Geraldine McEwan as Jane Marple

Last month I reviewed the first series of Geraldine McEwan‘s portrayal of Miss Marple. While the films were not perfect, I enjoyed them far more than I expected, and I quickly got my hands on the four films that comprise the second series. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin…

Review: Agatha Christie’s Marple: Series Two (2006)

with Geraldine McEwan (Miss Jane Marple)

written by Stephen Churchett, Stewart Harcourt and Kevan Elyot

Sophia Myles, unsurprisingly, is very good at the heart of Sleeping Murder, an odd mélange of the source material and unusual inventiveness on the part of the screenwriter, but held together by a dynamic guest lead and some beautiful cinematography. That, in fact, is a fitting description of all four films in this collection.

After a wonderfully claustrophobic 15 minutes, during which Gwenda (Myles) moves into her new home and faces a gripping fear that she has witnessed murder there in the past, we get a fairly average film buoyed by its performances – even if your heart goes out to some of the actors for the bizarre characters they are saddled with. It’s fair to say that the Joan Hickson adaptation of Sleeping Murder was not very good: Christie’s later nostalgia novels were rarely very good, simply because it’s so hard to be invigorating when dealing with crimes from the long-dead past. (The few exceptions – such as Five Little Pigs – function more as character-based novels than murder mysteries.) So, when the screenwriter chose to reinvent this novel for the film, I can’t fault him… at least, not entirely. The nature of the murder remains the same, but a host of new characters – red herrings, for the most part –  have been invented, in the form of a comic troupe, the Funnybones, connected to the deceased. The Funnybones – whose youthful exuberance has faded, leaving them a gallery of grotesques – are played by a host of notable British comic actors: Dawn French, the wonderful Paul McGann, Peter Serafinowicz, Sarah Parrish… These artistes are all borderline ridiculous,and the performances, particularly from the usually reliable Parrish, come across as something out of Gormenghast). Una Stubbs as the housekeeper fares much better, and Geraldine Chaplin – as a gaunt, Fate-like widow – is marvelous.

Gwenda’s personal circumstances have changed from the novel, and the ending is a bit twee as a result. On the other hand, while I wish we could have the recurring detectives who populated the Hickson adaptation, I very much enjoyed Marple’s relationship with the older inspector, who suited this story perfectly. Most of these new additions are window-dressing and red herrings, and at the end of the day, I guess it’s better than another lifeless adaptation of a lifeless novel. Nothing here is unbelievable, and it wouldn’t stand out to a viewer who hadn’t read the novel, but I suspect it’s also an omen of things to come…

James D'Arcy as Jerry in "The Moving Finger"

In The Moving Finger, James D’Arcy provides a fascinating turn as Jerry, a character who – in the novel – sometimes comes across more as a polite old spinster than a recently discharged soldier. The Moving Finger is one of Marple’s best novels, and – overall – this is a strong adaptation which grabs you – viscerally, at least – with its film noir opening. I still can’t decide whether the garish opening was sincere or just a poorly-designed homage. Aside from this misguided moment, everything else works very well. As with Sleeping Murder, Marple is far more integrated than she was in the novel, and the cast are developed further, as is the atmosphere. An early dinner scene gathers many of the suspects – or proto-suspects at this point – and creates a genuine sense of community. Cast highlights include Imogen Stubbs, John Sessions (as possibly the only confirmed gay male in Christie’s canon), Thelma Barlow and the young Talulah Riley, who was also a strength in Suchet’s Five Little Pigs. Emilia Fox, as Jerry’s sister, looks lovely.

Overall, I very much liked this: the multi-dimensional sibling relationship is strongly written, the cinematography stunning, the motivations believable, and Jerry is such a well-drawn lead. He’s strong enough to be our protagonist, but the script still questions his motivations as much as the rest of the cast. His relationship with Megan – a challenging element of both the book and the previous adaptation – is actually quite well done. Only the odd film noir business detracts.

And then there’s Miss Marple herself. Have I mentioned how amazing Geraldine McEwan is in this role? I spoke last time about the differences between her and Hickson; suffice it to say, I love the way in which McEwan’s Marple is so intrusive and yet clear-headed, managing to speak to people on their level. She may not be as authentically old-school as Hickson, but she’s created a powerful character as we reach the halfway point of her tenure.  We probably don’t need flashbacks to Marple’s youth in every story, as it becomes tiresome, but obviously these weren’t designed to be watched all over the one weekend. (Her heart-shaped magnifying glass, though, while a sublime idea, is a tad gimmicky, no?)

Third on our list is By the Pricking of My Thumbs. So, after six adaptations of Marple novels, the writers decided to try their hand at something different, and we’ve now got two non-Marple books into which our spinster is shoehorned. Look, I don’t hold to any theory of exclusivity: these books were written decades ago; there is no reason why – as in Thumbs – we can’t insert Marple while still remaining true to the spirit of the story, if not the text. And – as Poirot‘s writers lamented when it came time to script Murder on the Orient Express – it’s not great fun to be living up to iconic adaptations. So, I have no inherent problem with this decision. On the other hand, I do have a problem when the adaptation isn’t very good. Luckily, this ain’t the case. In fact, it’s probably my favourite adaptation thus far.

Anthony Andrews and Greta Scacchi as Tommy and Tuppence, with Geraldine McEwan

It’s very strange, having just viewed Partners in Crime, to view this new interpretation of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Anthony Andrews particularly reminds me of James Warwick. The couple are less giddy than Christie’s book: in fact, their relationship is beginning to tear apart at the seams. Tuppence was prevented from being a spy by an untimely pregnancy, and she’s always held a suppressed grudge toward her husband. Tommy, meanwhile, has given up his youthful frivolity and wishes his wife would just stay home. It’s a daring, realistic interpretation (reminding me somewhat of but – thanks to Andrews and the divine Greta Scacchi – it works. (Andrews is sidelined for the most part, pairing Tuppence with Miss Marple for the majority of the film.) Sure, I want to imagine these two babbling away forever, but – much as McEwan’s Marple misses her youth, and Suchet’s Poirot rues the absence of love in his life – I apreciate this new interpretation.

More importantly, this just works. Tuppence and Marple form a strong pair, and the suspects – scattered across the countryside – all feel integrated into the plot. It never feels as if Marple is just gathering disparate clues: the investigation has a logical direction, and the script acknowledges the vague supernatural elements of the novel without lending them too much credence.

The cast, meanwhile, consists almost entirely of my favourite people: Josie Lawrence! June Whitfield! Claire Bloom! Charles Dance! Steven Berkoff! (I love how Britain can get such stalwarts as Bloom and Whitfield to play essentially bit parts. Berkoff, meanwhile, almost taught drama at my university, but that’s a story for the memoirs.) Bonnie Langford is also good, in a delightfully ironic piece of casting as the show mother of a perky young girl. Michael Begley turns in a strong performance as the ill-at-ease, young constable. O.T. Fagbenle is good enough as the young, black GI although he’s a little bit fey for the role, truth be told. Michelle Ryan – before she became nominally famous – doesn’t make much of an impression, in a relatively thankless role.

It’s not all perfect: the opening – as with The Moving Finger – is needlessly flashy, genuinely feeling like a sketch show parody. Some of the music, too, is inappropriate: I’m sorry, but the announcement of someone’s death shouldn’t be accompanied by those trademark quirky string instruments, even if they are supposed to show how Tuppence’s mind is working. But the ending is suitably creepy, and it’s one of the strongest Marple denouements yet. Somehow, Marple’s calm reasoning often feels less contrived than that of Poirot: largely because she is the opposite of self-important, and they often feel ad-lib, with people standing up or unexpectedly gathered, rather than a deliberate invitation for tea. Tommy and Tuppence’s relationship is left somewhat unresolved: is it too late to hope that they might return for a Marple production of N or M?

Carey Mulligan in "The Sittaford Mystery"

Things fall down somewhat with The Sittaford Mystery. It manages to capture the strong ambiance of a strong novel, but – with its almost completely reinvented plot and cast – I’d argue it’s the least cohesive production in 12 seasons of Poirot and 2 of Marple. 

I’m not protective of any of the Marple books and, given that the best have been faithfully adapted, I’m satisfied. On the other hand, what makes The Sittaford Mystery a good novel is the tight cast, and the strong, focussed atmosphere. Sadly, the adaptation loses the former, and retains the latter only for some (admittedly effective) sections.

Scattered thoughts:

  • I don’t think this story needed a flashback to open it. It’s not an uncommon technique in these series, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that truly felt necessary. I would’ve liked a tighter, Clue-like opening of the characters arriving.
  • I did like the voiceover as we see Marple first from Trevelyan’s point of view.
  • Oddly, things only go downhill after  the murder. The first forty minutes (yes… forty) are strongly atmospheric, but things fall apart post-murder.
  • The good cast members: Michael Brandon as an aggressive American; Patricia Hodge as the stoic aunt; a pre-famous Carey Mulligan as a wallflower; Rita Tushingham, who works wonders as Ms. Percehouse; and Mel Smith as the investigator. (I guess Timothy Dalton is good too, but I may have been overwhelmed by his general Timothy Dalton-ness…)
  • The young actors, on the other hand, are all a bit knowing. Zoe Telford and James Murray, particularly, come across as actors playing characters, and don’t convince for a second. (Murray is overly made-up, as well, which doesn’t help matters!) Laurence Fox is particularly unimpressive as Jim.
  • Um… Winston Churchill? Really? After Noel Coward last season, this seems excessive.
  • Cleverly, we get to see Marple’s nephew Raymond’s house, while they save his appearance for a later adaptation.

Things just get too much as we go on: like Sleeping Murder, or Poirot’s Appointment with Death, the excessive flashbacks, linking every character to our central figure, give the film a manic feel. They were going for “sprawling”, instead they got “stretched”. On the other hand, the denouement – in small groups this time – is wonderfully filmed.

The Sittaford Mystery is not a complete lost cause, but it feels like exactly what it is: a 2000s screenwriter playing at Agatha Christie. A shame, really.

Next month, I’ll review McEwan’s final season as Marple, and try and write something coherent about her portrayal over the three years.