NEW YORK (CNS) — Fans of the mystery genre and of one of its most gifted and beloved practitioners, author Agatha Christie, may be disappointed by “The Pale Horse.” Adapted from Christie’s 1961 novel, the two-hour miniseries is currently streaming on Amazon.
Having previously crafted small-screen versions of several other Christie works, including 2018’s “Ordeal by Innocence,” Sarah Phelps created and wrote the show, which first screened on the BBC in February. Leonora Lonsdale directed.
Along with the murders integral to its plot and some other violence, the program involves an occult theme, adultery and occasional strong language. Thus it’s best for an adult audience.
A year after the death of his newlywed wife, black Briton Delphine (Georgina Campbell), in what appeared to be a freak accident, affluent white Londoner Mark Easterbrook (Rufus Sewell) has another brush with mortality. Awakening after a night spent cavorting with disgraced socialite and exotic dancer Thomasina Tuckerton (Poppy Gilbert), he finds he’s lying next to her lifeless body.
Another victim, shopkeeper Jessie Davis (Madeleine Bowyer), turns up soon afterward. In Jessie’s shoe, the police find a list of names that includes both Mark’s — with a question mark beside it — and that of Zachariah Osborne (Bertie Carvel), Jessie’s employer.
Clues begin to suggest the involvement of a trio of witches with whom Delphine had been acquainted: Sybil Stamfordis (Kathy Kiera Clarke), Thyrza Grey (Sheila Atim) and Bella Webb (Rita Tushingham). Accompanied by his current spouse, Hermia (Kaya Scodelario), Mark travels to their home town, the evocatively named fictitious rural village of Much Deeping, to investigate.
Hermia is already suspicious of Mark’s slender explanations about what happened the night Thomasina died. Now, she finds her relationship with him further strained by his immersion in the world of black magic.
Christie purists will likely object to the numerous alterations Phelps has made. In the book, for instance, Jessie’s list was delivered to a Catholic priest, Father Gorman, and neither Mark’s nor Zachariah’s name was on it.
Despite these changes, the series, at its outset, does succeed in creating a degree of intrigue that will hold audience attention. As might be anticipated from a BBC production, moreover, “The Pale Horse” is handsomely designed, and possesses a good feel for its 1960 period setting, with the characters looking spot on for that era. Additionally, the plot twists will keep viewers on their toes.
Yet some things are noticeably amiss here. The witches, for example, are meant to be central to the story. However, they’re given little to do, relative to the mayhem they cause. Nor do we get a strong sense of their personalities and quirks. In the end, the three come across as too prosaic for the series’ own good.
Viewers may find it difficult to connect to other characters as well, given their morally deviant behavior. They’re unlikely to root for or sympathize with these flawed figures. Such indifference to the fate of the folks on screen may ultimately leave TV fans regretting their decision to saddle up for “The Pale Horse.”
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.