Cadfael, a BBC series
starring Derek Jacobi in the title role, takes viewers on a journey to medieval
England: specifically to Shrewsbury in the twelfth century, where in the midst
of civil war the monks of Shrewsbury Abbey carry on as best they can. Brother
Cadfael stands out among the more conventional monks by virtue of his keen
interest in medicine and what we'd call today forensics, and so he's often
called on to solve various crimes and mysteries taking place in the community.
Acorn Media has consistently
been releasing the Cadfael series on DVD both in individual DVDs and
boxed season sets (see the review of Set 3). Cadfael
Set 4 includes all three episodes from 1998, the BBC series' fourth and final
season: The Pilgrim of Hate, The Potter's Field, and The Holy
Thief. All three seventy-five-minute episodes are based on novels of the
same name by Ellis Peters, who penned a total of twenty Brother Cadfael novels
over the course of seventeen years, from 1977 to 1994.
The Pilgrim of Hate
offers an interesting murder case in which the first mystery is the identity of
the victim: an anonymous body in a leather sack is discovered among the effects
of a motley assortment of pilgrims who have come to the abbey on
"Cripples' Day" in hopes of a miraculous cure. The characters in this
episode are reasonably well-drawn: several sibling pairs (two brothers and a
brother and sister) offer relationships that are on the surface loving and
charitable, but underneath reveal a darker nature.
The Potter's Field is my
favorite of the three episodes in this set. A woman's body turns up in a field
donated to the abbey by a potter who has decided to give up his profession and
join the order. Is it the body of the potter's wife, who has been missing? Is
it someone else? In either case, who did it? Cadfael's investigations turn up a
variety of dangerous secrets and murderous motivations in many
seemingly-innocent townsfolk, including the potter himself; the story is even a
bit overly complex for its running time, but it's entertaining viewing.
The Holy Thief is the
weakest by far of the three Cadfael episodes included in this set. Hinging
around a rival abbey's desire to get its hands on the bones of St. Winifred,
the patron saint (and money-maker) of Shrewsbury Abbey, The Holy Thief
is incoherently plotted, with the focus of the story wavering among a handful
of underdeveloped sub-threads. The characters' motivations are unclear, and the
plot is awkward and contrived, with the result that Cadfael's unraveling of the
mystery is less than compelling.
All three Cadfael
episodes are presented in their original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The
Potter's Field offers the best transfer, with good colors and natural skin
tones offsetting the flaws of some grain in the image. The Pilgrim of Hate
and The Holy Thief are disappointing, however, as both are washed-out
and lifeless-looking. In particular, The Holy Thief is muddy-looking and
lacks detail in dark scenes... which take up a substantial part of the film.
Skin tones look pallid rather than natural, and a moderate amount of noise
appears in the image as well.
The Dolby 2.0 track for the Cadfael
episodes is adequate. It's a primarily dialogue-based show, and the actor's
voices are generally carried correctly by the soundtrack. At times the sound
quality is a bit muffled, but on the whole it's satisfactory.
All three DVDs offer the same
basic special features. The highlight of the bonus material is that each episode
has a different short audio interview with Derek Jacobi. The remainder of the
special features consists of production photos, filmographies, and an Ellis
Peters biography and bibliography. The Holy Thief also has a short text
section offering some historical background.
The DVDs are in individual
keepcases that are enclosed in a glossy paper slipcase that will look nice next
to the previous three sets, which are all done in the same style.
Fans of the Cadfael
series will want to pick up Cadfael Set 4 as a nice way to complete the
set on DVD. Those viewers who are interested but not familiar with the episodes
already will do better to rent them, or, since the episodes are also available
individually, buy just one as a way of testing the waters. For an individual
purchase, I'd recommend The Potter's Field as being the best episode
from this set, with The Pilgrim of Hate coming in a close second; all
but completionists will want to pass on The Holy Thief.