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The Singing Detective

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
The Singing Detective
from Film Forum, 11/13/03

Dan Dark is a detective-story writer who has suffered since childhood from psoriatic arthorpathy, a degenerative disease of the skin and bones. In Keith Gordon's film based on Dennis Potter's popular British television miniseries The Singing Detective, Dark finds himself in the hospital, his disease progressing. In his delirium, he struggles to make sense of his life, and the lines between truth and fiction begin to blur.

In the miniseries, Dark was portrayed by Michael Gambon (Open Range, The Insider, Gosford Park.) Here, the role goes to the notorious Robert Downey, Jr. Katie Holmes (Pieces of April) plays his nurse, Mel Gibson appears as his psychiatrist, and Robin Wright Penn plays his ex-wife whom he suspects has stolen his screenplay. Tormented, Dark slips into a hallucinatory re-imagining of his own detective yarn, and these dream sequences feature appearances by Jeremy Northam, Adrian Brody, and John Polito. It's a bizarre and surrealistic trip through "dark" comedy, investigations, melodrama, film noir conventions, and 1950s rock-and-roll.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it an "unevenly engaging, at times morally abrasive, genre-defying cocktail." He cautions viewers about "a particularly raunchy sex scene," but concludes that the film "closes on a hopeful note. This glimmer of redemption imbues the narrative with allegorical import, reminding viewers that there is no heart so scarred by personal pain that it can not be made clean by the balm of love."

But Movieguide says, "The movie's slightly moral, redemptive ending cannot overcome the movie's humanist outlook on personal trauma, or its strong foul language, explicit sex scenes, and very gross images of the hero's terrible skin disease."