REVIEW: Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse

The Pale Horse

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the two episodes of The Pale Horse.

The Pale Horse follows a man named Mark Easterbrook who finds himself inexplicably linked to a series of murders which may or may not have some supernatural significance.

Easterbrook (played by Rufus Sewell) is a simple antiques dealer. But when his name appears in a mysterious list in a dead woman’s shoe and with the other names before him already dead, he becomes embroiled in a convoluted case of seemingly supernatural revenge. His current wife, Hermia, has her suspicions about him and struggles to contain her intense emotions while maintaining the veneer of the perfect 1960s housewife.

Easterbrook’s investigations lead him to Much Deeping, a seemingly picturesque English village but with cloaked with an air of dread and teeming with hints of the occult. He hears whispers of a mysterious pub called The Pale Horse, after the figure of death in Revelations, and he encounters three local witches who seem to have the power to send people to their graves without even making contact.

In the course of the story, the protagonist also needs to deal with the intrepid Inspector Lejeune (Sean Pertwee), who is suspicious of Easterbrook from the get-go and the paranoid Zachariah Osbourne (Bertie Carvel), whose name is also on the list and who fears for his life. And then, there are the ghosts of Easterbrook’s past, particularly that of his late wife, Delphine (Georgina Campbell.)

Adaptation adjustments

The Pale Horse is the final chapter in the Sarah Phelps quintet of Agatha Christie adaptations, following And Then There Were None, The Witness for the Prosecution, Ordeal by Innocence, and The ABC Murders. As with her previous adaptations, Phelps took some liberties with the source material, even telling Deadline that it was with The Pale Horse that she took the “most liberties”. Phelps has been known to inject her Christie adaptations with darker, more complex nuances and psychological suspense and The Pale Horse is no exception though it stands out by adding elements of supernatural horror.

Although Phelps may not have changed the culprit of the crimes as she had done for another adaptation, she made the most drastic changes to the main character himself. In the book, Mark Easterbrook is a relatively benevolent character whose involvement in the series of murders is purely incidental. He undertakes to investigate it more out of curiosity than anything else and his romantic affairs are dull and unproblematic. The book itself, in Agatha Christie fashion, does not lean too heavily into the supernatural suspicions and the plot is resolved quickly and neatly.

The Phelps version of Mark Easterbrook is a far more sinister character who is directly involved with some of the murder victims. His past and present relationships also play heavily into the story and it becomes evident from the very beginning that he is far from a faithful and loving husband. Rufus Sewell delivers a performance with his trademark charisma since he is an actor who masterfully portrays characters who are never to be trusted. He is able to infuse Easterbrook with just the right enough charm to make him seem sympathetic but there is always a hint of danger about him, a darker side waiting to come out.

The decision to better integrate Easterbrook into the series of crimes by having him involved with several of the names on the list made the story more engaging and justified his determination to solve the mystery. There is a more compelling reason for viewers to accompany him on this journey of revelation and even when the true culprit of the crime is revealed, Easterbrook remains the focus.

Phelps also gave Hermia a larger role in the story, albeit a fairly tragic one. Her arc is still linked to that of her husband because of her suspicions of his behavior. And her own internal conflict reveals much about the women of that era and how much emotion they needed to suppress so as not to appear improper. Hermia’s few scenes sizzle however with a rage only just beneath the surface of her prim and proper exterior. It’s an intriguing exploration of femininity and the price women had to pay for the toxic masculinity of the era.

Hexes and horror

The supernatural and horror elements of The Pale Horse effectively give it a unique aura as opposed to the other adaptations. There is a contrast between the elegance of the 1960s London (almost reminiscent of Mad Men) and the quaint but creepy scenes in Much Deeping. Both episodes of the mini-series are filled with an inexplicable sense of both dread and wonder.

The three witches, played by Sheila Atim, Kathy Kiera Clarke and Rita Tushingham, give very compelling performances as they manage to seem simultaneously menacing and mundane. They speak in riddles and stare at people unnervingly but they can also believably be a trio of eccentric women living on their own in a tiny village. The only thing certain is that there is much more to them than meets the eye.

After witnessing a local pagan festival, Easterbrook finds the unnerving wicker doll on his car, a sure omen of death. This imagery continues through both episodes and throws the viewer off the scent of the killer for a while, sowing a seed of doubt as to the rational explanation for all the deaths. Perhaps there really is some sort of black magic involved in this crime, and if The Pale Horse leads you to ask this question, then it has succeeded in its purpose.

Incendiary ending

Even as the true culprit is revealed and a rational explanation is given for all the murders, The Pale Horse still concludes with some ambiguity. Not all the questions are answered and so the case has a lingering mystique about it. The witches’ visit to Hermia’s bedside suggests an agreement with them that was not explicitly shown to the audience. The two episodes do a lot to subvert expectations.

Easterbrook also turns out to be less of a victim in the story, and when the sinister truth about his past is revealed, all sympathy for him will have vanished. While the show keeps viewers guessing during the first half, it becomes clear in the second episode that Mark Easterbrook is not someone to root for. The final scenes are not exactly clear and some have wondered if there is a possibility of a second season. But I think the story has been effectively concluded finished, shrouded in mystery until its final moment.

The Pale Horse is a uniquely macabre adaptation of the source material and an interesting final piece to an ambitious quintet. While it isn’t as striking or memorable as previous adaptations, it can stand on its own because of its distinctively eerie tone and impressive performances from the stellar cast.

With this fifth and final outing, Sarah Phelps has proven, once again, that no one does Agatha Christie quite like her.