Umberto Eco’s brilliant novel finally gets the adaptation it deserves.
Tony Morris

2 Oct 2019 - 10:16 AM  UPDATED 2 Oct 2019 - 10:17 AM

The Name of the Rose is a classic, a work of literary genius that also appealed to a mainstream audience and became a bestseller around the world. What it isn’t, is a short book. So while there’s a lot to like about the 1980s movie version (it features Sean Connery as a monk, so obviously it’s great), by necessity it had to leave a lot out. The prestige mini-series treatment is exactly what this classic deserves; at eight hour-long episodes Eco’s sweeping story finally has the space it needs.

If you remember the film, chances are all you remember is that it was a murder mystery set in a monastery in the 14th century. It’s true that a murder mystery lies at the heart of this story; but in cutting the novel down to feature length, much of the depth and texture that made the novel a classic and a bestseller went out the window. So yes, there’s a mystery at the heart of the story – but there’s so much more going on beyond that.

The year is 1327 and Franciscan friar William of Baskerville (John Turturro) and novice Benedictine monk named Adso (Damian Hardung) are on a journey to a meeting that will set the future direction of the Catholic Church. William is basically going to fight for the survival of his order; being on the side of poverty as a priestly virtue hasn’t gone down well with the Pope. But before the meeting can get underway, a dead body is discovered at the Abbey where the meeting is to take place – and that corpse is only the beginning.

A murder mystery set in medieval times is a great hook, but there’s a lot more than mere murder here. For one thing, all the victims seem to have a connection to a forbidden book held in the Abbey’s vast library, a maze of books that only a handful of librarians can traverse.

Meanwhile the Pope’s inquisitor, Bernard Gui (Rupert Everett) wants the murder solved and quickly, whichas all mystery buffs knowmeans he’s going to be the detective who jumps to conclusions and gets everything wrong. Which wouldn’t be a problem if he was just a detective, but with his (literally) burning hatred of heretics, he’s a bit more proactive when it comes to stamping out crime than usual. And that could be a problem for William, considering his order is already on thin ice.

This was something of a passion project for Turturro. He’s one of the series’ producers and is listed as one of the writers (though he’s said in interviews that he saw his job as making sure they kept as much of Eco’s book as possible). He’s the lynchpin here, giving a steadying performance that holds this vast enterprise together while clearly having a lot of fun doing it.

He also gets all the best lines, in large part because, as a detective with an inquiring mind, he’s the one who sees things most clearly; he’s also the one closest to the modern world, with a sceptical, generous view of God and religion and a passion for learning that doesn’t seem much in evidence in the murderous world outside.

The rest of the cast is equally up to the task. Rupert Everett’s had a bit of a comeback in recent years, and here he gives Gui’s sadism a villainous flair. Hardung has the tougher role as the low-key sidekick, but when he’s called to action he gets the job done. Also lurking in the shadows are Michael Emerson as the abbey’s abbot, Stefano Fresi as Salvatore, a hunchback who falls foul of Gui, and Fabrizio Bentivoglio as the cellar-dwelling Remigio, a monk with a dark past.

This version of The Name of the Rose isn’t entirely abbey-bound, with a number of new action-heavy scenes set outside the walls (it even begins on a battlefield). There are some fresh characters as well, to balance the genders; the bow-toting Anna (Greta Scarano) out for revenge is new (though her origin story comes from the novel), while “the girl” (Nina Fotaras), who plays a pivotal role in Adso’s story, is now a traumatised refugee from the wars raging outside.

But the main focus remains firmly on the murders, which manage to be as much a comment on mysteries in generalif you detect a touch of the Sherlock Holmes about William, you’re not wrong, with Adso as his "Watson" writing down the adventuresas it is a gripping story in its own right. Eco’s novel was a book about codes, secrets, mysterious messages; this adaptation keeps the mystery alive.

'The Name of the Rose' begins on SBS with a double episode at 8:35pm on Thursday October 3, and then streaming at SBS On Demand. Watch a preview now.

Follow the author here: Twitter @morrbeat

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