THE PALE HORSE Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Matthew Kresal catches up with the latest Agatha Christie adaptation, The Pale Horse.

The genre of the mystery is a rather large one. Its queen, without a doubt, is the late great Agatha Christie. Her works have received some new attention in recent years via several screen adaptations ranging from Kenneth Branagh's all-star Murder on the Orient Express to various TV efforts. The latest, broadcast on BBC One in the UK and available via Amazon's Prime streaming service in the US, is an adaptation of her 1961 novel The Pale Horse. And what a rollercoaster ride it turns out to be.

Upfront, this reviewer would like to admit something. While I have read my fair share of Christie over the years, this particular novel has somehow escaped being part of my literary diet. So I can't judge this on the faithfulness to the source material, I'm afraid. What I can say is that many of the tropes familiar from her other works are present and correct, if given something of a twist.

The twist, brought by adapter Sarah Phelps, helps to give this a thoroughly modern feel. The Pale Horse, at her pen, isn't a staid and quaint affair, your garden variety murder mystery. Instead, this is a mystery that is as much about the clash of the rational and the irrational, guilt, that sense of the sinister lurking beneath both posh London and in the familiar English countryside as it is anything else. Likely building on Christie's novel (once again admitting my ignorance of the source material), there's a strong sense of the uncanny as our lead character tries, with increasing desperation, to hang onto his rational views. Of course, nothing is quite what it seems, but you'd expect that of Christie, wouldn't you?

If nothing else, this two-episode adaptation is worth taking in for its production values. The early sixties, where the 1950s starts to give way to what we've come to associate with the decade, is wonderfully recreated here with on-point costumes and sets. If you're a lover of mid-century design and clothing, you'll be in for a treat watching its two episodes. With that, though, going back to the sense of the uncanny with the clash of the rational and the irrational comes an incredible sense of atmosphere to proceedings. The direction of Leonora Lonsdale, the cinematography, and the score of composer Anne Nikitin all come together rather neatly here. The result makes The Pale Horse into an immensely atmospheric piece, one that effectively combines the elements of murder mystery, period piece, psychological horror, and folk horror. It's a blend which, on the surface, ought not to work but does to transcendent, genre-bending effect.

There’s also a cast to die for if you'll pardon the expression. Leading it is the ever-reliable Rufus Sewell as Mark Easterbrook, an antique dealer who gets drawn into the increasingly odd happenings of the piece. It is Sewell who becomes our focal point, as both Easterbrook and the viewer alike try to make sense of what's happening, even as he keeps secrets of his own. Playing the two very different but equally important Mrs. Easterbook’s are Georgina Campbell as the first, whose presence hangs over Mark, and Kaya Scodelario as the current, who slowly comes to suspect something isn't quite right with her husband and her life. There is the immensely effective "witches" trio played by Sheila Atim, Rita Tushingham, and Kathy Kiera Clarke, who add to adaptation's sinister air in its village sequences. Rounding off the cast nicely is Bertie Carvel as the shopkeeper turned potential victim Zachariah Osborne and Sean Pertwee's Inspector Stanley Lejeune, who brings a strong sense of presence to what could have been a stock character. As I said at the top of the paragraph, it's a cast to die for, appropriately enough given what this is.

While it may or may not be what Christie wrote, what we have on screen is a compelling work. Combining period details with a genre-bending plot and visuals, Pale Horse offers plenty of thrills and chills across two episodes and as many hours of screentime. Whether you're a fan of the genres in question or someone trying to fill a couple of hours of your time at home, you'll find plenty to entice and intrigue you.

And what more can you ask for from a mystery?

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places. 

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