PBS' "Mystery!" home for such elite sleuths as Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple--begins its new season slightly off center but creatively on the mark with an elegantly made, deliciously fascinating two-parter about a 1935 murder case whose lurid details captivated England for months.
Airing at 9 tonight and next Thursday (on Channels 28 and 15), "Cause Celebre" offers stealth, enigma, intrigue, seduction and aching sadness--along with Helen Mirren's winning performance as Alma Rattenbury, a woman in her late 30s whose jealous 18-year-old lover bludgeoned to death Alma's 60-year-old husband.
Francis and Alma Rattenbury were Canadians who moved to Bournemouth on England's South Coast, where they hired a teen-age handyman/chauffeur (given the name of George Bowman here) whose presence would dramatically transform their lives. Two months later, the restless matron and her young, impressionable employee (they were also worlds apart in social class) began an affair that would result in the death of Francis and a spectacular trial that made Alma the object of public scorn.
A production of England's Anglia Television, Ken Taylor's adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play is an anguished story of dark, brooding resonance, grippingly directed by John Gorrie and skillfully performed by Mirren, David Morrissey as Bowman and Harry Andrews as Francis.
That fine actress Mirren, in particular, simply excels, playing the dual-edged Alma as a tragic, lonely, misunderstood and ultimately sympathetic woman who became a victim of her own foolishness but nobly sought to sacrifice herself to protect her young lover. Excellent work in an excellent production.