The Singing Detective (2003)

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Released 19-Oct-2004

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Comedy Menu Audio
Interviews-Cast & Crew
Theatrical Trailer
Rating Rated MA
Year Of Production 2003
Running Time 104:31
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (61:45) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Keith Gordon

Warner Home Video
Starring Robert Downey Jr
Mel Gibson
Robin Wright Penn
Jeremy Northam
Katie Holmes
Adrien Brody
Jon Polito
Carla Gugino
Alfre Woodard
Saul Rubinek
Amy Aquino
Case ?
RPI $24.95 Music None Given

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits Yes

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

     I recall when I first watched Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective as a mini-series on television. It was a long time ago, but I truly do remember it. Because it was television in a way I'd never seen it before. Michael Gambon's portrayal of the tortured writer, Philip E Marlow - afflicted with not just a horrific skin disease, but more so - a disturbing litany of past experiences that made him both creative, irascible, accountable and helpless; was - at the same moment, inspirational and - well - what's the opposite of 'inspirational' ? 'Exparational'? He was repulsive... attractive; strong... vulnerable; totally in denial... completely real.

      I recall his sense of abandonment, fury and absurdity, and remember how all of these blurred through hallucination into an almost-too-painful sensorial excursion into the memories of loss, pain, fear and betrayal. Further, I recall the rhythms, cadences and caprices of the writing creating a complete but bizarre world in the way that a dream makes sense long after the opportunity to explain it rationally has evaporated.

     The naughtiness of Potter to call his protagonist Philip "E" Marlow - to parody - or pay appropriate tribute to Raymond Chandler's most favoured character (in truth, probably both, in equal measure), was, for me, the trigger to the beginning of a life-long respect for the work of a remarkable artist risking his credibility by working in the least appreciated media of television. Whilst most artists regarded TV as the lowest of the art forms - Potter's viewpoint was rather different. "The thought of all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds in all sorts of circumstances seeing the same thing at the same time I find thrilling."

     And his opposing opinion paid off handsomely. In 1986, British television audiences tuned-in in droves to provide some of the highest ratings of the time with the showing of the original series of The Singing Detective. It was a series that was a seminal viewing experience that has changed the expectations of viewers since. And not just on one continent, as it transpires. The script for the original series is a permanent fixture in the Museum of New York's Museum of Television & Radio.

     So... who would mess with such a successful television format and risk putting it on the big screen? Well, the answer is, of course, Dennis Potter.

      Dennis Christopher George Potter was born 17 May 1935 in a small UK coal mining community. After a brief stint in the army, Potter became a TV critic for the Daily Herald newspaper between the years of 1962 - 64.

      1964 was a seminal year for him, with his loss as a Labor candidate in his local elections, and the diagnosis of chronic psoriatic arthropathy - a horrifically painful skin disease that he later ascribed to his Singing Detective protagonist. He enjoyed a successful, albeit controversial, career, writing scripts like no one else at the time. Potter always readily accepted that his writing was heavily autobiographical in nature - he is quoted as saying: "For me, writing is partly a cry of the soul. But at the same time, I'm bringing back the results of a journey that many people don't get a chance to make...."

      Potter's battle with his skin condition was at least eased somewhat when he was prescribed the anti-cancer drug Razoxane, and his writing became even more prolific. But in a sickly, ironic twist that Potter himself acknowledged, it was discovered that the drug was carcinogenic, and in February 1994, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Still nursing his wife of 35 years, Margaret, who was suffering breast cancer, he gave one of the most extraordinary interviews ever recorded with Melvyn Bragg in April of the same year. On May the 29th 1994, he buried his wife, and just a week later, he himself left the world - on June the 7th. His headstone bears the simple epitaph, "All of it a kiss."

      However, in the earlier 90's, Potter had revised the script for The Singing Detective, adapting it into a screenplay. He renamed his protagonist Dan Dark, moved the action from England to America, and moved the flashback scenes from the 30's and 40's to the 1950's. Thematically, he changed the piece too. An older, more mellow Potter made the text more redemptive - and the protagonist is moved on a more healing journey than in the mini-series. In 1992, Mel Gibson, flush from critical success with his production of Hamlet, bought the rights for the adaptation. Writer/director Keith Gordon was immediately drawn to the project, but it was to be a full 10 years before the production was given the green light.

      Robert Downey Jr was recruited to take on the lead role of Dan Dark. Gibson himself elected to metamorphose into the bookish psychiatrist, Dr Gibbon, and Gordon got his wish and became the director. With support performances from Robin Wright Penn, Alfre Woodard, Oscar winner Adrien Brody and the cute as a button Katie Holmes, there was much speculation in Hollywood that this was going to be a "must see" movie. But when it arrived on the circuit, the reviews were generally underwhelming. Essentially, the critics fell into two camps: those who'd seen the original mini-series and hated the movie; and those who'd never seen the mini-series and hated the movie.

      For the first group - the revision was tantamount to blasphemy. For the second group - it was just plain confusing, apparently. But it is this humble reviewer's opinion that this film is much better than it has been given credit for.

      We first encounter Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr) as he's being admitted yet again into hospital, his psoriatic arthropathy resulting in festering sores covering his entire body - "a human pizza" as Dark so succinctly puts it. In spite of pain that's off-the-scale he refuses any sedative treatment, and his fever and agony are melted into swirling hallucinations. He becomes the prisoner of his own fantasies, sprung from the out-of-print pages of his own penny pulp novel. In his tortured visions, flashbacks from his past fuse with gumshoe film noir vignettes, and the real-life characters of his life and his past reincarnate as characters in his mental scenes. His white-hot rages and jealousies torment him with spiked fantasies of his wife having an affair and conspiring with her lover to cheat him of a movie deal. His mother makes appearances as a warm-hearted floozy, and the perky little nurse who carefully treats his raw-meat skin is allocated special little fantasies of her own.

      His patronising medical staff, when not being converted in his head to merry musical buffoons, bear the brunt of his uncontrolled rage. Finally, he is forced to consult with the psychiatrist, Dr Gibbon (played almost unrecognisably by Mel Gibson). To my mind, their scenes together are some of the most interesting in the film. Dark launches his full-force fury, frustration and cynicism upon the good doctor, who calmly and quietly goes about the business of drilling down below the emotional Plimsoll line. I found the scene where the two of them engage in a word-association exercise incredibly subtle and very moving.

      Deserving of a special mention for performance, I think, is Robin Wright Penn. Her centred calm in the maelstrom of Dark's rages and jealousies and paranoias provided perfect counterpoint, and she creates a dignified and whole character out of scant writing.

      If you decide to see this film, please try to resist the temptation to compare it with the mini-series. Clearly that was not Potter's intention. Some reviewers found that they were more able to access this film after a second viewing, and if that's the case, it could be worth the effort. In Potter's estimation, The Singing Detective, in both its guises, was his most important work. Or, as he told an interviewer; "If I walk out of here and get knocked down by a bus, at least I have done The Singing Detective. "

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Transfer Quality


     This disc is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 16x9 enhanced.

     The sharpness levels are excellent and it is a crisp, clean print. There is no low level noise, and the shadow detail and highlight detail are both very good. This is a particular feat as the film has both very very dark elements and also some extremely high key shots.

     The colour range is very good as well, with a broad and rich colour palette and excellent skin tones.

     This presentation is largely artefact free with the exception of some very minor aliasing.

     This an RSDL disc, with the layer change at 61:45, between chapters 12 & 13. I detected no problem with the layer change.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


     The soundtrack is delivered in English Dolby Digital 5.1 and is crisp, clean and distortion free.

     The dialogue is excellent throughout and the audio sync presents no problems. There are English and English for the Hearing Impaired subtitles available. Both sets are clear, clean and particularly easy to understand.

     The music is a key feature in this film, and is the star that it's meant to be. You may very well find yourself humming away a few of the tunes afterwards. An intentional device throughout the film is blatant lip-synching, but Downey does do a turn at "real live" singing as the credits roll, and he does a credible job too.

     There is good directional sense in the surround speakers, although there is little subwoofer activity.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use



     The menu is static with theme music.

Cast & Crew Interviews

     There are choppy little sound bites for Robert Downey Jr (1:41); Jeremy Northam (1:42); Katie Holmes (2:08); John Polito (2:30); Carla Gugino (2:03); Mel Gibson (4:24); and director Keith Gordon (2:42). I find these little grabs quite irritating, and rarely do they impress me as particularly illuminating.


R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

      The Region 4 misses out on:

      The Region 1 misses out on:


     What a shame this feature missed out on any significant success. It is surreal, thoughtful, and strangely, in some ways rather subtle. Avoid the comparison trap and try to appreciate this in its own right.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Mirella Roche-Parker (read my bio)
Friday, October 22, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDSinger SGD-001, using S-Video output
DisplayTeac 76cm Widescreen. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationTeac 5.1 integrated system
Speakers fronts-paradigm titans, centre &rear Sony - radio parts subbie

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