Prince Of Poisoners: The Life and Crimes of William Palmer

| July 5, 2011

I’ve always found it really perplexing why these campy, soap opera-looking murder-mystery movies/miniseries keep ending up on PBS. I always find myself trying to reason why someone who went out of their way to watch an epic documentary about 1930’s Delta blues would then commit another several hours to cheeky old-fashioned mustache twisting foreign melodrama. And then I remember how much Americans like murder.
With so many Law & Order and CSI franchises, it’s anyone’s guess why there hasn’t been a more comedic approach taken to the genre in modern TV. These are really bleak shows (even the ones that sort of try to be funny like Bones or Castle) and it’s hard for me to imagine how people get off on this stuff, but to each his own.
PBS Mystery’s Prince Of Poisoners takes a more lighthearted, macabre approach. As is traditional with the English murder-mystery, everything is indeed very reminiscent of a stylized villain from a more antiquated form of theater, historical or not, at whom one can feel free to lob tomatoes. A hero to root for is lacking but that’s more of an American archetype. There’s the damsel in distress, of course, but with this kind of theater, you can count on things not going well for her. Or anyone else for that matter. With a title like Prince Of Poisoners, you can rely on a pretty heavy body count.
These things are absurdly long but very entertaining if you get the joke. It’s a romantic world full of easily spotted bad guys and their easy targets. The movies never present any real danger and let the viewer feel in total control. These are safe, bloodless (if terribly grim) TV murders. Like watching contestants being booted one-by-one off a game show.
The film chronicles the life of Victorian era William Palmer, a doctor who gets himself in a load of financial trouble and progressively kills off his family and most of his friends and colleagues for an exceedingly ill-advised financial strategy. It’s as deplorable a character as there ever was. Keith Allen knows his craft and delivers exactly the performance such fare demands. His little smirks and eye twists never get old as the actors around him wretch and dry heave from the effects of his deadly concoctions. Wondering why no one in the film ever notices is the point. It’s waiting for the duller characters (who aren’t as smart as you, the in-control viewer) to catch on and take him down that makes the hours upon hours of torment worth it. And people seem to like old, pretty clothes. And accents are fun.
In the end, Prince Of Poisoners is entirely forgettable (with the exception of a few really awful deaths). It’s an addition to a long line of English murder mysteries that knows its place in the culture and is tailored to fit what is expected of it. There are no real surprises, but lots of murder. There are bad guys, but they’re charming and sweet. People die, but not people you care about. And we laugh. How delightful.

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