The Moonstone: An Imaginary Cast List

Her Ladyship amuses herself by drawing up an entirely imaginary cast list for the BBC’s proposed new adaptation of The Moonstone, since they don’t look like they’re going to do it themselves any time soon.

Franklin Blake

A character capable of being both mortifyingly unconventional thanks to his cosmopolitan education (a fact that he strongly denies); and of being intensely serious and grown-up, a personality trait that he adopts for most of the novel in his search for the Moonstone. Also has to convince as a lover.

Jamie Bell.

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As well as sublime acting skills in both comedy and drama, but particularly the latter, Bell possesses a natural screen charisma and gravity as demonstrated in Jane Eyre and The Eagle that show every promise of making Franklin more interesting than he is in the book. Might risk looking too serious.

Matt Smith.

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Through his work in The Ruby in the Smoke and The Shadow in the North, and particularly in Doctor Who, Smith has shown himself to be an actor who does quirky extremely well, but is also capable of being heartbreakingly tragic and very frightening. Might risk looking too immature.

Rachel Verinder

A bit of a puzzle, she starts out as a headstrong, outspoken young girl with feminist tendencies before lapsing into the usual semi-catatonic state that possesses all Victorian heroines except the eternally awesome Marion Halcombe after a disaster of some kind.

Saoirse Ronan.

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She’s been playing roles the average forty year old A-lister would balk at since she was 13, so the accumulated experience of Atonement and Hanna in particular make her more than qualified to successfully juxtapose the despair that Rachel endures for most of the novel and her naturally extroverted personality; her charisma ensuring that we’ll never tire of watching her doing it.

Sophie Turner.

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Game of Thrones having shown us that she acts with the maturity of somebody twice her age, something that always promises greatness in an actress, she has the skills and the screen presence necessary to portray Rachel’s psychological transformation, as well as the youth and vivacity to portray her lighter moments. Also has experience with playing semi-catatonic.

India Eisley.

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Though inexperienced with this type of role, she has proved herself to be a sufficiently good actress to make you wish that you could see more of her, in more challenging roles. Her performance in the surprisingly-good Underworld: Awakening was mature, tragic and utterly convincing in its sadness, loneliness and anger. Given a chance to try something more robust, she would rise spectacularly to the challenge.

Gabriel Betteredge

A perfectly sweet, sincere and not-overly bright butler, often accused of softness by his mistress, Betteredge believes that the secret of human existence and the prophesying of future events are possible through the reading of his favourite book (Robinson Crusoe).

Michael Caine.

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A great actor who could play anyone, Caine is nevertheless the sort of actor you can see in a part like this, probably because of its sort-of similarity to his roles in Batman or The Prestige. A comic part is always all the more delightful when you have a titanic, charismatic actor playing it, and Caine bringing his not-inconsiderable skills to Betteredge would make for a tremendous amount of fun and audience compassion.

Michael Gambon.

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Gambon is a British institution. He’s also great at playing characters who demonstrate Betteredge’s quirkiness (Perfect Strangers), his sincerity (Harry Potter) and his tendency to be a bit of a drama queen (Quartet). The combination of these would be both adorable and rather explosive.

Rosanna Spearman

A short, tragic and important role, Rosanna is an ugly housemaid who falls deeply in love with Franklin. The unfortunate man’s complete failure to notice her infatuation, as well as her previous career as a thief that causes suspicion to fall on her following the Moonstone’s disappearance, lead her to take her own life by throwing herself into a pool of moorland quicksand.

Jodie Comer.

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Her sublime and frankly terrifying performance in the Silent Witness episode entitled Fear, in which she played a fifteen year old convinced enough she was possessed by demons to submit to an exorcism, somewhat overqualifies Miss Comer for this heart wrenching part. That and her age may count against her, but it takes an actress capable of portraying emotional torment with constant intensity to make the character work, something that she is more than capable of doing.

Godfrey Ablewhite

Franklin’s rival for Rachel’s hand, Godfrey is a sugary sweet ladies’ man and philanthropist who inevitably turns out to be a crook.

Lee Pace.

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His performance in Lincoln demonstrates his ability to play characters that say awful things with complete sincerity that are believed by most people present.

Toby Stephens.

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While being fabulous at innocent and idealistic love (Jane Eyre and Onegin), Stephens is equally fabulous at playing repulsive Godfrey-like characters (Die Another Day and Possession). Is far too old for the part; but this fact is overshadowed  by general awesomeness.

Ezra Jennings

The most tragic and the most complex character in the book; a doctor’s assistant almost completely socially outcast because of a bizarre appearance that Collins says is the result of mixed-race parentage but the possessor of which simply turns out to be an ugly white guy with two-toned hair. He’s dying, addicted to opium, trying to save up enough money to see to the woman he loves before he dies and develops intense feelings for Franklin that could be interpreted as romantic. Requires the ability to pack an enormous punch in a short space of time.

Matthew MacFadyen.

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MacFadyen’s being a master of profound emotion expressed through silence makes him an ideal candidate for this role, and though gifted with stunning versatility, has experience playing characters that inspire audience compassion, as is exemplified by his portrayal of Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit.

Richard Armitage.

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Accustomed to playing out the dark in any character, however luminous, this is an actor who knows how to brood emotively, exemplified by North and South and most recently by The Hobbit. His powerful screen presence would also be essential in this small, but vital role.

Benedict Cumberbatch.

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A genius at extraordinary, somewhat unconventional characters, he’s capable of letting emotion run raw and unchecked (Painted With Words, Wreckers) and with seeming to ignore it completely (Sherlock, Parade’s End), both of which are present to a large degree in Ezra. His natural charisma and unusual features would also help a great deal.

Sergeant Cuff

A direct ancestor of the illustrious resident of 221B Baker Street, Cuff is a highly skilled, magnetic and slightly sociopathic user of deductive reasoning who likes to argue endlessly about the correct way to grow white moss roses.

Mark Strong.

harry_396x222While perhaps a little too young for the part, everything about his acting and his person possesses the slightly disturbing Holmesian magnetism necessary for the part, his experience in Emma equipping him for the more compassionate side of Cuff’s personality, that in The Long Firm and Stardust displaying his ability to play brilliant but dangerous men.

Tom Courtenay.

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A titan of acting, Sir Tom is at the stage in his career when he can play anyone exceptionally, but it is principally for his extraordinary screen presence that he’s mentioned here. It’s perhaps more important in Cuff than in any other character that the audience’s eyes stay fixed on him without really knowing why, and the aforementioned charisma as well as his unparalleled skills in acting make him an ideal match for the character.

Charles Dance.

charles_dance_396x222A master of creepy charisma, it is mostly of his performance in Merlin that I’m thinking when casting him as a detective. He commands without saying a word, and is gifted and experienced enough to portray Cuff’s serious side as well as his delightful oddities.

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Some musings on awesome characterisation in ‘The Moonstone’ by Wilkie Collins

9780007420254It’s Rachel Verinder’s birthday, and the young lady has every reason to be delighted. It’s very likely that her quirky cousin Franklin Blake, who’s been staying for the last month, returns her newfound love for him and might soon propose to her. She has also inherited a pretty toy from her late, estranged uncle: an immense Indian diamond that he acquired on campaign by killing a great quantity of innocent people. What Rachel doesn’t know is that Franklin has been pursued from one end of England to the other by three Brahmin guardians of the stone who justifiably wish to restore the diamond to its spiritual home in India and who will waste no time in committing any amount of stalking and murder to see that their goal is realised.

Keeley Hawes as Rachel and Greg Wise as Franklin in the 1997 BBC adaptation.

Keeley Hawes as Rachel and Greg Wise as Franklin in the 1997 BBC adaptation.

A detective classic so character-driven that you sometimes forget that there’s a missing diamond hankering to be found, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone more than fulfills its objective of examining the effects of character on plot. Collins is a master of the modern multiple-person-narrative technique and gives us an impressive, intensely realistic ensemble cast of characters ranging from those you want to hug comfortingly to those you just want to punch. This mastery of character is doubly brilliant in that both the character currently narrating the story and the characters described by that narrator are one hundred percent convincing: in voice, in behavior, in personal mannerisms and in their interactions with other characters. As in life, you meet people who are instantly likeable and instantly despicable, and you meet those that are on the fence, and that you can never quite make your mind up about.

This post is a review that somehow turned into a discussion of Collins’ brilliant characterisation in The Moonstone and how it leads to the creation of a few great characters that should be mentioned more often. You may notice that most of the main characters, i.e. Franklin and Rachel, are somewhat glaringly absent from the proceedings. This is primarily because most people don’t talk about anybody but them, and secondly because my emotions were significantly more roused by the people that we’re about to meet than by any of Rachel and Franklin’s shenanigans.

Peter Vaughan as Gabriel Betteredge.

Peter Vaughan as Gabriel Betteredge.

Among the instantly likeable of the novel’s characters is aging butler Gabriel Betteredge, an utterly charming, dependable and simple soul who treats all those around him with moving kindness, his kindness towards his fellow servants frequently interpreted as over-softness by his mistress, Lady Verinder. The only way to get his back up is to interfere with what he considers as being normal and right, and to insult his favourite book, Robinson Crusoe, which he reads for the same reasons that other people read The Bible: peace of mind, comfort and prophecy (yes, prophecy). The theft of the diamond, however, awakens a ‘detecting fever’ in him that he is simultaneously proud and ashamed of, and his natural curiosity and perfectly simple way of looking at things clears up more than one wall of smoke in the quest for the diamond.

More than half the novel is told from Betteredge’s perspective, and it makes you decidedly sad when you have to leave him behind, particularly when you pass from his narrative to that of the detestable Miss Clack, a stereotypical radical Christian who enjoys ramming her religion down other people’s throats in the most underhanded and invasive way. She makes a raging atheist like me want to scream and commit murder, and I’m sure the stinging satire inherent in her character must have simultaneously caused great delight and great offence in more than one quarter when the novel was published.

The opposite emotions that Betteredge and Miss Clack inspire in the reader, as well as the sheer strength and power of those emotions, are evidence enough that Collins really knows what he’s doing when it comes to character, and that he applies his talent to each individual character, no matter how small, and thus strengthens the novel’s realistic and life-like qualities. The reader is thus able to form attachments to characters who don’t have much space in the actual novel, but who are so vividly presented that you can’t help liking them, and wishing you could chat to them for half an hour just to spend more time with them.

Antony Sher as Sergeant Cuff.

Antony Sher as Sergeant Cuff.

A relatively minor character that I would really like to have a serious chat with is Sergeant Cuff, the second investigator called in to investigate the disappearance of the jewel after an over-confident policeman makes a botch of it. Cuff is a brilliant creation – a highly intelligent lateral thinker, he both dresses like a corpse and looks like one, is passionately interested in the growing of roses, and possesses decidedly Holmesian charisma and magnetism (indeed, you can’t help suspecting Sir Arthur of underhanded tactics). When he’s not driving everybody mad by asking hundreds of seemingly insignificant questions regarding the state of the laundry and a smear of paint on the door, he’s out detecting with his new odd companion Betteredge and warring with the gardener as to the correct way to grow white moss roses. The strange but interesting detective is something you see often in literature and TV today, but Sergeant Cuff is what you might call ‘the original’, and remains thus despite his hundreds of successors in the genre and the fact that nobody seems to known about him.

Another fascinating Collins original is Ezra Jennings, a socially-outcast doctor’s assistant who makes most people run away from him owing to his ugliness. He doesn’t really play much of a role until the final act, when he turns out to be a terminally ill opium addict of mixed race (gasp!) on the run from a crippling scandal, whose life’s goal is to save up enough money to take care of the woman he loves before he dies. Jennings is the genuine heart-rending-tragic-hero-beauty-and-the-beast article, and to add to his interest, he also develops an attachment of unusual strength to Franklin which had me wondering, many times, if Collins is making a veiled reference to bisexuality, or simply portraying the visible intensity of male friendship that was common at the time. Either way, Jennings has a lot about him that would have made his existence a problem in the Victorian era, and I sincerely wish somebody would write a spinoff/sequel about him and leave poor Jane Austen alone for a bit.

So: The Moonstone is worth reading for its plot, but much more so for its characters: authentic, fascinating and so human that, eventually, you don’t even care whether the diamond is found or not.