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The Mezzotint review: Mark Gatiss’ scariest Christmas offering yet

Rory Kinnear stars as an unlucky academic in this bone-chilling tale from M.R. James. **Contains spoilers**

The Mezzotint
Published: Friday, 24th December 2021 at 11:00 pm
A star rating of 5 out of 5.

Sherlock and Dracula co-creator Mark Gatiss has had a charming little sideline in these half-hour ghost stories for the past few years, resurrecting the BBC’s 1970s 'A Ghost Story for Christmas' strand to create a new generation of creepy half-hour Christmas Eve tales.

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Sadly, his planned original story for this slot – hospital-set The Night Weddings – had to be shelved thanks to COVID. But perhaps that was all for the best, as this latest ghost story (adapted from MR James’ short story of the same name) is his best one yet.

Let us set the scene. The protagonist Williams is a classic M.R. James figure – an academic bachelor, cloistered in his rooms at college, enjoying cards and books and golf and with little connection to the outside world. In this case, he’s played likably by Rory Kinnear, sporting an impressive moustache and a kind of cheerful bluster that makes the horrors overtaking him all the more affecting.

He enters the story when he’s sent a fairly bland mezzotint – an engraving of a nondescript stately home – from a dealer, for possible inclusion in the University museum. Initially he dismisses it, until a golfing buddy notes the wonderful play of moonlight across the lawn. The only problem was, there wasn’t any moon in the picture when Williams first looked at it.

Over the coming scenes Gatiss (who serves as director and writer, as with the previous ghost stories) weaves a sense of creeping dread, adopting James’ less-is-more approach to horror as Williams’ friends and colleagues also note changes to the mezzotint, most notably the twisted, staggering figure approaching the house (described memorably by Robert Bathurst’s Garwood as "rather too grotesque", in one of many lines adapted closely from the page).

The Mezzotint cast

Gatiss, in fact, adds rather more fear and creepiness to the tale than James did, especially when it comes to the ending. On the page, Williams and his colleagues note the changes in the painting and discover its history, eventually waving it off as an interesting phenomenon. But in this version, Kinnear’s Williams is drawn into the torrid history of the Francis family and the hanged poacher (called Gawdy) sworn to rise from the grave and destroy their line.

Thanks be to Frances Barber – playing a character who’s another new addition to the story – for delivering this exposition so entertainingly, when it could have seemed a little arbitrary and confusing.

The adaptation ends with poor Williams (who, as Gatiss noted at the screening for the episode in early December, "does nothing wrong") receiving another Mezzotint – of the familiar exterior we’ve seen of his rooms, while the gaunt body of Gawdy insidiously crawls up the grass towards it. As Gawdy horribly, slowly slides through the window and onto the floor, Kinnear’s Williams gazes in abject terror into the middle distance. As viewers, we might grumble that if he’d stop looking away from the canvas, Gawdy wouldn’t move – but Kinnear sells the wide-eyed fear perfectly.

Frances Barber in The Mezzotint

It’s a credit to Gatiss’ direction that he’s able to make these stories on a small budget and with limited shooting time, let alone make them as well as he’s made The Mezzotint. Surely, this is the sort of thing the BBC is for – not entirely commercial, high-quality one-offs that deliver something you can’t get anywhere else – alongside all the big budget crime dramas.

Still, at least for now we still have these ghost stories. Fingers crossed we’ll get something just as chilling for 2022.

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The Mezzotint is now streaming on BBC iPlayer. For more, check out our dedicated Fantasy page or our full TV Guide.

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