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The Murder Room (2004) – DVD Review


Written by Robert Jones, based on the novel by P. D. James
Directed by Diamuid Lawrence
Starring Martin Shaw, Samantha Bond, Kerry Fox, Nicholas Le Prevost, Michael Maloney, Sian Philips, Janie Dee


  • P. D. James/cast biographies
  • P. D. James interview

Released by: BBC Home Video.
Rating: NR
Region: 1
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 format.

My Advice: Catch it on cable.

Commander Adam Dalgleish (Shaw) is investigating a nasty murder where Neville Dupayne (Maloney) is burned alive in his car. On the surface, the motive seems pretty straightforward. Neville and his brother Marcus (Le Prevost) and Caroline (Bond) are trustees of the Dupayne Museum, founded by their father and devoted to the period between WWI and WWII. To renew the lease, all three must sign the paperwork. But Neville wanted to take the money to run the museum to help his less fortunate patients. It would also be a final “Fuck you!” to his dead father. But Marcus would lose the directorship of the museum, Caroline would lose the smart flat in the museum building and everyone would lose their job. While the motives seem simple, other aspects of the case are unusual. For one thing, MI-5 is sniffing around but is being traditionally closed-lipped about why. For another, Neville’s murder resembles an exhibit in the museum’s Murder Room, which features some of the sensational killings of the period. The body found in a trunk featured in another exhibit isn’t helping either. So is Dalgleish working to bring a killer to justice or is he battling the evil influence of The Murder Room?

P.D. James is the master of the traditional mystery story. The clues don’t need a mass spectrometer and an electron microscope to interpret. You also don’t need to pull down the DMS-IV to figure out a suspect’s motives. James uses the mystery format to explore her characters: they’re normal people put under stressful situations and we just get to see how they react. Her style works well in a novel where she can indulge in interior monologues, but it can be problematic when her work is converted to the screen. For instance, it’s clear that Neville had some issues with his deceased father. But few details are given to explain what happened to give Neville the impetus to defy his brother and sister and cause their father’s precious museum to be sold. I should say here that I did read the book this is based on so those who haven’t may get more out this. Of course, the quality in both acting and production values in a step above your average episode of something like Murder, She Wrote. Still, losing that texture in the characters makes everything feel flat.

Recently, the previous actor who played Dalgliesh (for ten James adaptations such as Original Sin and Shroud for a Nightingale, Roy Marsden, was replaced with Martin Shaw. Both play a character who is more comfortable talking with suspects than regular people and expressed himself better in his poetry than in normal conversation. Marsden portrayed Dalgliesh with a sense of sadness, appropriate for a man who lost his wife during childbirth. This isn’t helped when he observes people commit terrible crimes for reasons that would be absurd if they weren’t so tragic.

Dalgliesh, because of his job and his attitude, seems doomed to be forever disappointed with humanity. Shaw, on the other hand, does play the role with much the same reserve, but is more irritated by people’s faults than saddened by them. Especially if they affect his investigation. Or when the investigation affects his budding romance with Emma Lavenham, played by Janie Dee. This new love allows both James and Shaw to open up Dalgliesh emotionally and add to the character. Admittedly, James is a bit of a novice at writing relationships that don’t involve deceit or a dead body. For instance, Emma has the cliché best friend who doesn’t approve of Dalgliesh and tries to wreck the relationship to “help” her friend. Still, Shaw’s nervous eagerness of a middle-aged man dealing with new love helps soften some of the rough edges.

The only extras are short biographies of P. D. James and the cast. Decent enough. There is also a short interview of James from a British morning show, so you can guess at the depth of the interview. With that in mind, it would be better for you to catch The Murder Room on TV instead of spending the money on the DVD.

Buy it from Amazon.
Buy the book from Amazon.