PBS and the BBC have been known for producing handsome adaptations of Agatha Christie’s works – most notably her Hercule Poirot novels starring David Suchet. Christie’s other legendary sleuth, Miss Jane Marple was essayed most famously by the late Joan Hickson and after her death Geraldine McEwan and Julie McKenzie took over the roles, both offering vastly different interpretations of the character. In the later series of the Agatha Christie films, the screenwriters have also taken notice of including darker plotlines as well as giving the sleuths more shading: for example in the more recent episodes featuring Poirot, the Belgian detective is often seen as battling inner demons and fending off a major crisis of faith as he is constantly confronted by human evil. And while the Poirot novels tend to be more action-packed, this episode leaves Miss Marple with some serious angst as well.
The Pale Horse was originally written with Ariadne Oliver as the main character – she’s a recurring supporting character in the Poirot novels. Reportedly based on Christie herself, Ariadne is a mystery novelist who finds herself getting caught up in murders (this could be seen as a precursor to Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote). For this version of The Pale Horse, Miss Marple is given the starring role. The plot centers on a list of names that is mailed to Miss Marple by a very close priest friend who ends up murdered. Intent on avenging her friend’s death, she starts to investigate the connections between the different names and finds herself at an inn called the Pale Horse. Spurred on by the fact that the list was written on stationary from the hotel, she pretends to be a visitor while trying to smoke out the killer. During this time, the tiny hamlet Miss Marple’s staying in is celebrating its history of burning witches – and the theme of witchcraft possibly lends itself to some of the other inhabitants of the Pale Horse.
Unlike many Miss Marple stories, this one is rather taught and suspenseful. It helps that the screenwriter, Russell Lewis, decided to actually show the devastating effects of murder – something that often is glossed over in cozy, armchair thrillers like this. Miss Marple is severely gutted by the death of her beloved priest friend and throughout the film, she’s given to dissolving into tears and righteous anger when trying to figure out who killed him. Unlike Hickson, who played Marple as being unflappable and impervious to grief, fear or emotion, McKenzie’s Marple is intelligent and crafty, but very feeling. Like Suchet’s recent portrayals of Poirot, she goes through some mighty angst.
Like many of these kinds of productions, the supporting cast is peppered with some recognizable faces, the most probably being Oscar-nominated actress, Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine). Others include pop star and soap opera actress Holly Valance (Neighbours), and comedian Nigel Planer (The Young Ones) who all chew the scenery with gusto. Along with a solid cast, this filming boats excellent cinematography (the flashbacks are especially haunting, filmed through what appears to be a glitter lens), and the production values are incredible – the period setting and costumes are very authentic.
Some purists may grumble about inserting the Marple character, while cutting out lots of others from the original text, but these changes are done smoothly and the story progresses at a fast pace. Others might also worry that the story’s gotten too dark, but the portrayal of murder as being evil and tragic makes the stakes seem all the more urgent. It’s a fascinating interpretation, well worth watching.