Cadfael: The Devil’s Novice

Cadfael: The Devil’s Novice (1996)
Acorn Media Publishing Inc.
Cast: Derek Jacobi
Extras: Audio interview with Derek Jacobi, Ellis Peters biography, Production photos, Cadfael episode index

Brother Cadfael, played by the esteemed actor Sir Derek Jacobi, is a 12th century monk and former Crusader who seems to always find himself in the midst of a mystery in Shrewsbury Abbey. In ’The Devil’s Novice,’ Cadfael comes to the defense of the order’s newest novice who has confessed to murdering his visiting kinsman, the king’s own chaplain, in a fit of madness.

While the story may seem to be a straight-forward classic murder mystery, the era in which it takes place is used for more than mere window dressing as the ensuing investigation delves into the corruption of the clergy and the role of superstition in everyday life. The period details are quite accurate and firmly anchor the production in 12th century Britain.

As a soldier turned cleric, Brother Cadfael is a most unusual detective. Preferring to tend to his garden and administer his herbal remedies, Cadfael somehow finds himself at the center of every controversy. As something of an outsider himself, Cadfael is able to see what others miss and always seems to have a new trick or skill up his sleeve to help him solve the crime. Derek Jacobi infuses the character with a wry sense of humor, force of will, and a cloak of mystery — all of which make Brother Cadfael a very intriguing personality.

Filmed for television, ’The Devil’s Novice’ is presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio of 1.33:1. While the video is fairly good, the deficiency of the source materials is apparent in the soft nature of the picture and lack of shadow details. Colors are a bit on the drab side as well but that’s surely a result of the 12th century color palette consisting almost exclusively of dark browns and grays. The video quality is never a distraction but it isn’t leaps and bounds better than what the over the air TV broadcasts look like.

The audio is a DD 2.0 mix that is firmly entrenched in the center speaker. Again, the source materials are at fault for the lack of dynamic range but dialogue is fairly clear and the soundtrack is generally devoid of hissing or other audio distractions.

As for extras, the DVD includes a short audio only interview with Sir Derek Jacobi in which he discusses the role of Cadfael and the series as a whole. Next up is a short biography of the creator of Brother Cadfael, Ellis Peters, which also lists all of the books in the series that she wrote. A fair number of production photos are also included as is a short biography and talent file for Derek Jacobi. Rounding out the extras is a comprehensive list of all the Cadfael episodes and their original broadcast dates.

Fans of classic British mysteries are sure to enjoy the adventures of Brother Cadfael. While the video and audio quality of this presentation don’t benefit greatly from the DVD format, the inclusion of a few interesting extras is a nice touch. Acorn Media has elected to present the episodes one per DVD which seems a bit stingy but all in all I was quite pleased with ’The Devil’s Novice.’