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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » P.D. James - The Murder Room
P.D. James - The Murder Room
BBC Worldwide // Unrated // October 25, 2005
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted December 2, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

Every important mystery writer ends up creating a recurring detective character: Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, Allingham's Campion, Christie's Poirot and Miss Marple. P.D. James, one of the preeminent modern British mystery writers, has Adam Dalgliesh, who's written as a cold, somewhat stand-offish detective with a poet's soul. It's a difficult character to connect with in print as well as on screen, so Martin Shaw has a tricky time of it as the lead in the BBC production of James' The Murder Room.

In this three-hour production, Commander Dalgliesh (Martin Shaw) is called in to investigate a suspicious death in the family who runs a specialized museum. What's disturbing about this particular crime is that it seems to be modeled after one of the cases profiled in the museum's collection of murder-related memorabilia. At the same time that he's investigating this case, Dalgliesh is also trying to work on his relationship with Emma. P.D. James fans may not care for the way that this production softens the character of Dalgliesh; the romantic sub-plot (continuing from its start in Death in Holy Orders) doesn't fit perfectly with the mystery plot for most of the program's run, although it provides a nice wrap-up with a bit of tension at the very end. We do see a more human side of Dalgliesh, one that I think is necessary for the film to pull in its viewers. Shaw's Dalgliesh is hardly a friendly or companionable fellow, and he seems more cold rather than reserved most of the time, but at least he's not a complete cipher... though he's still more of a detective-shaped object in the plot rather than a fully rounded character.

This aspect of the film doesn't bother me, though, as I'm not a particular fan of P.D. James' novels, and so I don't mind seeing the detective reshaped a bit for television. What I'm not so thrilled about is the overall structure and pacing of the mystery, which I think is fairly badly handled.

To start with, the introduction of the characters is handled very awkwardly. There are too many of them, far too many to keep track of, especially since they're introduced in clumps. Even after you think you've gotten a handle on the key figures, the film just keeps introducing new ones, even when we're well into the film. And since the murder doesn't happen right away, there's no central point of reference (how does so-and-so connect to the victim?); instead, we're forced to keep track of how all these different people relate to each other, not knowing which characters are important and which are just background bodies. Given that the dramatic tension of a whodunit like The Murder Room comes from trying to pin the crime on a particular character, it's a significant flaw that it's very easy to simply get confused and give up on knowing who's who.

The pacing isn't done much better. For instance, we get several large lumps of exposition about the past murders that are chronicled in the museum's "Murder Room." Yes, this turns out to be relevant later on... but it seems out of place at the time it's presented, and really does feel like filler rather than an engaging part of the story. The story also feels overly long at three hours. Taken as a whole, I'd say that this is a film that's likely to appeal to P.D. James fans, but it won't win over any new readers or viewers.

The DVD

Video

The Murder Room appears in a satisfactory anamorphic widescreen transfer, at its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Colors look natural, but contrast is consistently too heavy, with dark areas losing detail too quickly. Some grain is present, and the picture overall looks a bit soft.

Audio

The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is clean and clear, with no problems. English closed captions are included.

Extras

A six-minute television interview with author P.D. James is included, from 2003. It's fairly generic and has little of interest. Cast and author biographies are also included.

Final thoughts

If you're already a fan of P.D. James' mystery novels, then this BBC adaptation of The Murder Room will probably be reasonably entertaining for you. I found myself put off by the film's bad handling of its characters and its sluggish pacing, but I also wasn't a fan of P.D. James' work to begin with. I'll suggest this as a rental if you've enjoyed other James novels or television adaptations.

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