And we’re back, for Geraldine McEwan’s final outings as Miss Jane Marple.

Review: Agatha Christie’s Marple: Series Three (2007 – 2009)

With Geraldine McEwan (Miss Jane Marple)

Written by Tom MacRae, Stewart Harcourt, Kevan Elyot and Stephen Churchett

Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple

I’ve come to adore Geraldine McEwan as Jane Marple; her kind and knowing smile, her rueful wisdom, the sweet way in which her heart goes out even to the murderer. I’m going to miss her, but I appreciate that McEwan – like many people in their 70s – wanted to retire. Although McEwan’s approach was different to those who came before her, I very much accept that: it’s not as if she was playing a cocaine-snorting flapper, or – God forbid – Jennifer Garner! I’d prefer each incarnation to have its own presence, and I think she succeeded admirably. So, on with the films.

Towards Zero is the first of two non-Marple books adapted for this series, and it features a cast whose pedigree – even by this series’ standards – surprised me: Tom Baker! Saffron Burrows! Eileen Atkins! Towards Zero is quite a successful novel (if less sadistic than its superior thematic counterpart Crooked House), in which the old sins of a claustrophobic family come home to roost.  Following the book’s lead, the film takes quite a while to lead to the murder, and it mostly works. This is a very atypical murder mystery, in which Alan Davies’ superintendent and Marple do their own separate investigations for the most part, and because of this, the wait for the murder just adds to the feeling that this is its own kind of mystery, not hampered by any kind of format. I actually have very little to say about this film: most things work, and the changes to the novel – gathering everyone together far earlier – work because the scenes are rife with tension. However, Towards Zero also fails to stand-out: there’s a whole bunch of confusion in this murder, with its scattered subplots and loosely connected characters, that the piece never feels like a whole in the same way that, say, A Murder is Announced did. On top of this, the murderer’s final confession speech is a little off-putting, being far too Scooby-Doo for my taste (“and it would’ve worked, if it wasn’t for you, Miss Marple!”). But that’s the side of me which watches these movies as a critic, and as someone who wishes every episode could have the rich palette and textures of some of the best Christie adaptations – Five Little Pigs springs to mind. The other side of me – the intended audience, snuggling in with a cup of tea on a Sunday evening – certainly never lost interest in the plot, and found all of the performances engaging, so on balance, I’d say it works. (Although am I the only one who has trouble taking Davies seriously – through no fault of his own – after years of his buffoonery on QI?)

Alan Davies as Mallard in "Towards Zero"

Nemesis is next, meaning that – like Joan Hickson before her – McEwan’s series adapts this sequel before its ancestor novel A Caribbean Mystery. (Indeed, the new Marple hasn’t done that book at all yet.) It’s not a problem here, since Jason Rafiel is only the latest in a long line of characters who have been presented to us as people from Marple’s past. But it’s a pity we couldn’t have had things the other way ‘round, no?  Nemesis is not one of my favourite books, although the central idea – a coach tour of disparate people who in fact are all connected to a long-forgotten murder – delights me, and held my interest in the Hickson adaptation. Here, the screenwriters again loosely adapt the novel (series three is far looser than the previous two), giving us a film which is nothing like the book in any substantial way, but moves along at a satisfactory pace. Unsurprisingly by now, the cast are all exceptional: Anne Reid and Amanda Burton as creepily placid nuns, the gorgeous Ronni Ancona as Amanda Dalrymple, and some solid supporting turns from Will Mellor, Johnny Briggs and Ruth Wilson. Young Broadway veteran Laura Michelle Kelly oddly fails to make much of an impression, but it’s actually an admirable feat, as the actress rids herself of any outstanding characteristics to play a relatively downtrodden character. Finally, there’s Richard E. Grant in a one-time role as Marple’s nephew Raymond. To be honest, I’ve never been as big on Grant as some, since – while he’s good – he doesn’t seem to often stretch himself. It’s true here, as the role of Raymond simply fills that ‘companion’ function. However, I’m probably being unduly cruel, since he never strikes a wrong note.

Nemesis, by its very nature, feels far more cohesive than Towards Zero, and there’s a genuine sense of these people as a group who gradually grow together. The old homes on the tour become increasingly unsettling, and all attempts at atmosphere are acceptable. If there’s a letdown, it’s that the solution is a bit complex, taking away some of the simple but emotionally affecting elements of the novel. I’m not quite sure why they went so far afield with this (and indeed, I think the novel’s ending works better), but – again – as a teatime viewer, this works well enough for me.

Geraldine McEwan and Anne Reid in "Nemesis"

This series of four were scattered over a period of eighteen months, which seemed an odd decision to me, but in retrospect it makes sense. McEwan had decided to retire from the role (and from acting in general, I believe), as she turned 75 shortly after these were filmed. As a result, I assume they wished to prolong the series while deciding whether or not they would recast, and with whom. Beyond this, British television was again entering a period where ‘bonnet dramas’ and other historical programs were beginning to flag in the ratings, which seems to be a regular rise-and-fall pattern. This would ultimately leave David Suchet waiting to hear about the final series of Poirot for quite some time (even now, there are so many rumours but no certainty). Either way, the situation would eventually be resolved of course with the casting of Julia McKenzie.

In the meantime: At Bertram’s Hotel, which I think works better than the previous two, simply on account of not forgetting it the minute the film ends. This series has always enjoyed giving us scattered mentions of Marple’s past, and here she’s tied into a novel where her childhood hotel seems exactly the same, and for this very reason the spinster is unsettled. The screenwriter here keeps much of the same elements in the actual crimes, but much of the auxiliary ambience is changed: a lot more focus on the hotel’s staff, and a far deeper ending than the novel (which was, unfortunately, replicated in a highly unusual thriller turn in the Hickson series).

Francesca Annis appears as Lady Selina, and – my God – the woman doesn’t look any older than she did as Tuppence Beresford twenty-five years ago. Well, okay, maybe a little, but she’s no less captivating than she was then. Martine McCutcheon – whose career never quite took off after Love Actually – has a notable turn as the maid, Jane; Polly Walker does her best haughty Liz Hurley as Lady Bess Sedgwick; Vincent Regan gives a stoic dignity to the doorman Mickey; Mark Heap is wonderfully disgusting as the greasy hotel manager; and Charles Kay is suitably doddery as Canon Pennyfather. Peter Davison has a cameo role and – while I’m always stunned to see how one of my favourite Doctors continues to age, as is time’s wont – he commands the screen easily.

Stephen Mangan gives a wonderfully toned-down performance as Inspector Bird. I still believe this series could have benefited from recurring detectives, as in Hickson’s day, but I guess most of these stories take place in various locales (seriously, how rarely do we see St. Mary Mead?). And I must say, I’ve almost never been disappointed with the way in which this series handles the investigative angle. I’ve harped on many times about how the unsatisfactory element of the Marple series is usually her limited role in the investigation: not only does she often appear more as a deus ex machina, but she often seems able to divine the answer from two or three tiny clues, rather like explaining what the picture of a jigsaw looks like with only a few corner pieces. Here, however, both Bird and Marple investigate, while never quite sure of the other (this will die out somewhat with McEwan; Julia McKenzie’s Marple seems to have some kind of psychic pull over law enforcement officials), and yet things never feel redundant with them both on the scene.

Francesca Annis as Lady Selina Hazy and Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple in "At Bertram's Hotel"

Less successful elements… well, this business with the talking-at-the-same-time twins Jack and Joel (Nicholas Burns) is a bit much, no? And while the bond between Marple and McCutcheon’s character is lovely, the writers attempt to use Jane as someone to clarify events for the viewer, while disguising it as “her attempts to help Miss Marple”. Unfortunately, they haven’t disguised it very well. The reveal of the murderer’s plot is overly complicated, but somehow – with a final twist just to mess with those of us who thought we knew everything from the novel – it actually ends up making sense. So, although things are still a bit melodramatic for my taste, At Bertram’s Hotel is largely a success. It creates an entire world in this hotel, dispenses with some of the obvious twists early on, and the cast are all strong enough that they can make the silliest dialogue sound believable. (Well, except Burns, but I daresay Helen Mirren would struggle with pulling off the hammy twins sequences.)

In some ways, it’s a pity that McEwan retired. The final scene is somewhat overblown, yes, with Marple acknowledging that the world is changing around them, but it fits in perfectly with the flashbacks to her past seen in the earlier episodes from series one, and generates a whole new emotional arc for the character, which could have served as a parallel to the subtle depth of Poirot in his later seasons. While I personally think Julia McKenzie brings a lot to the role, the change of cast has of course obliterated these elements.

Finally, there is Ordeal by Innocence, a film I was about to call the jewel of series three but which – in retrospect – has me running both hot and cold. From a narrative standpoint, this is certainly the Five Little Pigs of Marple’s era (although, of course, it’s not a Marple novel). Cold-hearted Rachel Argyle (Jane Seymour) is killed, and her adoptive son Jacko (Torchwood’s Burn Gorman) is executed for the murder. Years later, evidence comes to light that Jacko was innocent, sending the extended Argyle family into paranoia and devastation. By chance (of course) this occurs just 36 hours before the wedding of Rachel’s widower Leo (Denis Lawson) and his former assistant Gwenda (Juliet Stevenson) who, naturally enough, was one of Miss Marple’s wards years ago, and invited the spinster to her home for the wedding. The suspects are chiefly the other, numerous adoptive children, as well as Leo and Gwenda herself. Phew, got that?

Fortunately, the first half of the film is just very, very good, and my first thought was to liken this to Poirot (both the series and the books).  Stevenson and Lawson are actors I’ve long admired, and they bring a very solid presence as the rulers of the household, although it’s a household divided, ever more so, by the knowledge that one of their number is a killer. The first half of the film takes place in the 36 hours after the announcement: namely, the lead-up to what should have been the wedding. As such, things feel wonderfully claustrophobic, and we get the sense that everyone’s lives are genuinely unraveling. On top of this, Marple feels very much in place, since she’s a guest at the home. (Interestingly, this is very much the format for series four, and the way Marple just jumps in to join Inspector Huish’s investigation is similar.)

What elevates Ordeal by Innocence above the previous series three efforts is its direction: Moira Armstrong is a BBC veteran, although this is her only Marple credit, and it’s a shame. She brings a naturalistic, theatrical mentality to the series. An early scene where Marple is first reunited with Gwenda is a little bit cinema verite. People constantly lose words midsentence, or blow their nose during a speech; a dinner scene will focus on the characters eating and smacking their lips as they talk; Marple constantly stops “walk-and-talk” conversations, as she has trouble keeping pace while also deliberating over the crime.  These little touches are fascinating, and echo throughout the entire film. However, it also never feels like an anomaly: the same tinkly Marple music plays on numerous occasions, so this entry slots nicely into the series.

It’s also one of the most intriguing casts to date: Seymour is very good, but I would never have thought of her for the role of the icy Rachel, who took in numerous children but kept people like pets and was incapable of love. (As in Murder in Mesopotamia, we find the victim so interesting that she overshadows the living.) Comedian Reece Shearsmith is the latest in a long line – Alan Davies, Stephen Mangan, etc – to take on the role of an Inspector, but again: I would never have picked it. (Having said that, he is very good at toeing the line between drama and farce, as evidenced by Psychoville). More to the point, Armstrong must be a fan of the Doctor Who universe: aside from Gorman (whose wonderfully unique face is perfect for the did-he-or-didn’t-he Jacko), the cast includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw as one of the siblings, Camille Coduri in a cameo near the climax, and Bryan Dick (who appeared as Torchwood’s Adam) as the cocky younger brother of the family. Other stand-outs include Julian Rhind-Tutt as the nebbish professor whose arrival sets the plot in motion, and the powerhouse Alison Steadman, as the live-in governess who is the only one to have understood the truth about the family.

Julian Rhind-Tutt, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Anne Steadman, Richard Armitage and Tom Riley in "Ordeal by Innocence"

The second half of the film is more of a mixed bag: there are some genuine twists, and no character is allowed to get off scot-free, which is nice: there really is no-one here who is genuinely good, everyone has some questionable element to their character. But things do become quite like a soap opera, as the denouement explains that every member of the family has been having a secret relationship with someone else. While nothing on its own is untenable, the staggering pile of coincidences and deceit is a little overwhelming. Thanks to the efforts of Armstrong, and McEwan – whose soft but strong detective’s voice makes it all feel plausible, at least in the moment – we’re never left out in the cold. But I’m not convinced that the script actually gave us as much information as it seems to think, and the siblings for the most part end up relatively one-dimensional, in spite of all their secrets. Faring worst is poor Stephanie Leonidas. I always enjoyed her in that kooky ITV soap Night and Day (which I wish someone would release on DVD, as unlikely as that sounds), but she’s not quite up to par with everyone else. Fair dues, though: I’m not sure how much of that is her fault, and how much is the utterly bizarre character she’s saddled with. Hester dresses and acts like an eleven-year-old, but Leonidas is clearly in her twenties, and I can’t quite understand: is Hester mentally challenged? Is Leonidas just playing ridiculously young? Or is this the way some girls dressed and acted at the end of the ‘50s? I guess we’ll never know, but it certainly drew me out of the piece, which is a shame, because much of Ordeal by Innocence has a boldness that this series has never shown before.

So, how do I sum up Geraldine McEwan’s time as Miss Marple? Suffice it to say, I’m going to miss this bug-eyed beauty. She brought a delicate sensitivity to the role, coupled with a ‘blame the sin, not the sinner’ morality, which allowed her to be far more empathetic than any other Marple to date. Many will always claim Hickson as ‘definitive’ – and of course, in the sense that she echoes the books, Hickson is. But McEwan deserves praise and acceptance for her characterization as well. From me, she’s got it.

Now, on to Julia McKenzie…