Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Miss Marple: The Pale Horse

Masterpiece Mystery concluded the Agatha Christie portion of its season with a Miss Marple episode entitled The Pale Horse. For some reason, Masterpiece elected to hold this episode in reserve from the 2010 season, so this is the only Marple episode we're getting this year which feels a little odd. But that aside, The Pale Horse was one of Julia McKenzie's better outings as Miss Marple in my opinion, and an enjoyable ninety minutes of 1950s period drama bliss. Here's the story summary from the PBS website:

Fair is foul and foul is fair in the hamlet of Much Deeping, where the Pale Horse Inn is run by a trio of entrepreneurial witches, and the annual celebration of the town's witch trials of 1664 is about to commence. Arriving just in time is Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie, Cranford), who has set her knitting aside to pursue the murderer of her old friend, Father Gorman. Armed with a cryptic list of names sent to her by the good clergyman just prior to his death, Miss Marple follows clues as she joins the assemblage of eccentric guests and infiltrates the witches' sanctum santorum. But when a fellow guest at the Pale Horse Inn is found dead, the tidily tailored and unassuming sleuth must determine whether black magic or something even more sinister is at work. The Pale Horse is based on the novel by Agatha Christie. (One episode; 90 minutes)
The Pale Horse is another case of filmmakers taking a standalone Agatha Christie novel and inserting Miss Marple into the storyline. Sometimes this plot device works better than others. :) I haven't yet read The Pale Horse, so I have nothing with which to compare the film adaptation - and that said, I really enjoyed watching the mystery unfold. The story opens with Father Gorman (Nicholas Parsons) called to the bedside of a dying woman (Elizabeth Rider), tormented by guilt and knowledge of "wickedness." She entrusts Father Gorman with a list of names and dates, which he immediately mails to his old friend (HAHA so convenient) Miss Marple for safe-keeping, with a promise of a phone call the next day. Father Gorman's only addendum to the list is a biblical reference - Revelation 6:8 ("And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.") - a cryptic clue for Miss Marple to decipher as the next day she receives the news that the priest was brutally murdered.

Miss Marple cannot, of course, leave her friend's murder investigation to the police, no matter how capable or interested in the case the assigned detective, Inspector Lejeune (Neil Pearson) seems to be. Pearson is another Inspector Lewis veteran, having appeared in the episode And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea (my review). I really  enjoyed Lejeune's interactions with Miss Marple. Whether face-to-face or through the telephone, his befuddlement and exasperation at Miss Marple's insistence on getting involved in the investigation provided some of the episode's most humorous moments. I cackled when Miss Marple played the old "bad phone connection" gag on him - one doesn't expect that in 1950s-era films. :) Pearson had a great rapport with McKenzie, definitely one of the better Marple/Inspector pairings in this film series.

The investigation leads Miss Marple to The Pale Horse Inn, which she discovers is run by a pair of self-styled (and stylish - HA) witches, Sybil (Susan Lynch) and Thyrza (Pauline Collins). It was great to see Collins on-screen again - she gave a memorable turn as Queen Victoria in Doctor Who, as well as playing Miss Flite in Bleak House and most recently, an appearance in the BBC series Merlin. Led by Thyrza, the witches have made a business of their reputation to "will people to death." This fits in nicely with the atmosphere of their town, Much Deeping, which makes a living drawing tourists for re-enactments of their version of the Salem witch trials. Individuals place "bets" with Thyrza's lawyer, Mr. Bradley (Bill Paterson), on whether or not the unlucky target will live past a certain date. If they don't, the death is credited to their "black magic" and the wager is paid off. It was fantastic to see Paterson on Masterpiece again - he's appeared in Wives and Daughters, Amazing Grace, Little Dorrit, and Doctor Who, to name just a few of his credits. And I really got a kick out of Collins's scenes with McKenzie - hedging around the issue that Thyrza is convinced Miss Marple has come to The Pale Horse to take advantage of her little "murder club," they dance around the issue in conversation resulting in Thyrza's hilarious puzzlement.

I was really looking forward to seeing JJ Feild's return to Masterpiece, even if he didn't play quite the heroic role I expected. :) Feild is a longtime favorite of mine, as I think he's just too adorable for words. He's appeared in a slew of Masterpiece productions, starting with The Railway Children, the Poirot episode Death on the Nile, The Ruby in the Smoke, and Northanger Abbey (my review), as well as the oustanding film O Jerusalem (my review). Looking forward, we'll get to see Feild in Captain America as Montgomery Falsworth/Union Jack and Austenland (squee!). Feild's character, Paul Osbourne, is introduced as an early investigative ally for Miss Marple - and he so adorable in his 1950s clothes, and so cute and respectful towards Marple, you can't help but like him - even if he seems a little *too* nice, if you know what I mean. :) All things considered, by the end of this episode it was a real treat to see Feild "flip" in his portrayal of Osbourne and play against his good guy, heroic image.

On the other hand, Jonathan Cake gave a much more satisfactory appearance as Mark Easterbrook, the godson of one of the names on Father Gorman's list. Cake is notable for having one of my all-time favorite guest stints on Chuck, playing spy Cole Barker in a two-part story arc. Considering Easterbrook's character is the hero of the actual novel, I was a bit surprised by just how much the script sidelined him in this production. I would've liked to have seen his reasons for "shadowing" Miss Marple's investigation better articulated - that way, when he jumps in to stage a death request, his willingness to participate would have seemed more organic to the storyline. But what the heck does Mark care about motivation, since he gets a love interest (Amy Manson)? :P

I can't forget to mention the appearance of Tom Ward as the unlucky Captain Cottham, staying at The Pale Horse with his wife and secretary after being displaced by a fire. Ward made an indelible impression on me in the A&E miniseries The Lost World (based on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel), where he played the dashing adventurer Lord Roxton. It's been ages since I've seen him in anything, so his appearance in this episode was a real treat. And if you've never seen that version of The Lost World, I highly recommend it - it's highly watchable and wildly entertaining.

The whole "murder, inc." storyline was wildy intricate, and by its very nature threw red herrings left and right at the viewer, doing its best to leave you unsure of the identity of the man behind the curtain, pulling the strings of the suspicious deaths found on Marple's list. I thought the idea of using consumer research surveys to collect ideas for how to kill people was really terribly, fiendishly clever - the idea that an anonymous killer strikes with poisoned everyday products is rather unsettling, no?

This episode of Miss Marple was colorful, fast-paced, and nicely atmospheric. Despite the fact that Miss Marple was inserted into this storyline, I think this was one of McKenzie's better outings as the venerable sleuth, and one of the more effective examples of reworking a Christie plot to include one of her iconic characters. I loved watching this story unfold. McKenzie seemed genuinely, emotionally invested in her quest to bring justice to Father Gorman  - and since I have no idea if new episodes are going to be produced for this film series, if this is McKenzie's last appearance as Miss Marple it's a fitting coda to her tenure in the role. Though I sincerely hope that we'll see Miss Marple back on our screens as part of Masterpiece Mystery sooner rather than later!
If you've read the novel, I'd love to hear your take on how this film adaptation stacked up to the book. And if you're a Miss Marple film fan, where does this episode stand in your series ranking?


Renee (BlacknGoldGirlsBookSpot) said...

I don't think I have EVER watched a BBC/Masterpiece mystery!! I don't know why I haven't, honestly. You make all these shows sound so interesting. I gotta get in the game here LOL!

XOXO~ Renee

Unknown said...

@Renee - *gasp* Girl, you have got to get with the program! LOL! The Mystery season is SO MUCH FUN!!

Alexandra said...

I really enjoyed Pale Horse(the book)...after reading it through once and figuring out WHAT was doing all the weird stuff...it creeped me out a bit the first time. Agatha Christie has a knack of showing "supernatural" happenings and always explaining them in a logical way in the end...but this time round I wasn't quite sure for a while. :-)

Anyway, I thought the random salesperson/mechanic/whatever murders was such a *neat* idea, in a very morbid way, of course. Hehe.

Ooooooh, so JJ was the Osbourne character? WOW. His turn in "Death on the Nile" was magnificent, BTW. Spot on.

I do think it's interesting how they incorperate Miss Marple into non-Marple stories...even if I may not like how and who they scootch over to do it. :-)

Any word yet on new episodes coming next year?

Heidenkind said...

This was definitely better than some of the other Miss Marple episodes last year. I had to watch it twice because the first time I was totally confused. :P

Unknown said...

@Alexandra - Christie really did have a knack for dealing with the "supernatural" in her books, didn't she? Very clever. :)

I totally forgot JJ was in tha Death on the Nile episode, thanks for the reminder! I need to go back and re-watch it now.

I haven't heard ANYTHING about new episodes, which concerns me a bit. There's no listings on McKenzie's IMDB page, and I haven't heard any news floating around that the series is on any sort of official hiatus...so I guess we'll have to wait and see and keep our fingers crossed!

@heidenkind - This episode could be a bit confusing, I agree - but they handled the story's twists and turns really pretty well!