A good man in an evil world.
The world-famous 12th century Benedictine monk and sleuth, brought to glorious life by the renowned Sir Derek Jacobi, makes his debut on DVD. A modest collection of extras and the fact that we have Cadfael on DVD at all help to make up for the disc's technical limitations.
The names stand as legends to the fans of the mystery literary genre. Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse, and now who the heck is this Cadfael? I have to admit that I only recently discovered this long-running series of novels penned by Ellis Peters. A life-long native of Shropshire, England, the author found wide success when she created this series of (mostly) murder mysteries, set it in the English countryside near Wales that was her home, and centered the action around a world-weary, ex-soldier of the Crusades turned herbalist, medical man and Benedictine monk at Shrewsbury Abbey.
The attraction of the Cadfael series springs from its unusual setting, both in place and in time. Cadfael's time on Earth during the 12th Century was a turbulent time of civil war, when Wales stood neutral and apart while England was split into warring camps between the forces of King Stephen and the Empress Maud, both vying to secure the crown of England once and for all. These stories each have a self-contained mystery, but these are played out against the tapestry of the larger civil war, as the march and counter-march of armies, noble intrigues, and reversals of fortune influence even the smallest detail amongst the farmers, tradesmen, and even the monks of Shrewsbury.
Soldier, religious man, healer, and detective, Cadfael is likewise an endlessly fascinating part of this series. Once a skilled and courageous warrior who fought in the Crusades, Cadfael learned much about the flora of the Middle East, the techniques of their doctors, and the knowledge to create an endless supply of rough hewn pharmaceuticals. He became very weary of the terrible toils of a soldier, and much as Paul on the road to Damascus, heard the call of God, and so turned his back upon the world to wholeheartedly embrace the religious life of a Benedictine monk and enter the cloister at Shrewsbury Abbey.
Well, not entirely. As devoted as he is to his religious calling, Cadfael can never quite resist the temptation to keep an eye on the world outside of his Order, usually to offer his services as herbalist and healer, but all to frequently to use his knowledge, worldly common sense, and remorseless reasoning to ferret out a mortal felony. His talents as an investigator draw him into a close, respectful friendship with the local sheriff, Hugh Beringar, who as the King's man at Shrewsbury is responsible for upholding his justice, and who therefore often seeks the assistance or merely the counsel of his monastic acquaintance.
As Derek Jacobi has readily admitted, his physique is not at all the sort described by Ellis Peters for her brotherly detective. Yet the author herself confirmed that Jacobi should play the role of Cadfael, and certainly the result shows us the wisdom of her choice. He may look nothing like the Cadfael of the novels, but Derek Jacobi has utterly captured the poise, the essential character of the man, who is as passionate about ensuring that evildoers meet justice as he is about his life as a religious man and healer. The fire behind his eyes, the animating spark behind Cadfael is in Derek Jacobi as well, and I cannot think of another actor better suited for this role.
Though virtually unknown to American audiences, the other actors in Cadfael: The Virgin in the Ice are excellent in their own right. Eoin McCarthy as the fiercely loyal, uncommonly intelligent Hugh Beringar (who had a small role in Tomorrow Never Dies aboard the doomed HMS Bedford), Michael Culver as the aristocratic Prior Robert whose sense of propriety often brings him into conflict with Cadfael (seen as a Vulcan pilot in Thunderball and as the unfortunate Captain Needa in The Empire Strikes Back), and all the rest are men and women well chosen for their roles.
Extra content is limited, but welcome nonetheless for a TV series that is not likely to have a wide audience. The biography of the late Edith Pargeter (who adopted the pseudonym Ellis Peters for the "Cadfael" novels) is a succinct summary of her personal and professional life. Who would have thought that such a kindly, sweet lady would write such murderous tales? The picture of the author reading one of her Cadfael books whilst Derek Jacobi (as Cadfael) peers over her is just precious. The next section is a brief bio/filmography for Derek Jacobi and an audio-only commentary by the actor on how he got the role and his analysis of the appeal of Cadfael in the U.K. and America. It's a short four minutes and made me wish for a full-length, standard sort of commentary. Sigh. Finally, there is a photo gallery with a dozen production photos (mostly indicating the frigid conditions for this episode) and the original broadcast lineup of the Cadfael series on the PBS show Mystery!.
Two other points are worthy of commendation. The main menu is animated and uses a nice bit of atmospheric music, and the scene index includes similar music as well as full-motion video chapter selections. Small, but very welcome details. Thanks, Acorn Media!
Facts of the Case
The quiet of Shrewsbury Abbey is shattered when Brother Oswin, sent on an errand to deliver medicines, is discovered in a nearby forest, beaten within an inch of his life. Hard upon the heels of that shock is the news that two children of a supporter of the Empress Maud, Ermina and Yves, were trying to seek shelter from the civil war in the relative peace of Shropshire and they, along with their tutor, are now missing.
Called upon to tend to the badly injured, unconscious Oswin, Brother Cadfael is soon called upon by Abbot Radulfus and sheriff Hugh Beringar to find the missing and determine why a clumsy, inoffensive Benedictine was so savagely attacked. The mystery merely deepens when the children's tutor is found, frozen in ice, raped and murdered at the hands of an unknown assailant. Oswin's fevered cries bring suspicion upon his tonsured head, and only Cadfael can carefully twist these delicate strands of mystery into a coherent solution that protects the innocent from harm and punishes those who have perpetrated their evil.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It does pain me to say, but the video transfer is only moderately better than when I have seen Cadfael episodes on broadcast TV. There is a fair degree of film grain and noise in the picture, as well as a general softness of focus. Colors, such as can be found in the purposefully drab palette, are not markedly bright or vibrant. Dark colors are a definite problem, as it can be merely difficult or simply impossible to tell a brown monk's cowl from a soldier's dark dress when all look nearly black.
The audio is an adequate stereo track, which given its origins as a British TV series should not be surprising. Dialogue is distinct, and composer Colin Towns' theme and original music is subtly beautiful and perfectly evocative of the right historical mood. There's not a lot of directional effects, but I never really expected any. Your subwoofer is barely used and your rear surrounds lightly used for some ambient fill.
The distribution of Cadfael: The Virgin in the Ice seems to be somewhat scarce, so you may find it difficult to find a handy copy, but it would be worth the effort. A uniquely historical murder mystery with a supreme actor in Derek Jacobi, Cadfael: The Virgin in the Ice should appeal to lovers of British drama, murder mysteries, and historical fiction. Some critics peg this as a weak entry in the series, but I found it to be, if not my own favorite, than certainly a worthy entry. Recommended for rental and purchase ($20 retail).
The Court is of the opinion that both King Stephen and Empress Maud would concur in the acquittal of Cadfael: The Virgin in the Ice, yet be disappointed with the technical quality of this disc.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
• Ellis Peters Biography
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