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Still, the plot holds things together quite well. Detective novelist Harriet Vane has lived down the notoriety of having been accused of murdering her lover. She accepts an invitation to revisit her alma mater, a ladies' college in Oxford. Shortly after she renews her acquaintance with her former fellow-students and tutors, someone starts playing distasteful pranks around the college. The Warden and the other dons ask Harriet to investigate. Wimsey, her suitor, joins the investigation when the practical jokes become more dangerous. Finally, there is the long-standing romantic tension between Wimsey and Harriet to resolve.
Edward Petherbridge plays Wimsey very much in the style set by Ian Carmichael in the 1970's. However, Harriet Walter, as Harriet Vane, rather steals the show.
This is definitely not a stock "Whodunnit". Without laying it on with a trowel, "Gaudy Night" highlights the difference in attitudes between a withdrawn set of cloisters which need deal only with matters of philosophy and theory, and the "real world", with practical problems to face and overcome. This gulf is emphasised by the cut-glass accents and precise diction of the dons and students, and the "common" speech of the college servants and other inhabitants of Oxford, where they appear.
Worth both watching and reading.
But that would be my adaptation. When I watched the video again, I could let go of what I perceived as missing and enjoyed the acting.
As devotees of Dorothy's 11 novel canon will know, there are no murders in "Gaudy Night", only vicious assaults and many poison pen communications directed at the women of "Shrewsbury" College, Oxford, by someone with a psychopathic hatred of female academics. When "Harriet Vane" attends her college's "Gaudy", she is invited by the "Warden" (In the U.S., we would call her "president") to return during the long vacation and investigate with a view to exposing the perpetrator. "Harriet", you see, writes detective fiction, which eminently qualifies her as an investigator, or so the "Warden" seems to think. "Harriet" disclaims this expertise, but agrees to give it a try. She embarks on a series of extensive interviews with most of the women at the college, servants, students, tutors, fellows and officials alike. At least, in the novel, she does. Here is where the BBC falls down.
In foreshortening the admittedly long novel, BBC eliminated many of the interviews, especially the revealing ones with the eventually exposed perpetrator. And they eliminated the really essential meetings between "Harriet" and "Lord Peter" that resulted in their resolution of the long term problem of marriage. There was no need for this. Enough time was devoted to "Hollywoodish" creepy sequences in dark corridors and night exteriors, to produce an atmosphere, which if devoted to the essential business of the "detective" story would have produced a much better movie. It would also have made for a "fairplay" mystery, giving the alert viewer a chance to compete with "Harriet" and "Peter" in solving the puzzle.
When you see GAUDY NIGHT, you may or may not feel some sympathy for the obviously mentally ill perpetrator. Personally, I found I could not. The family history certainly constituted a source of the grievance against women academics, but could by no means justify the indiscriminate, murderous physical assaults, and the nasty poisonous letters strewn around the college. BBC, once the person is exposed, gives that person quite a long harangue, obviously intended to arouse sympathy. Did the BBC writers have a bias against female academics too? If so, this is outrageous!
Well, my feelings about the BBC's GAUDY NIGHT are not all negative. We have some marvelous characterisations of the "dramatis personae", especially Harriet Walter and Edward Petherbridge as the principals. And all that "mood photography" that I objected to earlier is not bad of itself. If you aren't all that interested in the puzzle, you may find that "film noir" approach rather fun. And there is the Latin element, not emphasised much here except in one of the assaults. A heavy bolster, with an academic gown wrapped around it was swung against "Harriet", knocking her down violently. Attached to it was a placard with a quotation from Virgil's "Aeneid". I tried to append this for you, but the data base's spell checker persisted in interpreting the Latin as misspellings and would not accept the entry. Sometimes there is too much technology! One of the "dons" in the movie translated the Latin extempore, as did "Harriet" in the novel, but if there are any Latin scholars out there, get a copy of Dorothy's novel and have a go at translating it yourself. It's a doozy!
Well, what are the problems? First, the opening. We hear voices upraised in anger, the sound of a shot, then someone's coffin lowered into the ground. There's no establishing time period, no nothing. It could be the day before the events that are to come, for all we know. No grieving people shown over the coffin (from a suitable distance so we wouldn't recognize anyone), nothing to make us care who this person might have been, or what it has got to do with the rest of the story.
Then there's the bloopers. The Warden of the college wants to ask Harriet Vane to come investigate the happenings in college, so she gathers together all the dons and asks their opinion! And yet a little later on Harriet is asking questions and pretending that she's merely there to help Miss Lydgate with her research. (In the book, it is to the students alone that she pretends to be other than what she is).
Wimsey as played by Edward Petherbridge is quite good, if a little old for the part (in closeups at least) and he's given a quite gratuitous scene on a train going into Germany. If they must give him more screen time, why not more screen time in Oxford?
The actress who played Harriet didn't catch my fancy, and she wasn't given much to do in investigating the crimes. Sayers' dialog was replaced in most cases by bad dialog from the scriptwriter.
I'll check the other videos out from the library - thank goodness I didn't have to buy this one!
Sayers is something of a giant in the mystery business. She was the first to take the fairly complicated beast in the direction of an inner dialog. The detective mystery is a struggle among reader, writer and detective to invent the story.
Sayers expanded the struggle to one between two damaged but brilliant people: one a mystery writer herself. The book is a wonderful dance for control over the greater environment of truth with lots of dialog about controlling the lesser environment. All this and sex too.
Unfortunately, this TeeVee production starches all that out, substituting an ordinary `mystery' that superficially resembles the book, with some dialog that superficially resembles something intelligent.
Ted's evaluation: 2 of 4: has some interesting elements.
The adaptation has taken a hatchet to the novel and chopped off large and significant parts of it. The deletion of characters like Lord Peter's nephew and of Mr. Jones" and -inexcusably- of the element of the ivory chessmen diminishes -for me at least- a lot of the charm of the original. What remains is a mystery story, nothing special, with lots of atmosphere. Very little remains of the original, extremely well-done development of the characters, nothing which explains why at the end Harriet decides to marry Peter. If you have read the book, don't see the movie.
If, however, you have not read the book, the movie is worth seeing.Edward Petherbridge is excellent as Wimsey, better than Ian Carmichael. Harriet Walter is also first-rate as Harriet Vane. Richard Morant does not quite fit the role of Bunter. The film is made with the usual BBC care for detail and you will pass some enjoyable hours. THEN read the book and think what this film could have been.