When I started this project, I hadn’t seen any of the ‘new’ Marple series, so – after reviewing the Joan Hickson adaptations – it seemed only fair that I give the same treatment to the delightful Geraldine McEwan.

Review: Agatha Christie’s Marple: Series One (2004 – 2005)

with Geraldine McEwan (Miss Jane Marple)

written by Kevan Elyot, Stephen Churchett and Stewart Harcourt

Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple

Given the success of David Suchet’s Poirot series, which brought the Belgian detective and his stories into the ‘modern ‘era, it seemed only natural that someone should do a new series of Marple films, with a decent budget and some strong actors. Interestingly, these stories would become far more controversial than those featuring the Belgian.

First cab off the rank is The Body in the Library which features some good turns from a guest cast chock-full of ‘names’: Simon Callow, Ian Richardson, Adam Garcia, James Fox (in a very thankless role), Jack Davenport and the gorgeous Joanna Lumley, who has great fun playing Miss Marple’s sidekick Dolly Bantry. I also think that it features the strongest script of the four (unsurprisingly, screenwriter Kevan Elyot had just penned the Poirot adaptation of Five Little Pigs). Each of the characters’ actions and motivations seem entirely warranted, and there’s a healthy dose of misdirection in every direction. (Okay, so some of that credit can probably go to Dame Agatha, I suppose…)

Flaws? Well, first that kid. ‘Cute’ kids are always a risk, and this one is just obnoxious in his vocabulary and mannerisms. Perhaps I’m being petty, but he just struck me as a ‘child actor’ and never a child. But you’re not here to listen to minor grievances: let’s get the big issue out of the way: the denouement is changed in what can only be described as a needless manner. Personally, I haven’t yet seen an example of changing the killer’s identity that was truly warranted: adapting a murder mystery but making up your own mind about said murder just seems ludicrous to me. Here, where the writer uses roughly similar motives but different identities, it comes across as unnecessary. However, I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by the internal logic of this story: the central relationship was emotionally affecting, the circumstances dictated the nature of the murder, and the actors were able to play both their feelings and the (overly) complicated nature of the crime with complete naturalism.

If, however, these loose adaptations continue, I’m sure I will find myself getting annoyed. With the recent claims that Jennifer Garner will be playing a 30-something Jane Marple in a Hollywood adaptation, this change might seem like smaller fish, but – as other movies we’ll look at, and endless Poirot episodes have proven – you can have strong characters, powerful emotion and gripping stories without such meddling.

Okay, I wanted to avoid discussing the gay thing. I certainly agree that writers adding ‘modern’ subplots to classic works can often veer perilously close to anachronism: Russell T. Davies’ incarnation of Doctor Who became very silly when everyone throughout human history seemed to be openly gay, or any colour under the sun, despite the nature of the era. In Marple – at least, this first series – I’ve found the homosexuality to be subtly played and treated within the social context of the time. Changing an individual character’s motivations or sexuality can be a very strong choice, particularly if the character is underwritten in the novel. But it’s always a precarious climb, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say in future reviews.

On to The Murder at the Vicarage, which was the first installment I saw. These four movies are startlingly different in tone: whereas The Body in the Library felt more rustic, The Murder at the Vicarage has a wacky ‘BBC’ feel to it, with unrestrained character actors like Miriam Margolyes and Sir Derek Jacobi having a ball playing village eccentrics. Rachel Stirling is a standout as Griselda, but unfortunately Julian Morris fails to find a subtle note as Dennis.

In attempting to overcome the almost omniscient actions of the killers in the novel, Marple finds herself incapacitated after a fall, and it’s actually very well done. In fact, while I didn’t warm to this movie as much as the previous one, I again found it to be quite strong: the interplay between Marple and DI Slack is done very well. They clearly have an existing relationship (and he’s less stoic than the Hickson version), and – although he knows she may be right – Slack still knows when it is his turn to control the investigation. Why they didn’t bring him back is beyond me, as the two are positively friends by the end of the film. The film’s ending is also quite haunting, with the two killers suffering for their crimes, and Miss Marple soothing her conscience with tea and a Raymond Chandler novel.

The principal flaws: there’s an over-reliance on music here which betrays the performers and, unusually, the screenwriter chooses to delay the murder until forty minutes into the adaptation, which just seems like a tease! Beyond this – in a thread which runs throughout the first series – Marple ponders her great love affair, with a soldier. The flashbacks are most definitely overdone, since McEwan’s face sells the story so well, but it is nice to see Marple as a fully-fledged person with a past.

All of this business is part of Geraldine McEwan’s interpretation of Marple. She’s not Joan Hickson, let’s just get that out of the way right now. Hickson’s Marple was very much the Edwardian (even Victorian?) stalwart who was based on Christie’s grandmother, an element of the character that became more prevalent as the series went on. She was the perfect element around which to focus the ’80s films, which functioned very much as a nostalgic recollection of the post-War years. McEwan reasonably brings her own elements to the role: Jane Marple is now slightly eccentric, wry, and adorable (even if you feel like she’s putting on the ‘old lady’-ness of her role). Quite frankly, I think McEwan is lovely. Hickson’s Marple came across to strangers as ‘nosy’, McEwan’s comes across as ‘dotty’. But we see the rich inner workings of her mind, and each of Marple’s friendships over the series is believable because of it. Obviously, this is very much a 2000s romanticised version (I can’t imagine Joan Hickson ever having John Hannah crash at her house unexpectedly!) , but as a modern adaptation, I think McEwan’s performance is a strength.

McEwan and Joanna Lumley as Jane Marple and Dolly Bantry

A Murder is Announced was my favourite of the Hickson adaptations, and – from a directorial standpoint – it’s probably the highlight of series one. You really can’t go wrong with such strong characters and an instantly intriguing murder. Matthew Goode, Catherine Tate, Cherie Lunghi – the cast is marvellous through and through, with Elaine Paige the standout as poor Bunny. Zoe Wanamaker has big shoes to fill as Letitia Blacklock, since Ursula Howells knocked the role out of the park in the 1980s. Wanamaker manages the task: it’s a different, and slightly more ‘knowing’ performance than Howells, but equally believable as this woman around whom so many lives revolve.

Perhaps the strongest element of all four adaptations is that of the police. Craddock and his team get to do a sizeable chunk of the investigating, without ever relegating Marple to a side role. Craddock starts out much more adversarial than Slack, and his growing appreciation of Marple’s talents is very touching. Again, though, I have to wonder why Alexander Armstrong didn’t return for future installments.

A Murder is Announced is a great success: the direction neatly underplays the many hidden identities involved, all of the characters are treated with a deal of faithfulness to the source text, and – boldly – the murderer’s plotting is laid open for the viewer throughout, although hopefully most of them won’t realise until the denouement.

Finally, we reach 4.50 From Paddington. There’s some great comedy for Marple, a wonderful chemistry between McEwan and John Hannah‘s (invented) character, and a strong central performance from Amanda Holden as Lucy Eyelesbarrow. (Thankfully, the writers resisted the urge to send Marple undercover herself!) The invention of Hannah’s character may have raised a few eyebrows, but I think he works very well, even if it is another example of how this series romanticises the ’50s rather than asks us to truly live them. The family atmosphere at Gorstan Hall is realistically played and truly brutal, with the implacable David Warner in a stand-out role as the patriarch. Finally, the villain’s motivation has been changed, but it actually creates a more well-rounded portrayal and leaves us conflicted, a nice touch and one that defines many of the later Poirot episodes.

On the other hand, it’s a patchy affair. While Warner and Holden are performing very naturalistically, there’s plenty of silliness, particularly in the form of Rob Brydon as a small-minded Inspector, and the utterly bizarre appearance of Noel Coward. Yes, apparently, the Noel Coward. (I don’t know why, either.) Sadly, the music is far too preachy, which somewhat negates the subtlety of the performances. As for the climax… well, I’ve always found the book’s climax to be somewhat risky. Marple instigates a situation designed to catch the murderer, but – if it fails – it would have tipped him or her off, and ruined the chances of ever finding out the truth. This adaptation makes up for that, partly by having Marple and her team find more clues, but also by amending the circumstances. However, the timing required to make this work – although, admittedly, justified earlier in the film – still stretches credibility.

By and large, I enjoyed the first series of Agatha Christie’s Marple. Perhaps, once I’ve watched a few more series, I may come to loathe the looseness of the adaptations, but so far, I feel as if these have worked as strong films which capture the spirit of Christie’s novels, while dragging them (kicking and screaming) into the 21st century.

Up next: series two reviewed.