Sunday, March 2, 2014

One Corpse Too Many

Starring Derek Jacobi as Cadfael and Sean Pertwee as Hugh Beringar.

When King Stephen defeats the Empress Maud's forces at Shrewsbury and makes an example of them by hanging the entire garrison, the monks of the nearby Benedictine abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul take on the grisly task of preparing the bodies for burial. In the process, Brother Cadfael, the abbey's herbalist, notices that while there were 94 men in the garrison, there are 95 bodies below the gallows, and though the extra man was certainly strangled to death he was evidently not hanged. Granted permission to look into the matter, Cadfael investigates with the help of a new novice going by the name of Godric. Meanwhile, the king assigns a new follower, one Hugh Beringar of Maesbury, to prove his loyalty by locating a missing girl, Godith Adeney--not only was she betrothed to Hugh in childhood, she is also the daughter of one of the few adherents of Maud to escape the siege, which would make her a valuable hostage should the king get his hands on her.

I've read this book (and the whole Cadfael series) several times, and there's a lot going on in this one, as in most; I haven't even mentioned the subplot of the escaping squire and FitzAlan's treasury. You'd think they would barely be able to hit the high points, let alone fit in any of the nuances, in a 75-minute TV movie. But in fact this is a fantastic adaptation, thanks to both the script and the acting. Sean Pertwee stands out, and is appropriately ambiguous as Hugh; Derek Jacobi is stellar as always, and appropriately dogged (and devious) as Cadfael. The girl who plays Godith makes such an unconvincing boy that I hardly feel it counts as a spoiler to mention her disguise, but the fact that the unctuous Brother Jerome, the master of novices, is completely taken in anyway is entirely in character for him, and it's a credit to the actor, Julian Firth, that he really sells Jerome's combination of self-importance and unworldliness.

Some of the later entries in the TV series drifted pretty far from the source material, and I think they suffered for it, but these early ones are great. I picked up the first four on sale at Barnes and Noble last weekend, and I think my husband has already watched them twice.

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