Steven Berkoff’s
Tell Tale Heart

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

Tell Tale Heart
dir Stephen Cookson
scr Steven Berkoff
prd Stephen Cookson, Peter Keegan
with Steven Berkoff, Dudley Sutton, Henry Goodman, Hugh Skinner, Mark Brailsford
release UK 12.Jun.20
17/UK 1h20

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Tell Tale Heart
Edgar Allan Poe's iconic story becomes a rather theatrical one-man-show of a movie starring Steven Berkoff, who also adapted the screenplay. Director Stephen Cookson adds plenty of visual flourish with striking sets and costumes, plus a literal bucket of blood, creating an intensely creepy tone. So even with its stagey design, this is a properly unsettling tale of paranoia and madness that worms its way under the skin.
In 1890s London, Edmund (Berkoff) is a servant haunted by how his aged master (Sutton) stares at him. So he decides to kill him, developing an elaborate plan that involves spying on him sleeping, waiting for the appearance of that evil eye. Finally he pounces, dismembering the body and stashing it under the floorboards. He's feeling confident when three policemen (Goodman, Skinner and Brailsford) arrive in the middle of the night, investigating reports of a cry for help. And Edmund becomes convinced that they will hear the old man's heart beating under the floor.
Edmund recounts events both directly to camera and in babbling monologs to himself and the constables. The film is shot in arch locations on stylised sets, with hyper-dramatic lighting and a sinister score (by David Lord and Tim Wheater). Deep shadows are cast by lantern light, while Edmund tries to convince himself that he's not mad and has complete clarity about what he's doing. This is purely Berkoff's show, as the other characters really only add background texture.

As always, the mesmerising Berkoff holds the audience in his grip from the moment he begins speaking. Edmund is a nervous, observant man, funny and scary in equal measure, one thing to his master and another when speaking to himself in the mirror. He insists that he's not insane, his senses are simply too acute. The actor's attention to detail is remarkable, so fully realised that he brings the gifted supporting cast to life as well. His guilty chatter to the cops is terrific, revealing the flip side of his more controlled narration.

Even with his wildly entertaining flourishes, Berkoff remains faithful to Poe's memorable prose. So while the drama plays out luridly on-screen, it's the more imaginative details that spring memorably to life, sparking even more outrageous imagery in our minds. The gruesome disposal of the body is more suggestive than explicit, and it's also gleefully hideous. Poe's story is timeless because of how it internalises horror in a guilty conscience. Bringing that to the surface allows an actor to have a lot of fun. And Berkoff adds plenty of camp colour to Edmund's freaky mental meltdown.

cert 15 themes, violence 4.Jun.20

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