21st Dec2021

‘A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Mezzotint’ Review (BBC)

by Jim Morazzini

Stars: Rory Kinnear, Nikesh Patel, John Hopkins, Robert Bathurst, Frances Barber | Adapted by Mark Gatiss

The Mezzotint is the latest instalment of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas. The original series from 1971 to 1978 is justifiably considered a highlight of televised horror and its influence on later works is covered extensively in Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror. Since then, there have been sporadic attempts to revive the tradition, most recently by writer/director Mark Gatiss who has delivered seasonal shudders in 2013, 2018 and 2019, as well as this year.

Edward Williams (Rory Kinnear; No Time to Die, Watership Down) is the curator of the Cambridge University Museum. He receives a mezzotint from a London art dealer as a potential addition to the Museum’s collection. He’s not impressed, deeming it a very ordinary picture of an estate house. But he becomes interested when a friend points out some features he somehow failed to notice, including a gaunt, almost skeletal figure in the painting’s corner. That interest turns to fear however when he notices the figure is in a different location, moving closer to the house every time he looks at it.

The Mezzotint has been adapted previously for British television, but will probably be familiar to most people for the loose, and uncredited, adaptation that formed the first segment of the pilot film for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.

Gatiss, who previously adapted The Mezzotint for BBC Radio 4, stays much truer to the original story , even including a now amusingly dated debate about the wisdom of letting women attend university and get degrees. It’s the kind of period piece the British excel at, only with a macabre twist that makes it so much more fun than something like Downton Abbey.

The thirty minute running time is a perfect length for the story as Williams, along with his friends Nisbet (Nikesh Patel; London Has Fallen, Artemis Fowl), Binks (John Hopkins; Poldark, Alice in Wonderland) and Garwood (Robert Bathurst; What a Carve Up!, Dracula) try to find a rational explanation, but instead find something more horrific than they can imagine.

Of course, being an adaptation of an M.R. James story, The Mezzotint works through slow, quiet chills involving the works of scholars rather than on screen violence and bloodshed. There is some slight comic relief from the eccentric Mrs. Ambrigail (Frances Barber; Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Mr. Holmes), but otherwise it’s all played quite straight, serious and proper as befits a tale of universities and drawing rooms.

While that might be a bit too dry and bloodless for some viewers, others will find it quite effective as the plot moves inexorably towards its conclusion. That conclusion also provides The Mezzotint with its only effects, and they are suitably horrible. It’s an enjoyably frightening tale for casual fans of the macabre and for lovers of the more refined side of the genre. And at only half and hour long it’s not too much of an investment of time for those curious about them.

***½  3.5/5

The Mezzotint will premiere at 10.30pm on Friday 24th December on BBC Two.
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Review originally posted on Voices From the Balcony.
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