Six mysteries (eight episodes) from 1995-1997, 466 minutes total running time
Many critics rank Ruth Rendell alongside P.D. James as Britain's leading modern female mystery writers, their works usually praised as transcending the mystery genre to attain true literary status. But "modern" suits Rendell more, even when she's writing period tales. While James hews to an almost 19th-century classicism in her building of plot, Rendell takes a more jagged, disorienting path; while James' characters, even the killers, act in rationally explainable ways, Rendell's are weirder, less easily pinned down, more deeply unsettling; James accepts the standard parameters of civilized society; Rendell questions everything.
Both women have been made baronesses and both sit in the House of Lords, though, not surprisingly, Rendell is with Labour and James is with the Conservatives. And both writers have been frequently and successfully adapted to TV -- James via her hero Inspector Dalgliesh, and Rendell with her Inspector Wexford. But Rendell, who also writes under the name Barbara Vine, is much more prolific than James, with about four times as many novels plus numerous short stories on her resume. Acorn Media's second set of "Ruth Rendell Mysteries" collects a fine and varied sampling of the author's non-Wexford stories; the six productions (three of which are two-parters), from the U.K.'s Meridian Broadcasting and Granada, all date from 1995-97.
Bribery & Corruption The wife of a wealthy ship-builder is murdered, and the key suspects are the husband, the husband's former employee who was having an affair with the woman, and the ex-employee's college graduate son, who harbored a life-long crush on the older woman. The killer is revealed about halfway through this two-part mystery, but that's just when things really start to get weird, especially when the shipbuilder's chauffeur and the young man's new girlfriend, acquired through a dating agency, prove more devious than expected. The cast includes Paul Freeman, Abigail Cruttenden and a then-21-year-old James Darcy, who'd go on to star in 2001's "Nicholas Nickleby."
Front Seat We shift suddenly from a fairly routine whodunit to prime Rendell oddness in "Front Seat." A middle-aged couple (Janet Suzman, Edward Hardwicke) buy a retirement bungalow in the seaside town where the wife grew up. Her husband isn't thrilled with moving there, and becomes even less so when he discovers that an old lover of hers (Richard Johnson) is still sniffing around her. And she has no compunctions about acting like a flirtatious schoolgirl with the guy in the back of her Bentley as hubby drives. She also becomes obsessed with solving a mystery involving an old woman who sits on a bench all day staring at the sea. The old lady is played by Joyce Redman, remembered as the sexy drumstick-gnawing wench from 1963's "Tom Jones." A dinner here of intentionally contaminated oysters is equally, if differently, memorable.
A Case of Coincidence In a swampy village in 1954, a serial killer has been targeting young women, the latest victim being the possibly straying wife of a London doctor. Suspicion falls on a mentally retarded fisherman, who eventually admits to killing the first four women but not the doctor's wife, who it just so happens was his childhood friend. Many of the country accents in this episode are hard to decipher (there are no subtitles or closed-captioning), but Keith Barron, who plays the compassionate inspector on the case, has a wonderfully soothing Ronald Colman-esque voice. (Listen to the calm way he asks a suspect, "Did the compact ... or the watch ... or the pendant ... come from this woman?") Caroline Bliss, Michael Fitzgerald and Pip Torrens also star in this two-parter, the set's only policier.
A Dark Blue Perfume Susannah York stars as a recently widowed suburbanite who falls for a mysterious but charming new neighbor (John Castle). What she doesn't know is that he keeps thinking he sees on the streets the young woman he was married to 30 years earlier - a woman he may have killed. This one has a nasty twist ending.
May & June This two-parter stars Phoebe Nicholls as May, an embittered single woman of a certain age who comes to visit her younger sister, June (Christine Kavanagh), whom she hasn't spoken to in years. The occasion is the death of June's husband, who was the love of May's life before he laid eyes on the prettier June. The story cuts between the present and various points in the girls' early life to reveal the source of May's bitterness. Nicholls, who as a girl played Oliver Reed's lively little sister in "Women in Love" and went on to play Anthony Andrews' increasingly grave little sister in "Brideshead Revisited," gets a meatier sibling saga to work with here. Director James Cellan Jones keeps the tension high throughout, often framing his actors within mirrors to imply both their multisided natures and their disconnectedness from one another.
The Orchard Walls Another period piece, this one set during the war and told through the narration of 16-year-old Londoner Jenny (Honeysuckle Weeks), who has been sent by her mother to live on a farm with relatives to escape Hitler's bombs. The imaginative girl is confronted by a tight-lipped, brutish clan led by British screen veteran Sylvia Syms and including the very pretty but distant Aunt Ella (Fiona Dolman), whose husband is off fighting in Africa. A handsome airman who keeps paying visits, though, seems to take Ella's mind off her loneliness. The tragic twist ending puts just the right capper on this collection of dark stories.
Now the bad news. While these beautifully filmed shows have received a crisp transfer with deep, rich colors and only a hint of fading, there seems to have been some tampering with the image shape. The programs are presented in 4:3 full screen, which would be in keeping with British TV productions of a decade ago. But throughout the set there are a distracting number of two-shots that don't quite fit both faces onscreen, plus abnormally close close-ups -- tell-tale signs that some pan-and-scanning of an original widescreen image has taken place. The stereo sound is adequate, but the strong English country accents in a couple of episodes are nearly indecipherable to American ears; subtitles, or at least closed-captioning, should have been provided.
The three discs' menus provide the basics: choice of episode, scene or extras, all against a still photo. The extras amount to abbreviated filmographies of each episode's principal actors. (When you pop in the first disc you get promos for other British mysteries on Acorn.) The packaging is decent: three slim discs with informative liners, all housed in a handsome box.
The great Ruth Rendell is well-represented by this set's adaptations of six of her one-off mysteries, each with a tone of its own, but all clearly Rendell (you won't mistake any of it for Agatha Christie). Superb acting, direction and cinematography bring out the best in these compelling tales, but the 4:3 DVD presentation leaves out a lot of what seems to have been widescreen action. Recommended for the content, if not the conveyance.