Agatha Christie - Marple (not "Agatha Christie's Marple") has been a mixed success since its debut in 2004. The series was preceded by a positively beloved series of adaptations starring the late Joan Hickson, which ran from 1984 to 1992. Geraldine McEwan played the amateur sleuth from 2004-2009 but fans generally didn't take to her or the extreme liberties the writers often freely made in adapting Christie's original stories. Julia McKenzie took over the part in 2009, and those Marples starring her have been a mixed bag at best.
I wasn't holding out much hope for The Pale Horse, a movie-length production from 2010. For one thing it was based on an Agatha Christie novel in which Miss Marple does not appear at all. Even so, as it turns out, this TV film finally gets just about everything right. McKenzie is charming and her behavior is in keeping with the Christie original. It's an atmospheric story that incorporates her into the plot logically and well.
In the Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World that is Agatha Christie on DVD and Blu-ray, Acorn Media has opted to release The Pale Horse as a stand-alone title. Though just one of Season Five's four episodes, it was left off Acorn's official Series 5 DVD set although, as it turns out, all four shows are now included in a Series 5's Blu-ray edition, streeting the same day as this. Both the Blu-ray set and the stand-alone DVD also include an earlier adaptation of The Pale Horse, minus Miss Marple, produced in 1997. Got all that?
The plot follows Christie's 1961 novel fairly closely. In the novel the main character is a young man named Mark Easterbrook, whose amateur investigation is aided by none other than eccentric novelist-detective Ariadne Oliver, a character that frequently turns up in the Poirot movies starring David Suchet, and played in those adaptations by Zoë Wanamaker.
For this version, Miss Marple replaces the Ariadne Oliver, and the role of Mark Easterbrook (Desperate Housewives' Jonathan Cake) has been de-emphasized. The story opens well, with a Roman Catholic priest rushed to hear a dying woman's confession, but who is then himself brutally murdered for no clear reason. The priest, Father Gorman, turns out to have been a friend of Miss Marple (McKenzie) and she receives a strange, seemingly nonsensical letter from him just as she learns of the priest's murder.
Clues lead her to The Pale Horse, a 17th century inn, and just in time for a "burning" nearby in honor of a witch hanged in the village centuries before. It soon becomes clear to Miss Marple that the hotel is itself managed by three modern-day witches, led by Thyrza Grey (Pauline Collins, of Upstairs, Downstairs and Shirley Valentine fame). The chief suspect would appear to be crotchety polio victim Mr. Venables (Nigel Planer) who claims to be dependent upon a wheelchair. However, Paul Osbourne (JJ Feild), a witness, claims to have seen Venables up and walking shortly before the priest's murder.
The prolific Russell Lewis, whose recent credits include Sharpe's Peril, Sharpe's Challenge, and episodes of The Last Detective, Murphy's Law, and Inspector Lewis, does a fine job integrating Miss Marple into this non-Marplean story. Lewis's writing is especially amusing demonstrating how her meddling in police matters impacts Inspector Lejeune (Neil Person), the detective officially in charge of the investigation. At first he regards her as a nuisance, then is concerned that the elderly spinster is getting in way over her head, before graciously ceding to her intelligence. In another fine scene, when Lejeune suggests that two suspects may have been engaged in a little illicit lovemaking, Miss Marple's Victorian look of surprise is priceless. Her friendship with Father Gorman and determination to "fight evil" gives the show just the right emotional weight.
McKenzie, who in both her facial features and actorly mannerisms uncannily suggests Ed Flanders as Old Mother Riley, is a real delight. I found McKenzie a bit overly perky in her earliest appearances but she's really grown into the part. Besides McKenzie and Collins, another veteran actor making a welcome appearance is Bill Paterson (Comfort and Joy), wonderfully oily as a disbarred attorney running a strange bookmaking operation.
Video & Audio
Presented in its original 1.78:1 format with 16:9 enhancement for those with widescreen TVs, The Pale Horse looks quite nice throughout, including the many nighttime scenes and innumerable dark and mysterious corridors. The Dolby Digital stereo audio is likewise up to contemporary standards. SDH subtitles are available on the 2010 Pale Horse but not the 1997 one.
Included is the previously released but until now out-of-print The Pale Horse (1997), in full frame format and which runs 101 minutes, 12 minutes longer than the remake. It stars Colin Buchanan (Dalziel & Pascoe) as Easterbrook and Jean Marsh (Upstairs, Downstairs) as Thyrza Grey, with Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings) in a supporting role. Neither Miss Marple nor Ariadne Oliver is featured.
Despite some extreme negative reaction to Agatha Christie - Marple and in light of my own very mixed reaction to the shows I've seen so far, The Pale Horse came as a most pleasant surprise. Recommended.
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