The Pale Horse review: A haunting, stylish mystery
Ivan Radford | On 09, Feb 2020
“It’s just people dying like people do.” So says someone in BBC One’s The Pale Horse, immediately making it clear that there’s more going on than meets the eye. You’d expect nothing less from Sarah Phelps, who here completes her quintet of impressive adaptations of Agatha Christie novels for BBC One – a run that first began with And Then There Were None, which took the classic survival thriller and filled it with fresh, supernatural dread. The Pale Horse, then, marks a fitting conclusion for the series; Agatha Christie’s whodunnit is a ghost story through and through.
We begin with the death of a young woman, Jessie, who is found with a list of names on her person. What do they mean? And why is Mark Easterbook (Rufus Sewell) on it? The answer has something to do with The Pale Horse, a pub in the quiet village of Much Deeping, where three sinister spinsters read fortunes.
Could it be witchcraft? That’s the twisted mystery at the heart of the increasingly eerie goings-on, and Phelps is in her element, weaving together suspicious deaths with an almost unnaturally dark atmosphere; within the opening minute, we’ve seen dead animals in jars and rat-ridden apartments, all adding to the morbid, depraved world of 1961 London. Director Leonora Lonsdale executes the unnerving details with a delightfully shadowy touch, turning a visit to Much Deeping into a folk horror-tinged nightmare, complete with parades and masks – we’re a long way from Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot here.
Indeed, Phelps’ adaptations have tended to avoid the well-known, iconic tales, instead giving other characters a chance to shine and fleshing out interesting and surprising subtexts from the breadcrumbs scattered across the original pages. Rufus Sewell, who is enjoying a much-deserved renaissance off the back of ITV’s Victoria and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, is perfectly cast as Mark Easterbrook, who moves from cynical curiosity through to mortal terror in the space of two hours, with a bitter resentment and loathing guilt simmering underneath his slick-suited surface.
Sewell is matched by the always-excellent Kaya Scodelario as her second wife, Hermia, who prepares party snacks and serves up roast dinners with the calm intensity of an unexploded landmine, always on the verge of bursting into imagined violence and erupting with unspoken anger. Together, they make for a gripping, tragic snapshot of a society where public perfection is eaten away by hidden doubts and problems, where class tensions and unchecked privilege are begging to be torn down – the perfect environment for witches looking to prey on people’s desire for revenge, freedom or simply a taste of happiness.
The couple are supported by an exceptional ensemble, which includes Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Mark’s friend, David Ardingly, and the scene-stealing Bertie Carvel as Zachariah Osborne, both men on the list too – the first so straight-laced you become paranoid about the paranormal threat they face, the latter so overly enthusiastic about how to stop it that you’re not sure what to believe.
“It’s not your job to work it out,” reminds Detective Lejeune, played with a roguish glint – and a steely flint – by Sean Pertwee. By the time an answer is unveiled, it’s too late: we’ve been so swallowed up by the curse’s creepy effects that the drama’s spell has already been cast. As a final masterclass in making the familiar unfamiliar, Phelps’ transformation of Agatha Christie into chilling TV is as haunting and stylish as ever.