Alfred Hitchcock famously adapted Ethel Lina White’s 1936 novel The Wheel Spins into the 1938 film The Lady Vanishes, and that has remained the most familiar adaptation (despite a 1979 remake) for decades. But earlier this year, the BBC aired a new version that is now debuting in America on PBS (as part of the Masterpiece Mystery! franchise) that is similarly effective in conveying a sense of mystery and potential madness.
The plot follows the lines of the novel and the earlier films. In 1931, a socialite named Iris (Tuppence Middleton) is on holiday in the Balkans. She decides to head home from the partying early, but faints on the platform of the railway station, waking up in time to be rushed onto the train. However, she has a pounding head and the sense that she is on the verge of being in a dream, and this sense of unreality colors what happens to her later.
Aboard the train, she meets the friendly Miss Froy (Selina Cadell). But Iris is soon horrified when Miss Froy mysteriously disappears — and when fellow passengers refute Iris’ story, even denying ever having seen the elderly woman who Iris vehemently claims has vanished. The only support Iris gets in this increasing nightmare is from infatuated young engineer Max (Tom Hughes, who also appears in the Mystery! series Silk, which debuts Aug. 25). But Iris still finds herself struggling for her sanity, and even her life, as threatening figures attempt to disprove the existence of Miss Froy.
Keeley Hawes (Upstairs Downstairs), Julian Rhind-Tutt, Benedikte Hansen, Gemma Jones and Stephanie Cole add to the strong cast of characters aboard the train, lending elements ranging from humor to menace. The film may not make Hitchcock’s version completely vanish from mystery fans’ minds, but it is an enjoyable, atmospheric escape.
The Lady Vanishes airs Aug. 18 at 9pm ET on PBS (check local listings).
© Egon Endrenyi/BBC for MASTERPIECE