Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse

Agatha Christie’s name is synonymous with mystery, but dabbled enough in supernatural fiction to fill a recent anthology, The Last Séance. Some of the stories are arguably shoe-horned in, like “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb,” wherein Hercule Poirot provides the Scooby-Doo explanation for an ancient curse. Probably the best story, “S.O.S” involves intuition and sensitivity more than the outright uncanny, but the title story would definitely work as a Twilight Zone episode. It is therefore maybe not so strange Sarah Phelps emphasizes the supernatural elements of Christie’s source novel in her two-part adaptation of The Pale Horse, directed by Leonora Lonsdale, which premieres this Friday on Amazon Prime.

Mark Easterbrook still loves his first wife Delphine, but she is dead and his second marriage to Hermia practically is too. He was seeing the young and tarty Thomasina Tuckerton on the side, until she died rather suddenly—so suddenly, he had to make a stealthy exit from her flat. It turns out, her name was on a list that turned up in the shoe of a dead woman. Most those names correspond to a recently deceased body. Rather ominously, Easterbrook’s name is also on the list, but his is followed by a question mark.

To figure out if his life really is in danger, Easterbrook follows a trail of clues to the quaint village of Much Deeping, where a trio of fortune tellers have set up shop in a former pub still known as “The Pale Horse.” They do not look so intimidating, but there are rumors they wield dark magic to make their clients’ enemies disappear—for a price, of course.

It is weird how the BBC keeps taking wild liberties with this Christie novel. A few years ago, the Miss Marple franchise drained out most of the occult elements and added Jane Marple to what was a rare stand-alone non-series mystery from Dame Agatha. Now, Phelps swings the pendulum all the way back, pumping up the paranormal and a devising a head-trippily ambiguous but most likely supernatural conclusion.

Rewriting Agatha Christie is risky business that doesn’t always work in Pale Horse, but the sheer boldness of the final twist earns grudging respect for Chutzpah. Yet, Phelps’ Pale Horse really works as well as it does mostly because of Rufus Sewell’s brooding, tightly-wound performance as Easterbrook. Sewell’s specialty is portraying compromised characters with corrupting secrets, so he really is perfectly cast, in a darkly dapper kind of way. (Sewell was absolutely terrific in Rock & Roll on Broadway and the short-lived Zen. He really ought to be a much bigger star, but he is always reliable.)

Bertie Carvel provides the perfect weasel-like counterpoint as Zachariah Osbourne, another decidedly alarmed name on the death list. Sean Pertwee has the right sort of dogged grit for Inspector Lejeune, but he has much less screen time than English mystery fans would expect. The real problem is the dull, generic portrayal of the three suspected witches. They are not exactly the stuff of the Scottish Play.

Phelps’ Pale Horse is refreshingly dark, while still incorporating all the elements of British mystery fans enjoy. It is not the greatest Christie adaptation ever, but it could be the best since the under-appreciated Crooked House, co-scripted by Julian Fellowes. Recommended for fans of British mysteries, paranormal thrillers, and swinging 1960s historicals, The Pale Horse starts streaming this Friday (3/13) on Amazon Prime.