The first of two double-bills on Sky Arts marking the 150th anniversary of HG Wells’ birth treats us to atmospherically creepy adaptations of ‘The Late Mr Elvesham’ and ‘The Devotee of Art’, with Ray Winstone providing onscreen narration as the author.
In ‘The Late Mr Elvesham’ we’re introduced to Edward George Eden, a poor medical student whose desire to find a way out of his poverty is exploited by the arrival of the eminent philosopher, Egbert Elvesham portrayed with vigour by Michael Gambon.
‘My doctor informs me that I shall shortly be leaving this world and I find I have much to leave behind,’ Elvesham says enticing Eden to become his heir. It’s undoubtedly a momentous offer and Eden is almost immediately intrigued.
After undergoing several exhaustive medical examinations, Eden is named sole beneficiary in Elvesham’s will. ‘Would you in truth willingly take all my years?’ Unaware that he’s being tricked, Eden accepts Elvesham’s offer and drinks the liquor prepared for him. When he awakes the next morning Eden’s body has been stolen and he now finds himself trapped inside Elvesham’s frail body.
Horrified by his situation, Eden searches through Elvesham’s books in order to find a way to reverse the mind transference that has occurred between them. Once a solution is located, Eden confronts Elvesham but in his desperation and anger he fatally stabs him and by destroying his body he thus destroys his only chance of escape.
‘The Devotee of Art’ centres around Alec, a young painter struggling to make his name in the world whilst his wife, Isabel is left to deal with their mounting debts. ‘It lacks the creative spirit,’ bemoans Alec as his attempts to create a masterpiece go unrewarded.
Alec becomes obsessed in his desire to create beauty and ignores Isabel’s attempts to draw him away. When the painted face of St. Catherine talks to him, ‘I’ve come to inspire you,’ Alec is tempted by her offer of fame and riches. Catherine asks for only one thing in return – his soul.
At first Alec rejects Catherine’s temptations and he tries to be rid of her by painting over the canvas, yet a gap is left uncovered. He takes a couple of days out from his studio and, upon his return, sets up a fresh canvas. To his incredulity, Catherine appears in corporeal form and makes the same request, ‘give me your soul.’
In his desperation Alec accepts and Catherine bestows upon him the gift of inspiration in exchange for his soul. He paints day and night to achieve the greatest painting and, when Isabel attempts to draw him away, he stabs her and leaves her body on the studio floor.
Catherine’s deception becomes apparent when Alec prepares to take the journey to the academy and submit his work. In the coach he decides to take one last look at the art but is dismayed to see the painted over canvas of Catherine staring back at him. In the ensuing confusion the coach crashes and Alec awakes in hospital, his painting hand amputated.
Lying in his hospital bed Alec is again visited by Catherine whose vision tortures him and he remembers Isabel knowing that he’s lost everything for the sake of temptation.
Whilst these adaptions feature a couple of standout performances with Michael Gambon of particular note and Johnny Flynn wonderfully capturing Alec’s obsession, they’re slightly superficial and lean heavily on their atmospheric settings and score.
It’s a somewhat bizarre decision to cast Ray Winstone whose Cockney tones bear little resemblance to HG Wells’ mode of speech; however, the sporadic interjections of narration are fun and do capture a faint essence of the author’s work.
‘The Late Mr Elvesham’ is perhaps the stronger of the two stories presented here, but the Faustian themes of enticement strongly undercut both. Adrian Shergold’s direction amplifies the distinctive creepiness and Graham Duff’s imitation of Wells’ writing is carried reasonably well.
Aired at 9pm and 9.30pm on Thursday 28 January 2016 on Sky Arts.
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