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