Vera Canova (Carmen Du Sautoy) has hatched a cold-blooded plan to dispose of her husband, Professor Paul Canova (Pinkas Braun). The Professor’s assistant, Christian Magny (Jonathan Pryce), is an integral part of her plot, as is Christian’s new wife, Beatrice (Cheri Lunghi), who has just been engaged as the Professor’s secretary.
Vera intends that Professor Canova and Beatrice should be placed in a compromising position, which would give Christian (Vera’s besotted accomplice) an excuse to shoot them both. And since crime passionnels are viewed by the courts more leniently than cold blooded murder, there’s a good chance he would be aquitted. But when Beatrice (known as Bea) discovers their plans, events take an unexpected turn ….
Praying Mantis was based on the award-winning novel by French author Hubert Monteilhet, originally published in 1960. Philip Mackie’s 1983 adaptation managed to keep the feel of the original, although this wasn’t straightforward since Monteilhet’s novel was constructed in the epistolary form (with the story unfolding through a series of letters, newspaper reports and diary entries).
It’s always surprised me that Mackie (1918 – 1985) isn’t better known or appreciated, considering the body of work he assembled between the mid fifties and the mid eighties (Praying Mantis was his final screenplay). He was skilled as an adapter of other people’s work – apart from Praying Mantis he also worked on Raffles, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and adapted The Naked Civil Servant from Quentin Crisp’s memoirs – but he also authored some notable television series. The Caesars (1969), The Organization (1972), An Englishman’s Castle (1978) and The Cleopatras (1983) have to rate amongst his career highlights. Three of these four are currently available on DVD, so hopefully someone will take up the challenge and release The Cleopatras in the near future.
Praying Mantis opens with a voice-over which sets the scene. “The praying mantis is a creature who devours her mate during the act of love.”
The first episode is a slow-burn which sets up the principal characters and their intertwined relationships. Vera is seen to be cold and manipulative and once we discover the Professor is a wealthy man it seems fairly obvious that she wishes to remove him. But the revelation that Christian is her partner in crime comes out of the blue – previously it was stated that he had little interest in women, although the fact we later hear his vigorous love-making to Vera (via a tape-recording secretly made by Bea) suggests otherwise.
Bea herself also seems to be somewhat manipulative – before Christian’s marriage proposal she’s quite content to conduct an affair with the Professor under Vera’s nose (although this is something which would have fitted in nicely with Vera’s plans). And after she discovers that her new husband plans to murder her, there’s no hysterics – instead she begins to wage a war of nerves against him (replaying the taped conversations between Vera and Christian whilst pretending not to hear them). And her plans don’t end there ….
As might be expected from the title, it’s the two female characters – Vera and Bea – who dominate the action, leaving Christian and Professor Canova as somewhat hapless pawns totally at their mercy. But there’s several twists and turns along the way which serve to alter the balance of fortune.
It’s an interesting – and obviously intentional – touch that the title was changed from Monteilhet’s The Praying Mantises, to just the singular version for this adaptation. This ensures that we’re left in some doubt as to who will turn out to be the deadliest (the uneasy detente between Bea and Vera during the concluding episode is absorbing).
Lunghi and Du Sautoy both sparkle with deadly intent throughout. Bea starts off as the audience identification figure – we see the early action unfold from her viewpoint, which ensures that the audience is automatically placed on her side (although later events reveal a quite different side to her character). Du Sautoy instantly exudes more of an air of obvious menace whilst Pryce is characteristically good at capturing Christian’s sense of creeping, conflicted panic. Braun has the least developed role out of the four, but he’s still skilled at generating gravitas and weight as Professor Canova.
Although Praying Mantis retains the French locations of the original novel, given the British nature of most of the cast this either seems to suggest there’s a great many ex-pats in the area or they’re simply playing French, but without the accents. If it’s the latter then it was probably a wise move, since adopting foreign accents can be a little distracting.
If the French locations populated with British actors is a little quirky, then so is Carl Davis’ score. Davis’ credits are many and impressive, but I’m afraid that Praying Mantis can’t really be classed as one of his best. The piano is the dominant instrument, with a slightly discordant melody recurring regularly throughout the two episodes – frequently popping up between scenes or when there’s no dialogue. This does become slightly tiresome, even more so since Simply have opted to use it on the DVD menu screen. This is one time when hitting play as quickly as possible is most desirable!
Praying Mantis boasts strong, multi-layered performances from all four main cast-members with a host of familiar faces (Sarah Berger, Kevin McNally, David Schofield, Derek Smith, Douglas Wilmer, Joby Blanshard, Clive Swift and Peter Blake) making welcome appearances in supporting roles. Apparently shot on 35mm (a rarity for this era of television – most film productions tended to be made on 16mm) it looks in reasonable shape, considering that the materials are nearly thirty five years old.
Featuring a clever, twisting plot which moves in several unexpected directions, Praying Mantis never flags during the course of its 152 minutes (divided into two episodes of 76 minutes each). Apart from the slightly intrusive music there’s little else to fault here, with Cheri Lunghi especially impressive.
Praying Mantis is released by Simply Media on the 17th of April 2017. RRP £19.99.