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Director Andy Wilson brings Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast" to breathtaking life.

Visual Spectacle

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"Gormenghast" is not just an elaborate and absorbing live-action fantasy, it's a stunning visual spectacle. It's as though director Andy Wilson has reached deep into fantasy literature and movies and dragged out every tired cliché, bizarre plot device, outrageous character and cheap cinematic trick — and given them all a breathtakingly modern and fresh twist. And with a vengeance.

The story is based on author Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast" trilogy, a highly structured and sophisticated phantasmagoria in the tradition of "Dune" or "Lord of the Rings." Novelist Anthony Burgess called the books "uniquely brilliant," and the British magazine Punch says the story presents "the finest imaginary feat in the English novel since 'Ulysses.'"

High praise, indeed. But it's easy to get caught up and carried away by the sheer wonder and delights of spending four hours in the magical, astonishing land of Gormenghast.

Gormenghast, the place, is a run-down medieval castle — or maybe it's Gothic; it's hard to pin a specific label on anything in "Gormenghast" — where Lord Sepulchrave, the 76th Earl of Gormenghast, rules his earldom and his family. But the dynasty is threatened by a murderous kitchen-boy, Steerpike, who is determined to usurp the realm. There is one problem: Titus, the young 77th earl-to-be is alive and well, despite being dropped on his head during his christening.

Steerpike begins his treacherous climb from the squalor of the kitchen by insinuating himself into the service of the obsequious court physician. To clear the way for his ascent, Steerpike sets about eliminating people: He sets a fire that drives Lord Sepulchrave into madness, then takes on Titus' crazy twin aunts, the Master of Ritual, and young Titus' sister Lady Fuchsia. Eventually, he sets his sights on Titus himself.

Everything about "Gormenghast" is over the top, leading the viewer down the path to a remarkably entertaining experience of sensory overload.

The cast is filled by some of the best character actors working today, all given free rein to chew on the scenery with abandon: Ian Richardson as the old Earl, Zo‰ Wanamaker and Lynsey Baxter as the demented aunts, Stephen Fry as the ultimate in eccentric schoolmasters, Christopher Lee as the earl's cadaverous manservant, and Celia Imrie as the young earl's mother. (She takes one look at her newborn son and instructs the nanny to "bring him back when he's 6!") Jonathan Rhys Meyers' dark good looks bring a deeper dimension to his role of Steerpike, and Andrew N. Robertson plays Titus as a young man with the perfect mix of sincerity and folly.

Mercifully, it all hangs together to engage and fascinate, leaving viewers not one whit bothered by chronological and visual inconsistencies. The story proves once and for all that nothing exceeds — or succeeds — like excess, especially in the hands of a master such as director Andy Wilson.

"Gormenghast" airs at 9 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, June 27 and 28, on PBS TV.

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