DETECTIVE FICTION

How Rowan Atkinson has been brilliantly miscast (or the strange case of Inspector Maigret)

Mr Bean now plays the philosophical, world-weary detective created by Georges Simenon.

What are the worst examples of miscasting in recent movie history? Here are some that immediately come to mind: Ralph Fiennes in Maid in Manhattan, Leonardo DiCaprio in Gangs of New York, Charlize Theron in Dark Places, Jack Nicholson in Batman, Christian Bale in Terminator Salvation, Halle Berry in Catwoman, George Clooney in Batman and Robin, Julia Roberts in Michael Collins, Colin Farrell in Alexander, Winona Ryder in Alien Resurrection.

To this notorious list we can add Rowan Atkinson in the two-part made-for-TV film Maigret Sets a Trap. Atkinson is, of course, a unique genius. But why he – out of the entire acting universe – should have been picked to play the part of the world-weary, philosophical, pipe-smoking French detective, Inspector Jules Maigret, surpasses all understanding. Indeed Atkinson would appear to have spent the past 40 years of his life disqualifying himself for this role. But let us set that grouse aside for the time being.

Inspector Maigret is a French detective created by Georges Simenon, who featured in no less than 76 novels (and numerous short stories), which have sold nearly a billion copies.

Supposedly based on the author’s close friend, the legendary Chief Inspector Marcel Guillame, Maigret’s style is very different from the deductive pyrotechnics of other famous detectives like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. Instead, Maigret solves his crimes through a tireless process of pounding the streets, asking questions, and playing a patient waiting game.

In fact, as somebody once said, he doesn’t solve crimes, he solves people. His technique is to immerse himself in the problem and look for the elusive flash of intuition. Which makes him a kind of George Smiley, rather than (God forbid) any kind of James Bond.

Indeed, the very titles of Simenon’s novels say it all about the understated French policeman and his cases: Maigret Has Doubts, Maigret Sits It Out, Maigret Rents a Room, Maigret Fails, Maigret’s Little Joke. As a publisher once complained to the aspiring young author, “Your detective is disgustingly commonplace. How do you hope to sell something like that?”

Apart from the huge success of his books, Maigret has inspired several films, TV programmes, radio plays and even comics produced all over the world (curiously, one of the most successful TV serials was a Japanese serial based on a detective named Juzo Megure (the Japanese way of pronouncing Maigret). And now the ITV network has produced a series of 2-hour made-for-TV films, starting with Maigret Sets A Trap. The series is being screened in India on Zee Cafe from June 30.

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Maigret Sets A Trap.

Maigret Sets A Trap is about a series of murders in Paris in the long, hot summer of 1955. A serial killer has been stalking the raffish district of Montmartre and stabbing women with brown hair – one every month. The police have no clues, and the press is raising a public uproar, comparing the murders with Jack the Ripper. Maigret is under pressure from his superiors to solve the crime.

Finally he decides to set a trap by sending a team of undercover policewomen – all with brown hair – into the streets to lure the killer. They soon catch a suspect, and Maigret is certain he is the murderer. But while the man is in custody, bafflingly, yet another murder takes place, destroying Maigret’s theory, and compelling his superiors to take him off the case and replace him with someone else. To say any more would be a spoiler.

The film is shot in Budapest, which nostalgically captures the look and feel of 1950s Paris – a Paris that no longer exists. It’s a stylish, atmospheric film in which director Ashley Pearce creates an intricately constructed, richly layered world of self doubt and ambiguity, which, like many other contemporary British made-for-TV films, makes for gripping watching despite the fact that nothing very much necessarily happens.

The cast is outstanding, with David Dawson playing the unnervingly psychopathic mama’s boy murderer, Fiona Shaw as his domineering mother, Shaun Dingwall as Inspector Janvier, and Aidan McArdle as Judge Comeilieu. There is even an Alfred Hitchcock-like cameo appearance by John Simenon, the author’s son, whom we fleetingly see reading to a little boy from a Tintin book.

The only problem, alas, seems to be Rowan Atkinson.

Maigret Sets A Trap.
Maigret Sets A Trap.

Ironically, Maigret is a role that is closer to the real Rowan Atkinson than anything he has ever played before. For he is, in real life, totally different from his Mr Bean/Blackadder/Johnny English persona: a cerebral Oxford-educated electrical engineer who was planning to do a PhD before he accidentally stumbled into comedy. Legend has it that, while at Oxford, he joined a comedy group, mainly in an attempt to cure himself of his stammer. He turned out to have a natural genius for it.

As Richard Curtis, a member of the comedy group (who later directed Four Weddings and a Funeral and the Mr Bean films) recalls, while the other members produced rather mediocre skits, Atkinson stunned everybody by standing up and doing “the thing he still does now, where he mimes and talks at the same time. It was pure genius.”

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Rowan Atkinson Live.

Soon Atkinson had set aside his promising engineering career and taken to comedy full-time, appearing in cult TV shows such as Not The 9 O’Clock News and Blackadder before moving on to Mr Bean and Johnny English. One of the marks of his success as a comic is the fact that he is now said to be worth $130 million.

When he was first offered the role of Inspector Maigret, Atkinson apparently turned it down, because he couldn’t find a way in to the character. “The problem with Maigret is that he hasn’t got a limp, he hasn’t got a lisp, he hasn’t got a French accent, and he has no particular love of opera, or any of those other things that people tend to attach to fictional detectives,” Atkinson says, “He’s just an ordinary guy”.

But the producers pursued Atkinson, and after a few months he agreed because, “What appealed to me about it was the very challenge of it. “I found the prospect quite difficult. The decision to do it was related to the fact that the character is a very ordinary man.”

I have to admit that, miscast as he is, Atkinson does a wonderful job of playing Inspector Maigret. His famously rubbery face, pulled and twisted through many years of playing Mr Bean, seems to also be capable of an exquisite subtlety of expression. Thus, as Maigret, he manages to convey as many emotions by merely puffing on his pipe and looking out at the world with melancholic eyes, as a lesser actor would do with a few pages of dialogue.

As Atkinson explains it, “When I play a serious role, I’m using the same skills as I do when I’m playing something more obviously comic. It’s slightly different muscles, but the same skill set.”

The only problem is that Atkinson’s presence somehow distracts you right through the film, and till the very end, you half expect him to suddenly drop his serious, philosophical Maigret mien, stick out his tongue, waggle his ears, cross his eyes, and revert to being good old Mr Bean once again.

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Bean (1997).
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