Acorn Media // 2010 // 89 Minutes // Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski // June 1st, 2011
"Only death solves all problems." -- Much Deeping town witch
In her eighth outing as Agatha Christie's beloved "spinster sleuth" Miss Marple, Julia McKenzie finds her character inserted into a novel that was originally Marple-less. While this and other changes to the story of The Pale Horse will put off Christie purists, those unattached to the original's particulars should find Agatha Christie's Marple: The Pale Horse an above-average installment of this mystery series.
Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie, Cranford) receives a letter from an old friend, Father Gorman, who has listed the names dictated to him by a dying woman and promises to explain further by phone. Naturally, he's killed before he can deliver on that promise. Also naturally, Marple inserts herself into the ensuing police investigation, which leads her to a creepy little inn called The Pale Horse in a creepy little town called Much Deeping. The town is preparing for "The Burning," an annual festival commemorating a historical witch burning, and may be harboring its own living witches.
Although the supernatural element of The Pale Horse is what stands out most about this Christie mystery, it offers considerably more pleasures than just the witch angle and the evocative atmosphere created by "The Burning." The list left by the dead clergyman makes for an intriguing start as Marple and the police try to decipher who these people are and what the dying woman was trying to communicate about them. Along the way there are plenty of interesting side characters that help or hinder Marple in her investigation: a wheelchair-bound old grouch, a local gentleman who raises eyebrows about his relationship with his housekeeper, and, of course, the sinister trio of ladies who runs The Pale Horse. Amusingly, I thought for a moment that one of these three was hitting on the eligible bachelorette, Miss Marple, with her over-eager hospitality and "If you need anything at all" hints. While Marple is quite fetching, this turned out not to be the case.
Considering that Miss Marple has been inserted into a pre-existing Christie story that did not originally feature her (instead giving a bit part to another regular, Ariadne Oliver), she fits into The Pale Horse like a glove. In fact, Marple's role in the story has an unusual poignancy in that she knew and cared about the victim, Father Gorman, and is particularly driven to secure justice for him. When she's not charming the locals or being frustratingly indispensable to the actual police investigators, Marple conveys the spirit of a weary but resolute crusader against injustice and, indeed, evil. The payoff comes in an unusually satisfying accusation scene -- more characteristic of Christie's Poirot than Marple -- in which the sleuth gathers her suspects and explains the who/how of her murder case. I won't, of course, give away the solution, but will say that Marple's confrontation of this killer is electric, as the dainty, elderly woman works up just a hint of bloodlust in avenging her friend's murder. As she decries the killer's "propensity for wickedness," she notes, with a sharp edge in her voice, "For that, I'm afraid, there is no cure...save one." When the dust has settled, she declares breathlessly, "I rather think I'd like a brandy."
The improvement a familiar and feisty character like Marple makes to the story of The Pale Horse is evident when comparing this adaptation to the 1997 British TV movie of the same novel, which is included as an extra (on its own separate disc). Although it's fun to see two different takes on the same source material (both of which deviate from said source material, to some extent), the 1997 version suffers from a slower pace and our lesser investment in its characters. Instead of a well-known investigator who cared about the victim (Marple), this adaptation features an ordinary guy who becomes a suspect in the Gorman killing and investigates the case to try to clear his own name. Perhaps the difference that provides the most entertainment is the shifted timeframe of the two: the novel was written in 1961, the Marple adaptation seems to take place in the mid-'50s, and the '97 adaptation is set in the mid-'60s with lots of mod style in the background.
There are no other extras (save for a few text features on the disc of the 1997 adaptation). Picture and sound quality for the Marple installment are perfectly fine: the image looks good and the dialogue is clearly audible. The older '97 version looks a bit less sharp, as one would expect, and sports a less-eye-catching 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
I'd rate this an above-average installment of an above-average mystery series, but I wish I had Miss Marple's help in solving the mystery of why it wasn't included with the other three Series Five movies. These three were released separately last year, despite the precedent for releasing full four-film runs of the show in box sets. This arrangement seems costlier to the consumer and just generally odd.
Marple cracks another case and I write up another Agatha Christie DVD review. Now, I rather think I'd like a brandy...
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated
* Bonus TV Movie
* IMDb: The Pale Horse (2010)
* IMDb: The Pale Horse (1997)