The Lady Vanishes, PBS

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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‘The Lady Vanishes’

Directed by Diarmuid Lawrence
Starring Tuppence Middleton, Tom Hughes, Selina Cadell
Adapted by Fiona Seres (based on the 1936 novel “The Wheel Spins,” by Ethel Lina White)
Masterpiece Mystery! on PBS stations
Aug. 18, 2013 at 9:00-10:30 pm ET/PT

There’s a good reason “The Lady Vanishes” has been filmed three times — it’s a wonderful story. BBC/Masterpiece’s fresh and engaging adaptation is very 21st century as opposed to the two earlier films (see below) made in 1938 and 1979.

The TV movie of “The Lady Vanishes” takes place in the political shadow of the Balkans in the 1930s. We meet our lighthearted, self-centered wealthy heroine, young Iris (Tuppence Middleton, “Inspector Lewis”) as she cavorts loudly with her partying friends at a Balkans summer resort, much to the chagrin of some older, conservative English guests. (“Have they no manners or consideration!” “One should never wear such an indecent bathing suit!”)

Iris soon decides to shorten her vacation and head home to London by train along with some of the English guests. Iris faints from sunstroke on the hot station platform, lands on her head and barely makes the train. She is a bit woozy from the sunstroke and the fall, but finds her seat opposite Miss Froy (Selina Cadell, “Doc Martin”).

Middle-aged, frumpy and kind, Miss Froy takes Iris under her wing. Despite her tweed suit and comfortable shoes, Miss Froy tells amusing and interesting stories about her travels and her recent work as a governess for Balkan royalty. After a while, Iris falls asleep, but wakes to find that Miss Froy has vanished.

The passengers on the train, including the English guests from the Balkans, do not remember seeing Miss Froy. The train passengers try to convince Iris that, because of her fainting episode, she is mistaken. She is championed only by an infatuated young passenger, Max Hare (Tom Hughes, “Silk”) who helps Iris in her search for the absent Miss Froy. I’m ending my plot review here, as the TV movie is very plot oriented and I don’t like spoilers.

I haven’t seen the 1979 film, but it’s difficult for me not to compare this TV movie to Afred Hitchcock’s 1938 film. The they are different in a number of ways — in 1938, it was winter. Now it is summer. Miss Froy has vanished for different reasons in the two productions. Hitchcock’s direction is far superior to Diarmuid Lawrence’s. Lawrence’s direction is fine, but he’s not Hitchcock. The 1938 actors were big stars; the new cast is less well known, but they do a fine job.

Middleton’s Iris becomes annoyingly shrill at times, whereas Margaret Lockwood’s Iris used a deeper, more-modulated tone in the Hitchcock version. The Masterpiece Mystery! movie is dark and hard to see at times (at least on a PC screen). Hitchcock’s black and white cinematography was clear. The TV movie has different plot points and a different ending than does the Hitchcock film. The 2013 adaptation’s more interesting ending differentiates it well from the 20th century film.

The conceit of a mystery occurring on a train was used before Ethel Lina White’s 1936 novel, “The Wheel Spins,” on which “The Lady Vanishes” is based. For example, Agatha Christie’s novel, “Murder on the Orient Express” was written in 1934. The train setting works well because it’s an easy way to limit the suspects and add movement and scenery while they travel. Otherwise, they would be sitting around in a country manor. Strangers are strewn together on a train, which may lead to unusual encounters. And train travel was romantic.

One shouldn’t watch “The Lady Vanishes” for inner meanings or deep thoughts. One should appreciate Iris’s growing discombobulation leading to the resolution of the mystery, the undertone of suspense, and the believably earnest performances of Iris and Max. “The Lady Vanishes” is easy to enjoy TV.

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