A fine production
Robert Shepard Jr. | USA | 12/01/2002
(4 out of 5 stars)
"As is usually the case with Cadfael stories, it is useful to read the novel in addition to seeing the DVD. The reason is simple enough: it is impossible to reduce a 228-page book to a 75-minute drama without sacrificing details. In particular, the novel gives a great deal of political background information which explains the motivations behind the behavior of the principal characters.First the background: "The Raven in the Foregate" is the 12th Cadfael novel, by Ellis Peters, published in 1986. It is set in England in December of 1141, in the middle of a fratricidal civil war between King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Maud. During the previous summer it seemed that she had won the war: Stephen was in prison, Maud and her followers were in London, and Stephen's brother, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, had sworn his allegiance to her.But Maud proved to be impossible to deal with, the Londoners revolted, and through a hostage exchange King Stephen won his freedom anew and retook London.As the novel begins, Stephen's brother has no choice but to switch his allegiance once again, calling a legatine council to make sure that the clergy are all on the same page, and excommunicating the followers of Maud.Among the attendees is Abbot Radulfus of Shrewsbury. When he returns to his monastery, he has with him a cleric named Father Ailnoth, who is to become the new parish priest for the people of the Foregate. Shortly thereafter, the King calls all of the sheriffs to him for the Christmas feast. There Hugh Beringar is appointed the new sheriff of Shropshire, to replace Gilbert Prestcote, who died in the spring.Father Ailnoth proves to be a disastrous choice for a parish priest. His predecessor, Father Adam, was a kindly man, much loved, ready to forgive the penitent. Not so Ailnoth. He is a harsh and rigid man, strictly by the book, and quickly begins to make enemies. Before long he is dead, and Brother Cadfael, a Crusader turned monk, locally renowned for his ability to solve mysteries, has to figure out how and why. As usual, Hugh Beringar, his friend, serves as a partner in the investigation.One immediately obvious difference between the book and the DVD is the season: the DVD takes place in the summer of 1141, not the winter, while Hugh is still under-sheriff. This change of season subtly alters the mood of the story, but does no harm to the drama.The producers take other liberties with the plot and the characters. In the DVD, there is actually a second key mystery, intertwined with the first. This involves a young woman named Elenor, pregnant out of wedlock, who apparently commits suicide because of Ailnoth's harshness. Cadfael agonizes over how he could have saved her from despair and death, and his obvious sense of guilt causes others to question his judgment as he strives to link the two deaths. Who is the father of the unborn child? This plays a key role as well. In the book, on the other hand, the girl's name is Eluned; her suicide is purely incidental, yet one more reason for the townsfolk to loathe their new priest.A common theme in Cadfael novels is budding romances between young people, and "Raven" is no different. Here again, extra wrinkles are added in the DVD, introducing a blind girl, Catherine, Elenor's sister, who is completely absent from the book.Another added DVD character is Lord Cassale, the southern nobleman who is in search of an agent of the Empress Maud, believed to be hiding in Shropshire as he quietly contacts former Maud supporters. Cassale quickly butts heads with both the abbot and Hugh Beringar, whom he contemptuously calls "Under-Sheriff" every chance he can. In the book, Cassale is absent and Hugh himself is tasked with finding the agent. Naturally, this mysterious young man plays a central role in the story's plot.The acting is excellent. As always, Sir Derek Jacobi plays Cadfael very convincingly. And then there is Peter Guinness, who plays Father Ailnoth, a dark, malevolent man with a skull-like head, billowing black robes and a heavy, ebony staff which he is all too ready to swing at those hapless enough to get in his way. He gives his hellfire-and-damnation sermons with obvious relish, as if longing to witness the flames of eternal torment for himself, from a bird's-eye view. When evicting some poor peasants whom Father Adam had allowed to till Church land, they protest that their children will starve, and he suggests that they should not have had so many. He very much resembles a raven, the traditional harbinger of doom. He represents everything that history records was wrong about the Medieval Church, with its endless meddling in politics and its heartless disregard for the welfare of the common folk.In summary, "The Raven in the Foregate" should prove a worthy addition to any DVD library. It can stand on its own, even without the book."