By now, aficionados of writer Sarah Phelps’s Agatha Christie adaptations will know what to expect: from 2015’s And Then There Were None to 2018’s The ABC Murders, Phelps has served up vibrant, no-holds-barred takes on Christie’s original stories that capture the spirit if not the letter of the source material and do so with a great deal of style, subverting our assumptions and misapprehensions about the period in the process. (Yes, people did have sex and say “f**k” in the early 1960s.)
Her latest (and possibly last) offering, a new screen version of 1961 novel The Pale Horse, once again explores the idea of quaint ‘Britishness’ hiding a terrifying brutality, with good manners and societal graces covering a sordid underworld of blood, sex and lies. This new two-parter though is not as bleak as, say, The ABC Murders, with Wicker Man-esque scenes of pagan rituals and (alleged) witchcraft lending an enjoyable dash of camp to proceedings. (Christie herself was influenced by the occult fiction of Dennis Wheatley, which was at the height of its popularity in the ’60s).
Our story follows Mark Easterbrook (Rufus Sewell), a widower whose name appears on a list found in the shoe of a dead woman, with his investigations drawing him inexorably back to the site of his wife’s passing – the old English village of Much Deeping, a place of old traditions and strange beliefs.
The events which set Mark off on his quest – the death of his first wife Delphine (Georgina Campbell) and the subsequent downfall of the mysterious, ill-fated Jessie Davis (Madeleine Bowyer) – unfold at a rapid pace and this coupled with the drama’s somewhat queasy atmosphere mean that things get off to a somewhat disorientating start. But The Pale Horse reins things in as it unfolds, fast becoming quite absorbing, with an exquisite cast helping to anchor proceedings in the early going.
Sewell is perfect casting as a lead character we’re not entirely sure we can trust – the Man in the High Castle star has a slightly inscrutable quality to him, making Mark equally believable as the hero or the scoundrel. Sean Pertwee, meanwhile, is textbook casting as the stolid Stanley Lejeune, the Detective Inspector assigned to investigate Jessie’s fate, bringing charisma and a glint to a character who might have felt rather flat in the hands of a lesser actor.
And The Pale Horse’s ethos of horror violently inserting itself into apparently quaint British lifestyles is personified beautifully by Kaya Scodelario as Mark’s new bride Hermia, whose facade is already dangerous close to cracking even before her picture-perfect life with Mark is literally spoilt by a blood spatter.
Bertie Carvel, it has to be said, is perhaps having a little too much fun as the irksome Zachariah Osborne, another name on Jessie’s list – while for the most part The Pale Horse strikes the perfect balance between the horrific and the absurd, Carvel’s cartoonish performance veers a little too far towards the latter.
Mostly, though, this whodunnit with trappings of British folk horror is spellbinding – no pun intended. If The Pale Horse is to be Phelps’s last foray into the worlds of Christie – and I sincerely hope it isn’t – then it’s a suitably impressive note on which to go out.
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The Pale Horse concludes on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday 16th February