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PBS offers new take on ‘Lady Vanishes’

By David Wiegand
San Francisco Chronicle

The Lady Vanishes: Masterpiece Mystery.

9 p.m. Sunday, PBS

You have to be either foolhardy or very brave to attempt a new version of a novel that served as the basis for a classic Alfred Hitchcock film.

But whatever prompted the BBC to remake “The Lady Vanishes,” the result is entertaining without either dethroning Hitchcock’s 1938 film or embarrassing itself. The new version can be seen Sunday on PBS’ “Masterpiece.”

Both films were adapted from a 1936 novel by Ethel Lina White called “The Wheel Spins,” about a rich, vapid and spoiled young woman named Iris Carr (Tuppence Middleton, “Inspector Lewis”) whom we first meet when she is vacationing in the Balkans with several equally annoying friends.

Bored by her friends and the stuffy, disapproving guests at the hotel where she’s been staying, Iris decides to take the train back to London but faints from sunstroke just before the train is to depart. She recovers just in time to board the train, where she inexplicably finds many of the other guests from the hotel she’s just left.

Iris is befriended by a chatty woman in tweed named Miss Froy (Selina Cadell, “Doc Martin”), who suddenly disappears. Iris believes the woman has been kidnapped, or worse, but no one else on the train believes her story.

The other passengers include the married Sir Peveril (Julian Rhind-Tutt, “The Hour”); his mistress (Keeley Hawes, “Upstairs Downstairs”); the elderly Rev. Barnes (Pip Torrens, “Yes, Prime Minister”) and his weepy wife (Sandy McDade, “Lark Rise to Candleford”); a stern doctor (Jesper Christensen, “The Young Victoria”); a creepy baroness (Benedikte Hansen, “The Killing,” Danish version); a pair of elderly sisters (Gemma Jones, “The Duchess of Duke Street” and Stephanie Cole, “Doc Martin”); and, in particular, a handsome young engineer named Max Hare (Tom Hughes, “Page Eight”), who very much wants to believe Iris because he’s clearly smitten by her.

Who shall judge?

None of it makes much sense, of course, but even if you’ve forgotten the Hitchcock film, it’s easy to see from the new version what appealed to him about the novel: All the proper secondary characters who are at first so judgmental about the flighty young English girl are later revealed to be in no position to make judgment on others.

The adaptation by Fiona Seres is adequate but feels absurdly rushed at the end, which only undermines the film’s already shaky credibility. Diarmuid Lawrence’s direction is serviceable, and he does elicit winning performances from the entire cast, particularly Middleton, Hughes, Jones, Cole and McDade.

The film’s appeal has to do with the microcosm of being on a train traveling a long distance, particularly a train in 1931, with its own library, well-appointed parlor and dining cars, and efficiently attentive service personnel.

Hitchcock did it better, of course, but at least the filmmakers knew better than to transfer the story to, say, the antiromantic sterility of a contemporary European TGV.

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