Ruth Rendell doesn't have the name
recognition of a, say, Agatha Christie, but she's a writer who has
claimed a solid place in the modern mystery genre. It's no surprise,
then, to see her work be adapted for television. In The Ruth
Rendell Mysteries, Set 1, we get four of her stories: it's a
chance for new viewers to get a taste of her work, while fans of
Rendell's work will be interested in seeing her work brought to life.
Rendell is interesting in that she's not the typical "mystery"
writer. Really, she's more of what I'd call a "suspense"
writer: there may or may not be an actual mystery puzzle to be
solved, and there may or may not be a detective involved, but one
thing is for sure: there's something weird going on.
Set 1 contains four separate
episodes: "Master of the Moor," "Vanity Dies Hard,"
"The Secret House of Death," and "The Double."
One thing that's interesting here is that the length of the episodes
varies, depending on the complexity of the story (something that
other mystery series would do well to consider). Both "Master of
the Moor" and "Vanity Dies Hard" run about 155
minutes, each divided into three parts, while "The Secret House
of Death" (103 minutes) runs in two parts; all three of episodes
are based on novels. "The Double," based on a short story,
is only one part, at 51 minutes.
The blend of suspense and mystery
gives us a variety of settings and stories. In "Master of the
Moor," Colin Firth gets the title role as a loner whose affinity
for wandering around the moors makes him the prime suspect when
bodies start turning up. "Vanity Dies Hard" follows two
friends, one of whom finds happiness in marriage while the other
struggles with poverty; when one woman disappears, the other is
determined to figure out what happened. "The Secret House of
Death" also sets up a tangle of intrigue and dark, hidden
motives, which the main character stumbles into when she stumbles
across the dead bodies of two of her neighbors. "The Double"
takes a turn for the weirder, as the young and innocent Lisa, on the
verge of marriage to a rising stockbroker, is distressed by a
superstition involving what seems to be her "double."
It's apparent that Rendell's stories
are focused on the psychological aspects of the story, rather than on
the "whodunit" aspect. That gives these stories a different
flavor, but it also makes it more of a challenge to have the stories
succeed on-screen. While I appreciated the intent behind each of the
stories in the collection, the it's pretty hit-or-miss when it comes
to how well they actually work as stories. Some of them are
successfully weird and surreal, in the sense that they deal with
dysfunctional people doing very strange things; others are just weird
and overly complicated. "The Double" is the worst of the
lot in that respect; it may have worked as a mood piece in its
original form as a short story, but in contrast to the other
episodes, which have actual plots, "The Double" ends up as
a muddled mess.
There are some solid actors here
(especially Colin Firth in "Master of the Moor" and Jason
Flemyng in "The Double") but there's also a general
tendency for overacting across the board. It's unfortunate to see the
characters come across as fairly one-dimensional, when I get the
sense that they're intended to have a greater psychological depth.
The filmmakers' approach to
conveying suspense is very heavy-handed, making use of all the tricks
in the book to get the reader tense. I found my reaction to be
curiously mixed. On the one hand, I recognized the way that the
program was blatantly pulling strings... on the other hand, it was
still making me jumpy. In the end, I had a half-annoyed reaction to
the suspense: I was oddly irritated that the show was managing to get
a reaction out of me even while I recognized how my reaction was
being orchestrated. The upshot is that viewers should consider what
kind of reaction they typically have to suspense. If you find it very
easy to just go with the flow, then you'll probably enjoy the
atmosphere created in these episodes; if you tend to be critical and
notice elements of the program as soon as they get a little bit
artificial, then the suspense balloon will probably never lift off.
The Ruth Rendell Mysteries: Set 1
is a three-DVD set, with each disc in its own ultra-slim keepcase,
and all three discs inside a glossy paperboard slipcover.
Though the episodes are not all that
old (1993-1996), I wasn't impressed by the image quality. All the
episodes appear in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image is
very grainy in all the episodes, with a lot of noise. Colors are
usually bright and vibrant, but the tones seem a bit off, with a
slightly orangey cast to the image at times. Contrast is handled
adequately in the well-lit scenes, but when it's dark, the contrast
is too heavy and we get much more black on-screen than we should. I
also felt that a few times, the image looked just a little bit
stretched, as if the aspect ratio were off by a tiny bit: I couldn't
quite put my finger on it, in the few scenes that this appeared in
(in "The Double") but certainly a few scenes looked just a
The stereo soundtrack is adequately
clear and clean when the dialogue is at normal volumes. When the
volume goes down, though, as when the characters are in quiet
conversation, the track gets a little bit muffled-sounding.
The only special features are a text
biography of Ruth Rendell and cast filmographies.
The Ruth Rendell Mysteries
may be worth checking out if you are already a fan of Rendell's
stories, or if you are looking for a moodier, more surreal
alternative to traditional detective-story fare. It's not nearly as
well done as it could be - I'd rank it as average at best - though,
so I'll only give it a mild "rent it" rating.