4 out of 5
Directed by: Leonora Lonsdale
Having not read the original Agatha Christie story, the main compliment I’d pay to The Pale Horse is that it kept me guessing, and didn’t disappoint in its reveal. That’s certainly partially due to the source material, of course, but now having browsed through the differences between it and this adaptation, there’s plenty of credit owed to writer Sarah Phelps and director Leonora Lonsdale as well, especially given the short runtime for a series – two, hour-long episodes – and the careful pacing of the narrative and mystery reveals employed. Knowing that The Pale Horse was based on a Christie story, I was at least led to the conclusion that the resolution wouldn’t involve the supernatural – we have a series of deaths that are being blamed on a trio of fortune-telling witches – but given that, my lil’ plotting brain made several false guesses that were foiled by the true, and satisfying, outcome. That’s certainly a solid marker to hit for any mystery.
The series manages to back it up dramatically, as well: Rufus Sewell, playing Mark Easterbrook – the man tangled up in the middle of these deaths, due to his name appearing on a list of several names, found on the body of one of the dead, and from which the other named people are, one-by-one, dropping dead as well – is mesmerizingly terse, floating between memories of his deceased first wife, Delphine (Georgina Campbell), the typical passive aggressive husband/wife 50s relationship he shares with his new wife, Hermia (Kaya Scodelario), and his dealings with the cop investigating the deaths (Sean Pertwee) and a man who is also on the list, Zachariah (Bertie Carvell). Sewell is almost literally on screen for the entire series, his ‘manly’ attempts at stifling his incredulousness towards events giving every moment a deifnite edge to it, meaning that when he finally succumbs to thoughts that these witches may be real, the impact is equally palpable. Pertwee isn’t given much screen time, unfortunately, but when he’s there, he’s great, and Carvell plays the oddball Zachariah just a shade below too wacky, making him a believably tolerably annoying kook.
And that various moving parts of the story are shuffled along while also giving even side characters a sense of personality is impressive; two episodes doesn’t seem like a lot, but The Pale Horse made me reflect on my issue with a lot of Christie BBC adaptations, which is that they use slow-as-molasses pacing to create a sense of dread, while this show is able to make the whole thing feel rather ominous, and yet continues forward, packed with story. This is, on the one hand, where a lot of the changes to the story and characters are beneficial, as it gives the show more to work with than just the mystery.
…At the same time, the changes also result in a bit of commentary that doesn’t get its due, and thus seems forced. Mark, is I’m to believe the wiki summary, is a more wholesome character in the original – he saves the day; he solves the mystery – whereas here, he’s a liar and a cheater. It helps to justify how he allows himself to get pulled in to events, which is a plus in terms of the tension, but Phelps and Lonsdale want to extend this to encompass gender roles, and how his behaviors affect his wife, and there’s simply not time for that. It falls flat, and unfortunately comes across as indulgent. (And seemingly required a tacked on epilogue, which I’m ignoring.)
The BBC historically already proved to US TV that we don’t need 22-episode series, and we’ve eventually begun to mimic that. The Pale Horse compresses that even further, down to two episodes, and, excepting some topical overreach, knocks it out of the park, not only as an effective bit of entertainment, but also as a reminder that Agatha Christie’s work is pretty damn timeless.