Agatha Christie’s return to popularity brings us another, extremely frustrating, adaptation of her work.
It looks like Stephen King has competition for Hollywood’s favorite novelist to adapt. Agatha Christie has seen a resurgence in popularity: Kenneth Branagh looks to be creating a Hercule Poirot franchise on the big screen after the success of Murder on the Orient Express, while the BBC is rapidly churning out A-List adaptations of her work for streaming services. The latest in this revival of Christie’s works is The Pale Horse…and it is one deadly bore.
Agatha Christie: The Pale Horse (2020)
Mark Easterbrook (Rufus Sewell) discovers that his name is on a list found with the body of a sickly woman. He recognizes other names on the list: one is his mistress and another belongs to a family member. When names on the list start becoming names in the obituaries, Mark tries to track down the link. His investigations draw him to the odd hamlet of Much Deeping, where three witches apparently hold power over life and death…for a price.
We begin with a vignette about Mark’s first wife, who dies tragically after visiting the witches at The Pale Horse. From there the story bogs down into a turgid dissection of what a complete louse Mark is.
While visions of his wife’s death try to show Mark in a more sympathetic light, the script is ruthlessly clear that he’s a complete bastard and entitled prick. Sewell does a fantastic job here, I guess, though he tends to play assholes with unfortunate regularity.
The cinematography varies from excellent to upsetting. We get a now-mandatory Hannibal/American Gods style credit sequence, which fits Agatha Christie’s staid aesthetic like crotch-less panties on a nun. The expected shots of British countryside are gorgeous, and the location scout should be commended for picking such visually interesting sets, though.
Many static shots are composed artfully, reminding me a touch of Lanthimos’ The Favourite. Unfortunately, motion shots often switch focus abruptly, and extreme close ups abound where there’s clearly a character out of focus for dramatic effect just behind our lead. This leads to some nausea-inducing depth of field issues.
Mark and another man on the death-list have a falling out about how to proceed. The other man feels assured that this is witchcraft, while Mark refuses to believe the supernatural. At home, Mark’s new wife begins to piece together his many lies.
Wow. Towards the end of the first episode (around the 100th hour, as it felt) I started to hope that we were done with foreplay and finally getting down to some hanky panky. Instead, we spin our tires just long enough for me to grow disgusted enough by Mark to shut the whole damn thing down.
Binge or Purge: The Pale Horse?
The first episode is a slog. Ten minutes in, I wanted to pause it and go read a synopsis of Christie’s story for clarification; the plot is that vague and disjointed. That wouldn’t have helped, unfortunately: this version of The Pale Horse only vaguely resembles the written version.
The result is a perplexing product that doesn’t feel much like an Agatha Christie story. There are so many stylistic choices that feel looted from other genres (like Much Deeping looking like The Wicker Man was currently being filmed there) that I grew bored with all of the false notes. The production seems to want to be adapting H.P. Lovecraft or Midsommar, not Agatha Christie.
By the midway point of episode 2, I went from annoyed to angered. It was around the time Mark successfully gaslights his new wife about his affair. Now, I don’t care if the intention is to get us to loath Mark so much that we don’t mind when they set him on fire in the giant wicker statue. I just know that I don’t like anything about this production enough to stick around to see the bastard get his due.