3rd time no charm for PBS' 'The Lady Vanishes'

Tom Hughes as Max and Tuppence Middleton as Iris Carr in "The Lady Vanishes."
Tom Hughes as Max and Tuppence Middleton as Iris Carr in "The Lady Vanishes."
Posted: August 18, 2013

There's every reason to expect that the latest PBS Masterpiece Mystery entry, The Lady Vanishes, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m., would be a delightful, frothy mystery.

It certainly can't measure up to Alfred Hitchcock's satirical suspenser from 1938. (Nothing possibly could.) But the 90-minute TV movie about international skulduggery, kidnapping, murder, and romance on a trans-European train is stocked with a terrific cast lead by the eminently charming, besotting English ingenue Tuppence Middleton and the always likable Tom Hughes as her love interest. It has great production values and a good eye for period detail in costuming and set design.

So it's all the more disappointing that the pic falls flat on its face. Flat is the story; flat, the characterization; flat, the emotional pitch.

How could anyone miss with such a delicious story?

The Lady Vanishes, coproduced by BBC and WGBH Boston's Masterpiece, is the third adaptation of Ethel Lina White's 1936 novel The Wheel Spins. They include a forgettable 1979 curio starring Elliott Gould and Cybill Shepherd.

PBS' drama stars Middleton, 26, as Iris, a socialite with no family ties who is gallivanting across Eastern Europe with a coterie of beautiful, perpetually drunk twentysomethings. It's 1931 and the world seems a serene place, at least to the British.

When Iris has a row with one of her friends at a ritzy Croatian hotel, she decides to go back to London. She has a meltdown when an older woman she befriends in her cabin suddenly disappears.

The kindly Miss Froy (Selina Cadell) was traveling with her boss, a severe woman identified only as the Baroness (a chilling turn by Danish actor Benedikte Hansen). When the lady vanishes, the Baroness and her other companions deny she ever existed.

To Iris' horror, her fellow Brits - she's traveling with a loose-knit group of 10 tourists she met at her hotel - also deny her accusations. No one wants to help Iris but the handsome engineer Max (Hughes), who naturally is besotted with her.

Why would anyone want to harm an English governess? Slowly, but surely, Iris unravels a fantastical political plot and shows up her fellow passengers as liars and hypocrites.

Middleton holds her own in a role made famous by the superb Margaret Lockwood. But she's betrayed by a script that paints her character as an abrasive, rude, entitled child. It's hard to believe someone like that would care about Miss Froy.

PBS' The Lady Vanishes simply takes itself too seriously. It focuses so single-mindedly on Iris that it underplays the colorful characters around her. And it has none of the wit and quick banter that made Hitchcock's version such a sheer pleasure to watch.

That film was set in 1938 against the rising tide of European fascism, an ominous background that formed a perfect counterpoint to the sharp-edged social satire playing out in the foreground.

Without sacrificing any of its comedy, Hitchock's film is an incisive critique of the arrogance of the British Empire before World War II and the brutal nature of its class system.

Next to it, the new film is a hollow shadow play.

Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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