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The Mezzotint review: Rory Kinnear is at his best in this Christmas ghost story

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The only problem with a BBC dramatisation of a classic MR James ghost story, written by Mark Gatiss and starring Rory Kinnear, is that your expectations are so celestially high, you dread failure. But there’s no disappointment with The Mezzotint; if anything, all those involved have exceeded themselves. It’s very creepy indeed.

Set in 1922, the proceedings concern a middle-aged university don, Edward Williams (Kinnear at his understated best), who seems to spend most of his time rejecting donations for the college art collection, but is inexplicably intrigued by an indifferent mezzotint (a type of monochrome artwork) from around 1720 that he spots in a dealer’s catalogue. He asks to see it “on approval”, to see if the shockingly high price tag – two pounds or so – is justified. This, by the way, is a rare example of a joke about economics making its way into popular culture; it is £122 at current prices.

Anyway, it turns up and it does indeed look like nothing remarkable: an unidentified English country house, fairly nondescript, not even a figure or two to enliven it. But, increasingly disturbingly, the print changes slightly every time Williams or one of his associates looks at it afresh. A moon appears. Then a hand. After that, a figure approaching an open downstairs window.

Each stage is punctuated by some jolly sequence, with Williams playing golf or enjoying a fine feast. But the mezzotint is like a constant siren call. Soon a grotesque skeleton-like figure is seen taking something… The action, like disjointed frames in a film, only occurs when it is glanced at; if it’s left covered, then it is frozen in time, though always arousing curiosity… until the final iterations, where the house changes into Williams’ own and the creature, reminiscent of Nosferatu (a film made in 1922), drags itself into his own drawing room, and it really is terrifying.

Williams discovers that he is the illegitimate descendant of the aristocrat who lived in the original house, and the disappeared baby was the last of the legitimate line of the family. The ghastly ghostly figure is a poacher who was executed, in effect on the landowner’s orders. The legend, corroborated by the magical print, is that the poacher rises from the grave to steal and dispose of the child in revenge. Now, to Williams’s horror, it has come for him.

In the chilling words of a royal correspondent the other day, “the story may not be true, but it is believable”, which is the case with all the best telly hokum, and it is Gatiss, Kinnear and an excellent supporting cast (particularly Robert Bathurst) who make sure it scares you.

Most of all, though, we have the Edwardian author MR James to thank for the inspiration to fuel half a century of BBC Christmas ghost stories. It’s strange that in the middle of a pandemic, we feel any need to be frightened some more, but there we are. Happy Christmas.

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