For her fifth Agatha Christie adaptation – And Then There Were None, The Witness For The Prosecution, Ordeal By Innocence and The ABC Murders came before it – Sarah Phelps has selected a novel written towards the end of Christie’s long and distinguished career.
In her other adaptations – that have polarised Christie fans – Phelps has used her artistic licence liberally to create new stories that have been imbued with a greater socio-political and cultural context while keeping the central mystery puzzle at their heart. Phelps’ characters have also had real nuance and depth to them.
Those previous four have seemed to chart British history throughout the 20th century, taking in as they have, world wars, poverty, sexism and classism, and, most notably (and topically), fascism in 1930s London.
So where has Phelps taken us with The Pale Horse? Looks-wise it goes back to Ordeal Of Innocence – it’s light, bright and not the kind of wheezing, jaundiced feel of, say, The Witness For The Prosecution or the ashen greys of The ABC Murders.
No, The Pale Horse gives us vivid colours, snazzy suits, verdant greens, picture-perfect English villages, pearls and pencil dresses, and wrist-length gloves and cat-eye sunglasses. And witches.
But let’s not go there just yet.
As Phelps enters this post-war period, a time where optimism was beginning to permeate throughout the country after the shattering, spirit-sapping World War a decade before it, we’re presented with two very difficult types of Britain: that of the working classes, and the upper classes, still enveloped in wealth and privilege and stinking of arrogance.
This is the world in which Mark Easterbrook lives. A suave, slightly nervy, beautiful man (Rufus Sewell is perfect for the role), he’s still coming to terms with the death of his first wife, Delphine, and is now married to Hermia, an insecure socialite. Easterbrook is a strange kind of character and goes about his business as if it’s his business and no one else’s. He’s softly spoken but prone to fits of anger, drives a smart sports car and dresses in the snazziest of suits.
He’s a complete arsehole (and different, very different, from the book).
His world begins to fracture when a list of names is found in the heel of a woman’s shoe. The woman, we see, is convinced she’s being stalked and is terrified when she’s able to pull clumps of hair away from her head.
The dancer Easterbrook is sleeping with behind Hermia’s back – whose name is also on the list – also begins to find hair coming away from her head with ease. She too winds up dead, next to Easterbrook when they spend the night together in her flat.
Hot on the case is Detective Inspector Lejeune (a wonderfully gravel-voiced Sean Pertwee), who wants to know what Easterbrook knows, and whether he is implicated in the case. Rifling through his dead wife’s belongings he finds a bus ticket to the village of Much Deeping, a name, and a number.
And it so it unfolds. One by one names on the list begin to die, all finding that their hair is beginning to moult unexplainably, and Easterbrook – wracked by guilt and yet eager to conceal his philandering – sets out on a search to see what lies in Much Deeping.
And what does lie there?
Quaint bucolia, superb topiary, dry stone walls hewn from the very essence of rural Englishness… and witches.
We saw in the opening scenes that Delphine had visited three women who lived in Much Deeping – at The Pale Horse pub no less – and gave her an ominous tarot card reading. In fact, as a very out-of-place Easterbrook wanders around the winding lanes during a traditional festival complete with a totem and scary masks and people banging drums (very Wicker Man) he’s spooked by their piercing eyes (judgemental eyes, perhaps?) and their uncanny knack of telling him things, personal things, about his life and relationships.
(The ‘witches’ are fantastic. It’s always a treat to see Rita Tushingham on TV, and Kathy Kiera Clark and Sheila Atim all mesh with perfect menace.)
The final scenes see Easterbrook succumb to the moulting hair syndrome – his name is on the list, after all, and he’s for it next. Unless he can find out who the murderer is, and how he or she is doing it.
The mystery and whodunit puzzle is well and truly there in The Pale Horse, but there’s so much more here. The relationship between Easterbrook and Hermia is both heartbreaking and fascinating. His attitude towards her is blithe insouciance, while she is desperate for love, acceptance even. While Easterbrook works at his antique business all day, she’s stuck at home – the so-called perfect, affluent life little more than an unfulfilled, lonely, ennui-filled existence, where anxieties gnaw away like a parasite. These scenes with Hermia remind me of Mad Men and Revolutionary Road and serve to once again give social context and give depth to scenes and characters.
All in all, though, The Pale Horse feels and looks like the Agatha Christie adaptations of old: English villages, perfect lives, gorgeous, gauzy light… and murder.
Almost a cosy crime, even. Almost.
And yet, you just know it’s going to descend into a hell of unknown description in its concluding episode. You can bet your arse I’ll be watching.
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