‘The Pale Horse’ Fuses a Quaint Agatha Christie with her Darker Work

Image: BBC

“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” – Revelation 6:8

With this ominous title origin, Agatha Christie’s novel The Pale Horse may surprise in its lightness. Having attended a dying woman, a priest is found murdered with a list of names hidden in his shoe. It’s lucky he was in the habit of doing so due to holes in his coat pockets, otherwise his murderer may have cut off the only paper trail of an ominous organisation. Through more random occurrences and upper-class acquaintances, Mark Easterbrook, a bored historian, finds himself connecting the dots between the mysterious deaths on the list. It’s an exciting ride that leads its rational protagonist into believing in dark magic but like Christie’s quieter classics, it also has a quirky village backdrop, romance along the way, and a few fun appearances from her caricature, Ariadne Oliver.

Sarah Phelps takes the skeleton of The Pale Horse’s plot, the Shakespearean spectre of three witches and – with her trademark love of maximum macabre – runs wild. We find Easterbrook (the ever intense Rufus Sewell) mourning the death of his first wife Delphine (Georgina Campbell) and cheating on his second wife Hermia (Kaya Scoledario). As he wakes up to discover his glamorous lover (Poppy Gilbert) dead beside him, he leaves her behind, alerting no-one. 

The infamous list comes to play when Mark’s name is found on it, and when questioned, he feigns ignorance about Thomasina Tuckerton featuring also – the girl he so unceremoniously left to rot. The other members of this unlucky group are deceased, and linked to The Pale Horse, an eerie psychic institution run by three women in the little town of Much Deeping, Surrey. Following in the footsteps of his ill-fated lovers, Easterbrook finds himself drawn to the group, out of both self-preservation and morbid curiosity.

Image: BBC

What transpires is two hours of dread and tormenting inner demons led by Sewell’s remarkably complex performance. While the central protagonist of the book is driven by a noble desire to prevent further deaths, Sewell’s incarnation is somewhat amoral, following the clues for more selfish motives. This shaky foundation throws the classic crime drama format into disarray. Though such unreliable narration is seen in other Christies, like And Then There Were None or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Phelps strips back the layers of decorum and normality which helped sell those books decades ago to find varying degrees of evil within most of these characters, appealing to a BBC audience with an increasingly higher threshold shock.

As creepy corn dollars pop up everywhere, the modern witches live up to their infamous predecessors in Macbeth. Softly speaking in turn and staring as one, the trio (Rita Tushingham, Kathy Keira Clarke and Sheila Atim) seem to appear around every corner, waiting, watching and wishing. Borrowing almost voodoo like imagery in an unsettling parade, the whole town seems to be under their spell. The sun sets on Easterbrook’s rationality, and at night, his dreams reveal his deep-set distress at the thought of being cursed. 

Through Leonora Lonsdale’s direction, every scene is an intriguing space to inhabit and this series could have benefited from another episode to enhance the brilliant supernatural atmosphere before its big reveals. But, like Phelps’ other triumph Dublin Murders, this adaptation successfully moves the focus away from ‘whodunnit?’ and instead revels in a gloomy abyss of manipulation and repressed rage.

by Fatima Sheriff

Fatima (she/her) is a third-year Biomed at the University of Sheffield. For insight into her personality, her favourite films are: Bright Star, Paddington 2, Taare Zameen Par and Pride & Prejudice and in 2017 she listened mostly to the Hidden Figures soundtrack.  She loves TV shows with original concepts, witty writing, and diverse casting. Examples include Legion, Gravity Falls, and Sense 8. Her Twitter and TVShowTime are both @lafatimayette.

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