“There is something among us.”
In the ancient, fantastic and grotesque kingdom of Gormenghast, nothing has changed for centuries; tradition and ceremony are of the utmost importance. The 76th Earl of Groan rules Gormenghast, implacably. When the film begins, the Earl’s wife, Lady Gertrude gives birth to a baby boy, Titus Groan. This is a important occasion for the kingdom of Gormenghast, for this means that tradition will continue–there will be a 77th Earl of Groan. But tradition is disrupted by fate. Anarchy is festering in the heart of a loathsome kitchen boy, named Steerpike (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Steerpike escapes Swelter (the kitchen) and using his evil mind and ruthless ambition, he forges a position for himself in the palace. By taking advantage of the many weaknesses rife in the kingdom, and by removing those who stand in his path, Steerpike “climbs faster than Virginia Creeper.”
This rich, over four hour long miniseries is based on the Gormenghast trilogy written by Mervyn Peake, considered by many critics as one of the greatest works of fantasy in the 20th century. What great luck that the BBC tackled the daunting task of converting the books to the screen. The characters in Gormenghast are all created remarkably well, and the acting is superb. There’s the senile Earl of Groan (Ian Richardson), and his cold, regal, and pragmatic wife, Lady Gertrude (Celia Imrie). Both parents sadly neglect Lady Fuchsia (Neve McIntosh), their beautiful, sad, and lonely daughter. The Earl’s ambitious, marionette-like sisters, Cora and Clarice are the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Gormenghast. They move, talk, and plot in unison. Various “loyal retainers” attend the noble Groan family including: Dr. Prunesquallor (John Sessions) and his man-hunting sister Irma (Fiona Shaw), loyal manservant, Flay (Christopher Lee), Secretary Barquentine (Warren Mitchell), and Nannie Slagg (June Brown). Visually, the film is superb. The gothic castle is a rambling labyrinth of hidden secrets, with 638 rooms on the first floor of the East wing alone, 503 rooms on the second floor of the East wing, and 700 rooms on the third floor of the east wing. There is the remarkable cat room, which Lady Gertrude has dedicated to a legion of white cats. In the kitchen, the disgusting boar-like chef Swelter rules with a meat cleaver and a vicious temper. In the schoolroom, Professor Bellgrove (Stephen Fry) dozes while the schoolboys play naughty tricks
One of the most interesting elements of the film is the contrast between the upstart, Steerpike, and the heir, Titus Groan. Both of these characters rebel against tradition–although Steerpike’s rebellion is ruthless and murderous, and it cannot escape one’s attention that both of these young men crop up as an antithesis to one another at precisely the same moment in Gormenghast’s long history. Gormenghast is a remarkable achievement.