The Name of the Rose review – too many monks spoil the plot

Rupert Everett steals the show as an evil inquisitor, but this messy adaptation of Umberto Eco’s mystery in the abbey requires the patience of a saint to follow

It’s monk soup, basically. Within 20 minutes of the start of John Turturro’s passion project, The Name of the Rose (BBC Two), an adaptation of the Umberto Eco novel in which he stars, having executive produced and co-scripted it with three other writers, we are drowning in them.

Turturro plays William of Baskerville, a learned and diplomatic Franciscan friar on his way to an abbey in northern Italy to try and settle the hashes of Ludwig the Bavarian (Holy Roman Emperor-in-waiting, because this is 1327 and all sorts is kicking off) and Pope John XXII, who have vastly different opinions about how medieval religion and politics should be separated and just how closely the clergy should follow Christ’s annoying teachings about poverty.

Rupert Everett and Tchéky Karyo in The Name of the Rose.
Beautifully cruel … Rupert Everett with Tchéky Karyo in The Name of the Rose. Photograph: Fabio Lovino/BBC/Palomar/11 Marzo Film

William accrues a follower on the way, an almost-Benedictine baby monk called Adso (Damian Hardung). He, in turn, is followed by a young Occitan refugee known only as the Girl after he showed her some basic human kindness on their way across the Alps. I think. It’s all quite dark, and monks and Occitan peasants wear a lot of earth tones so it is hard to tell.

As they make their way across picturesque terrain, John XXII at the papal palace is briefing his religious inquisitor Bernardo Gui (Rupert Everett, whose beautifully cruel countenance perfectly suits the sadist’s role) to attend the conference in his stead. Nothing can go wrong here.

As they near the abbey, they intersect with a group of brothers trying to determine which way their abbot’s runaway horse has fled. William, who turns out to be a kind of tonsured Sherlock Holmes, deduces the answer in seconds.

They reach the abbey, and we are submerged in the flood of Benedictine brothers. Venantius, Remigio, Berengar, Malachi – the list goes on, but only two are readily distinguishable: Jorge, who is blind and irascible, and the very blond Benno, who looks like a mendicant Malfoy. Oh, and Adelmo, who is dead. He fell from a window.

As the difficulty of unlocking the windows precludes accidents, William realises the abbot must consider it murder rather than (sinful) suicide. The abbot begs him to find the killer or killers before the papal and Ludwiggian delegates arrive. William does the rounds, asking questions, hearing about the mysterious library housed in a labyrinth at the abbey, and uncovering many tensions along the way. Malfoy is particularly forthcoming, but because the script is so oblique it is hard to know about what.

Therein lies the problem with The Name of the Rose: it’s a mess. There is something to be said for knowing one’s limitations. And if you don’t have the mastery of semiotic and literary theory, years of Bible study and immersion in medieval aesthetics that will enable you to make sense of a book by a man who had exactly that at his back, then perhaps … don’t try? Either reread his masterpiece and sigh with pleasurable yearning, or cut your cloth accordingly and at least give the viewer a decent murder-mystery to follow.

Still, by the end we are able to pick another monk out of the lineup. Venantius is the one hanged upside down in a bucket of pigs’ blood, very drowned and very dead. This definitely does not look like an accident or suicide. The abbey is beginning to seem more dangerous even than medieval Shrewsbury or interwar St Mary Mead. I’ll stick around for a bit more of Everett’s face and a look at the library labyrinth, but if things don’t streamline substantially, I will have to gather my horse and away.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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