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P.D. James: Devices and Desires
6 parts, 310 minutes, not rated
Directed by John Davies
Written by Thomas Ellice, based on the novel by P.D. James
Cast: Roy Marsden, Susannah York, Gemma Jones, James Faulkner, Tony Haygarth, Tom Georgeson, Tom Chadbon, Harry Burton, Suzan Crowley, Nicola Cowper, Robert Hines, Helena Michell
The missing piece in the P.D. James DVD puzzle finally falls into place with the arrival of 1991's "Devices and Desires," which aired stateside that year on PBS' "Mystery!" In addition to this stand-alone two-disc set, the mystery tale is also included in Koch Vision's simultaneously released "P.D. James: The Essential Collection." That boxed set includes nine James tales starring Roy Marsden as Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, but not Marsden's 10th and final (to date), "A Certain Justice," which is available from WGBH Boston. (Two more recent Dalgliesh mysteries, starring Martin Shaw as the poet-policeman, are out from BBC Video.)
"Devices and Desires," the sixth of the Dalgliesh novels adapted for British TV, was also the last time filmmakers let a James tale play out at novel-like length; subsequent adaptations have been just two or two-and-a-half hours long, a result of eliminating some characters and plot lines. The six-part, five-hour-plus "Devices," however, is the novel intact, including all the red herrings that make good mysteries work.
Like several of James' novels, "Devices" takes place outside Commander Dalgliesh's usual London jurisdiction. Dalgliesh is visiting Larksoken, a (fictional) seaside village in Norfolk in eastern England, to settle the estate of a recently deceased aunt. It's only a few years since the Chernobyl disaster and there's a lot of anxiety among some locals over Larksoken's nuclear power plant. There also happens to be a serial killer on the loose, a strangler dubbed the Whistler. The stage is set for Dalgliesh to have anything but a relaxing time in his aunt's converted windmill far from the madding crowd.
The main players Dalgliesh meets or gets reacquainted with are: Meg Dennison (Susannah York), a widow attracted to the widower Dalgliesh; Meg's friend Alice Mair (Gemma Jones), a writer who lives with her brother, Alex Mair (James Faulkner), the head of the power plant; Ryan Blaney (Tom Georgeson), a surly, drunken artist; Hilary Robarts (Suzan Crowley), a high-level administrator at the power plant who's trying to evict Blaney and his children from their home; Neil Pascoe (Robert Hines), a graduate student working to shut down the plant; Amy Camm (Nicola Cowper), a young single mom sharing Pascoe's trailer with him; and Toby Gledhill (Harry Burton), a physicist at the plant who has become deeply worried about a computer virus that could bring about a meltdown.
James, a classical novelist who happens to work the murder mystery genre, skillfully introduces the large array of characters then surprises us with how they're connected beneath the surface: two plant executives have been lovers; a nuclear protester and a plant person are lovers who sneak off to the dunes together; another plant worker is a terrorist who is using a local innocent. Murders, not all at the hands of the Whistler, ensue.
Marsden's cool-headed Dalgliesh calmly takes it all in, never jumps to conclusions, and always looks deeply into his suspects' personalities to find the truth. He's also the type who'll find time to read a sermon at the local church, to give a lift to someone whose ride has broken down, and to take long walks along the beach. A minor complaint: a little more detective work would have been nice -- Dalgliesh never actually solves anything but is there when bad things happen.
None of the P.D. James/Adam Dalgliesh TV mysteries have had much in the way of DVD extras beyond bios of James and the actors. "Devices and Desires" doesn't even have that. But the program itself is very well presented. Its six 52-minute parts are split over two single-sided discs, giving a maximum amount of digital space to the transfer. The picture, presented in its original 4:3 full-screen aspect ratio, is pristine; the shot-on-video program looks like it was made last week, not 17 years ago. There are no scratches, dropouts or debris, no fading or bleeding of the crisp, vivid colors. The seaside village of Larksoken and the cozily cluttered homes of the principal characters are enough to make any Anglophile overlook pesky serial killers and a nuclear plant run amok.
The Dolby Digital sound is aces when it comes to picking up footsteps on gravel walkways, but you may have to turn up the volume during some scenes, particularly those where the soft-spoken Roy Marsden is making important points. And while Marsden speaks the Queen's English, several earthier characters have strong brogues that subtitles would have ameliorated. Alas, no subtitles or closed captioning.
I can't recall if it aired intact on PBS in 1991, but there is some casual female nudity in one episode that probably would not make the cut if the miniseries ran on today's FCC-fearing public airwaves. An additional indication that this is the original British broadcast version is the inclusion of spoken previous-episode recaps. They definitely did not air here -- "Mystery!" host Diana Rigg took care of the introductions and explanations.
"Devices and Desires," from 1991, is the last of the P.D. James mysteries to date to make it to DVD, and fans have good reason to cheer. A typically rich James tale of murder in a small, remote community, it is a satisfying five hours-plus of intricate personal relationships, seemingly unconnected incidents and, of course, grisly death. Tall, soulful Roy Marsden is the good old Commander Adam Dalgliesh that fans love. And there's that great, mournful cello theme song that accompanies all of the Marsden/Dalgliesh miniseries. There are no extras, but the main content is rich and superbly presented.