Just in time for the summer doldrums, A&E arrives with its “Summer to Die For” lineup (thank you, marketing department) that gets going with a series of three Brit-produced murder mysteries based on author Caroline Graham’s novels, centered on the cool, droll Inspector Barnaby. First in the series, “Midsomer Murders: The Killings at Badgers Drift” is a crackling good whodunnit packed with colorful characters and a disturbing incest kick at the end. Ouch.
Blessed with exceptional performances from top to bottom, the smart “Killings at Badgers Drift” is a tour de force for John Nettles, who plays Inspector Barnaby as Great Britain’s understated answer to Lt. Columbo (minus the trench coat and the “Just one more thing”).
Barnaby is as enigmatic as the criminals he fingers, although he works with a Sherlock Holmesian obsessiveness and subtlety. He is unfailingly polite and low-key to the point of coma, with an easygoing wife, Joyce (Jane Wymark), and an impetuous college-age daughter, Cully (Laura Howard).
But the true counterpoint in Barnaby’s life is his neurotic partner, Troy (Daniel Casey), a sensitivity challenged homophobe and chauvinist. Their investigative technique works like so: Barnaby asks questions. Troy looks on, stunned and dripping contempt.
The opening telepic in the trilogy that focuses on the darkness looming behind the well-trimmed hedges of the bucolic English county of Midsomer opens with an old woman (Renee Asherson) dying from a broken neck after seeing something she shouldn’t have.
A friend of the deceased convinces Barnaby to investigate. Pretty soon, it becomes clear that this was no accident. But who done the deed and why? Was it the doctor? The pampered wife who claimed to be shopping the entire day? The busybody with the strong binoculars?
Signs start pointing to Michael Lacey (Jonathan Firth) and his beautiful sister, Katherine (Emily Mortimer), who seem to have an odd bond.
“The Killings at Badgers Drift” keeps us riveted and off-balance clear through the boffo conclusion, thanks to Anthony Horowitz’s sharply focused teleplay adaptation and Jeremy Silberston’s taut, cagey direction. We don’t really expect this film to go where it winds up going, and once it gets there, it curdles the blood. Tech credits shine.