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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Ruth Rendell Mysteries Set 3
The Ruth Rendell Mysteries Set 3
Acorn Media // Unrated // June 24, 2008
List Price: $49.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted June 17, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:
Ruth Rendell is one of the more renowned post-Christie crime writers in the United Kingdom, one who, along with her friend P.D. James, often explores the seedy underbelly of the English lower-classes as they interact with their noble "betters," and one who attempts to penetrate the psychological underpinnings which create lifechoices of various unseemly behaviors (a tendency that has led some wags to dub Rendell's genre the "whydunit"). Unfortunately that kind of interior focus doesn't always translate to the patently exterior world of a filmed adaptation, and the five mysteries in this collection culled from a long-running British anthology series, a mixed bag if ever there were one, all suffer to varying degrees from misfired attempts to bring those interior lives to the surface in a dramatically cogent way.

Going Wrong, a 1997 effort based on Rendell's 1990 novel of the same name, is an especially grievous example of the failure. Tracing the devolution of a love relationship between lower-class street tough and drug dealer Guy (James Callis) and upper middle-class Leonora (Josephine Butler), who, like a lot of "nice girls," toys with the "dark side" before outgrowing it and attempting to move on, Going Wrong unfortunately lives up to its title if only by dint of the preposterousness of its repetitive storyline. Yes, Guy is obsessed, that much is clear. Yes, he becomes violent, realizes that's getting him nowhere, and repents. Yes, Leonora wants to break it off, and does in fact (repeatedly), and yet, there they are again, having lunch at some swanky restaurant. It's one scene after another treading exactly the same territory, and spread out as it is over almost three hours' length, it just becomes patently ridiculous after a while. Some variety is attempted by frequent flashbacks (all filtered to be virtually colorless) which attempt to portray the halcyon days of Guy and Leonora's early romance, but even that adds up to nothing other than a time waster. It's obvious they were happy once, as teenagers, but, to coin a phrase, that was then, this is now, and now seems to be stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque time loop that never goes anywhere. Once a murder-for-hire subplot enters the picture there's at least a little excitement, but coming as it does almost all the way through the second hour, it's too little, too late. The performances are simply annoying in this piece, probably no fault of the actors, considering the absurdity of the teleplay. Callis goes berserk about every 15 minutes, then becomes hilariously wide-eyed, calms down for the next scene or two, then rinse and repeat. Butler gets to run the gamut, to quote Dorothy Parker's famous line, from A to B, A in this instance being naivete mixed with occasional terror and B being irate. Even the supposed twist at the end is for naught because Guy is such an unlikable psychopath one has been ardently hoping for some comeuppance despite his eleventh hour reformation.

Harm Done benefits from being adapted from one of Rendell's popular Inspector Wexford novels, featuring George Baker as a DCI with more than a bit of a temper and who might remind some viewers of Inspector Morse. This particular Wexford drama combines several disparate plot strands that, as is always the case in good mystery fashion, weave together in some unexpected ways. Starting with the apparent abduction of a teenage girl from a bus stop, and then quickly moving on to the release of a horrendous pedophile and quickly thereafter two other apparent abductions, one another teenager at a bus stop and, in the main focus of the episode, a three year old girl from her bedroom in the middle of the night, Wexford quickly finds himself questioning his own involvement in various aspects of the cases. There's a lot of very fine plotting in this particular entry in the boxed set, easily the best all around feature included. When the various strands of the stories join together about 45 minutes or so in, it becomes a fascinating examination of small town (or village, in the English term) mass hysteria coupled with a subtle analysis of some uneasy class distinctions that make for a riveting two hours or so. One of the most fascinating things about Harm Done is how it continues on past the supposed denouement to involve a whole new crime, linked to the others, which then opens up another fine half hour of plot and character development. For an episode that deals largely in such tawdry subjects as wife beating and pedophilia, Harm Done manages to handle it all with an amazingly low-key approach, despite some occasionally shocking moments. There is some truly horrifying use of makeup on a tangential character in this episode, so you should keep young children far away from the television when you view it.

The Fallen Curtain is a shorter piece focusing again on an abducted child, though this episode is told largely from the child's own viewpoint. Dealing with repressed memories of his abduction, Richard finds himself an outcast throughout his childhood and young manhood. This 50 minute exercise is an involving, if disturbing, character study that escalates when the young man finds a car similar to (and perhaps the very one) that he was abducted in as a youth, leading to a chain of events that simultaneously provides him with some closure but also opens him up for a new round of troubles. Brothers Max and Ben Brazier do remarkable work here, Max as the young Richie and Ben as the grown up (physically at least). Their remarkable physical resemblance helps give the story some continuity as it jumps back and forth in time frames. The twist in this particular episode suffers from exactly the opposite trouble that hampers Going Wrong: in this case, the "hero" is such a put-upon soul, trying to remember what happened during his childhood abduction, that when the mists finally clear and the "surprise ending" comes into play, most viewers are most likely going to be throwing shoes or somesuch at the television out of the unfairness of it all.

Lake of Darkness is another one of those Strangers on a Train knockoffs, albeit in this instance one of the "partners" is completely unaware of what's going on and he never even mentions murder. That's one of the problems with an episode that is nonetheless one of the creepier ones in this set: it's built on so many ridiculous coincidences that it collapses under the weight of its own serendipity after a while. Following the twin stories of truly scary lower class monster Finn (Cal Macanich, in an over-the-top horrifying performance) and upper class recent lottery winner (the rich just get richer, eh?) Martin (Jerome Flynn), Lake of Darkness explores chance meetings and good intentions that nonetheless end in tragedy. After Martin decides to use his lottery winnings to help those less fortunate, he's targeted by a scam artist (Sadie Frost), while at the same time Finn, whose batty mother used to work for Martin's family as a cleaning lady, has become a killer-for-hire. All of the storylines intersect ultimately, with murder and mayhem the foregone outcome. Though there's a bit of voiceover on Cal's part, again this episode is sadly lacking in any real motivation--what has turned Finn into the monster he is? Why does he feel predestined, in a Leopold and Loeb sort of way, to greatness via the vehicle of killing someone? The episode provides some good thrills, but they're shallow ones and the entire episode has a seedy quality that may leave a bad taste in some viewers' mouths.

The final offering is You Can't Be Too Careful, wherein buttoned-down office manager Della (Serena Evans) rents a flat that's a little beyond her means, leading her to take on a worker in her office as a roommate. This slight, shorter effort is built around Della's purportedly strange behavior, but the fact is, aside from being "reserved," as one of her co-workers calls her, there's little grist for the mill for the shocking denouement which in turn leads to a Psycho-esque reveal about her father. There's simply not enough examination of what makes Della tick to provide any real shock, other than that of splattered gore, in this episode, though Evans attempts to imbue Della with some shadings and nuance.

The DVD

Video:
All of the episodes save Harm Done (which is in an enhanced 1.78:1 transfer) are typical full frame television transfers. Quality is generally above average, though contrast is not exceptional on any of these episodes, exacerbated by the frequent use of filters for such techniques as flashbacks. Colors are acceptable if not outstanding. There's no significant scratching or other abrasion.

Sound:
All of the standard stereo soundtracks have average separation, with excellent fidelity. There is no noticeable hiss or distortion on any of the soundtracks.

Extras:
Pretty meager--a text biography of Rendell and filmographies of the various cast members.

Final Thoughts:
If you're looking for a Christie-like panoply of characters, this will not be your cup of tea (to stay in the British milieu). If more character-driven suspense is up your alley, you may well want to check these out for a night or two's rental. The Wexford drama is head and shoulders above the rest of the offerings here, with Going Wrong living up to its title and earning the bottom of the barrel of this set. The rest are middling, with some decent elements, though nothing remarkable.

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"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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