Steven Berkoff’s Tell-Tale Heart review

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By David Dent

Steven Berkoff is now 82 and one look at his IMDB entry tells us that he’s showing no signs of stopping, so it’s not for us to question why Mr Berkoff has cheekily appropriated the title of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story for his own.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so harsh; actually, Berkoff performed this piece as part of his one-man shows about ten years ago. Poe’s been overshadowed by HP Lovecraft in recent years – Edgar’s florid prose does feel a bit out of place these days – so well done to Berkoff for keeping the flame alive. And well done to director Stephen Cookson for being brave enough to work with the indefatigable thespian (he has since adopted a number of Berkoff’s writings for the screen since this film, made back in 2017).

Although the original short story – and it was one of Poe’s briefest – was set in an unspecified location, Berkoff’s version moves the tale to Whitechapel in 1890, the year and location of some of Jack the Ripper’s murders.

For much of the film, Berkoff sticks to the original text, stretching out the slender story to the 80-minute mark with much use of long pauses and slow pottering around the house where he commits the deed (for those of you who don’t know, the unnamed narrator kills the master of the house in which he works as a sort of caretaker, ostensibly because of his boss’s single filmy eye which upsets him greatly, but really because he’s bonkers).

A well-dressed but rather murky set provides a fitting backdrop to the narrator’s pontificating, and when the action gets going Berkoff makes for a rotund but sprightly killer, chopping his employer up and storing his dismembered body under the floorboards.

Of course, the eventual arrival of the police is his undoing; their questioning about noises heard by the neighbours and the whereabouts of his bedridden employer plays to the narrator’s nervousness, ultimately leading to his confession of the crime.

This is all well-done stuff, but decidedly slow: ultimately it feels like a showcasing of Berkoff’s admittedly very committed performance, and I can’t see that there would be a big audience for this kind of thing.

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