In terms of casting, no-one could ever have replaced Joe Don Baker as Jedburgh and the late Bob Peck’s mixture of dogged professionalism and nascent awareness would have been difficult for any actor to emulate.  There are clearly no American equivalents for Pendleton and Harcourt and the atmosphere of mid-80′s paranoia – the shadow of Thatcher and her ‘conviction’ politics, the spectre of Northern Ireland, the social tsunami of the Miner’s Strike – all are necessarily absent here.

I usually run the original version of ‘Edge of Darkness’ every couple of years just to remind myself of how grim a country this was to live in during the long attritional years of Thatcher’s misguided, misanthropic junta and remind myself how it has scarred this green and pleasant land.  In conclusion, I very much doubt that the remake can aspire to any equivalent delusions of profundity.  It does what Hollywood unfortunately does all too often; reducing the subtlest of narratives to so much popcorn mush.  File under ‘major disappointments’.

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One response to “Art and artifice: ‘Edge of Darkness’ (1985/2010)

  1. I agree with your comparison entirely. I watched the 2010 Hollywood remake the other day and couldn’t believe how bad it was. I asked myself why on earth Martin Campbell and Michael Wearing would associate themselves with such a dire script and generally atrocious casting – apart from the money, that is. I wonder whether Troy Kennedy Martin got a chance to see it (or the screenplay) before he died. If so, he must have been gravely disappointed. If not, I think he would turn in his grave, as the original BBC 1980s series is one of the greatest pieces of TV drama ever made – and this Mel Gibson vehicle is a travesty.

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