Well, after three years of lovely Marple stories, Geraldine McEwan retired (quite understandably), passing the torch to renowned theatre and television actress Julia McKenzie. I’d only heard some grumblings about “these new Marples” before I started this project, so I was very intrigued to leave rumour behind and make up my own mind. And you know what? Much like this overhyped nonsense about every episode of this series featuring anachronistically gallivanting lesbians, any qualms about McKenzie are complete tosh. After some initial trepidation, I think she serves the role admirably.

Review: Agatha Christie’s Marple: Series Four (2009 – 11)

with Julia McKenzie (Miss Jane Marple)

written by Stephen Churchett, Kevin Elyot, Patrick Barlow & Paul Rutman

Beyond the concern of changing the leading actress, what had me worried most was whether the series would alter its tone. I kept hearing rumblings of this series being startlingly ‘modern’ or anachronistic but, thankfully, I can’t see it. A Pocket Full of Rye develops in much the same way as McEwan’s series, but if anything it’s more akin to the earlier McEwan episodes, with a far more classical vibe and none of the directorial quirks that characterised Ordeal by Innocence, for example. (Having said that, there’s still an over-reliance on quirky music, at least to my taste.)

Lucy Cohu as Patricia, Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple and Helen Baxendale as Mary Dove in "A Pocket Full of Rye"

 Matthew Macfadyen dons a moustache to play Inspector Neele, investigating the death of cranky, lecherous businessman Rex Fortescue (Kenneth Cranham). A Pocket Full of Rye was a very good choice, I think, for McKenzie’s debut, as it perfectly embodies the formula of a middle-era Christie novel, with the feuding, black-hearted family and the seemingly disconnected murders at the heart of it. There isn’t a dod actor in the bunch: quite literally every person brings their A-Game, but special mentions have to go to Helen Baxendale, who subverts her usually lovely presence by giving a cold performance as the housekeeper Mary Dove; Ben Miles as Fortescue’s son Percival; Wendy Richard (in her final performance) as a suitably slutternly cook Mrs. Crump; and the charismatic, Gillian Anderson-esque Lucy Cohu as Patricia Fortescue. Prunella Scales also pops in for a cameo at the end, being very effective as a near catatonic old lady, although it’s a bit of a format for the later Marple stories that the key piece of evidence comes in the final reel, delivered by a notable TV actor in their only scene. (Not complaining, though!)

I really enjoyed this film actually: in keeping with the novel, the film gets three deaths out of the way quite early, leaving Marple and Neele’s solid, respectful relationship at the centre of a genuine investigation. McKenzie’s Marple is far less meek than McEwan, and everyone seems to obey her with little hesitation (and if they don’t, we can tell they’re hiding something!) Here, she basically just tells Neele that – since people confide a lot in old ladies – she’ll be helping him with the case, and he can like it or lump it. Very little of the novel is changed, and there are some lovely scenes of Marple simply sitting down with people and letting them pour their heart out to her, while of course accidentally revealing vital truths.

There are a few moments of abject silliness, true: Marple just gets her hands on hotel registries, or sits quietly in the corner listening to conversations of people at other tables – in short, elements that don’t utilise the wiles for which the spinster is known. And there is no emotional reaction to the second and third deaths, which highlights the family’s cold-hearted nature but also makes them seem a little perfunctory. Still, this is a solid opening and, thankfully, things will only get better.

By this point in time, it seems that every British actor has asked their agent to book a Poirot or a Marple, so raving about the calibre of the cast seems quite redundant at this point. Still, Murder is Easy continues to raise the stakes in that department, and it won’t be the last time. Here, Miss Marple meets Lavinia Pinkerton (Sylvia Syms) on a train, learning that Lavinia is off to Scotland Yard to report a murder (or, maybe, several). When Lavinia dies en route, Marple attends the funeral and finds herself embroiled in a mystery with a wonderful array of stray ends – any number of deaths could have been accidents or murders, but no one can connect them, or provide motives for any. While the ‘nostalgia murder’ was rarely Christie’s strong point – popping up in such disasters as Postern of Fate, Sleeping Murder and Elephants Can Remember – it’s used to great advantage here, partly because the living characters are so vibrant, and because the film never gives in to any of the longueurs that destroyed the Hickson version of Sleeping Murder, for instance. (Incidentally, I wonder if these are becoming harder to film? I’m sure Great Britain will never run out of period costumes and cars, but finding these suitable locations must get harder as years go by – that escalator that Lavinia falls down, for instance, is remarkably authentic.)

The great joy of Murder is Easy for me was that I went in with completely no memory of who the killer was. The suspects are played by all our old favourites: Steve Pemberton as the new vicar whose predecessor died in a beekeeping accident, Anna Chancellor as a frank-speaking socialite, Tim Brooke-Taylor as the local doctor, and Shirley Henderson as Honoria Waynflete, the plain best friend of Lavinia. Amy Gibbs (Rome‘s Cleopatra) puts in a particularly solid turn as Lyndsey, a maid who isn’t particularly good at her job. There are possibly too many young women with minimal differences in character, and because the connection between the murders has been hidden, it’s hard at times to keep track of how all the suspects’ lives interact. Yet, I think this is a very solid adaptation: although Miss Marple has been added to the mix, we still get the novel’s investigator – former police detective Luke Fitzwilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch, shortly before his casting in Sherlock) – and the two of them work well together. (Russell Tovey, who is always very good at playing people with absolutely no charisma, has a surprisingly small role as the actual official investigator, but he’s a gem.)

Benedict Cumberbatch as Luke Fitzwilliam in "Murder is Easy"

Murder is Easy works because – while it is in many ways the typical Christie story – it never feels anything less than atypical. There are 6 (perhaps 7?) deaths in total, although several have occurred before the story begins, giving us the knowledge that a particularly audacious murderer is on the loose. At the same time, it isn’t until the halfway point that even the characters are aware of this, making Marple’s concern all the more palpable. The way in which she quickly ingratiates herself into the town is well done, particularly as not everyone warms to her presence. As will become custom this series, however, she makes an immediate connection with the investigator – Luke, in this case – and they complement each other well. Apparently, McKenzie only had a couple of weeks to prepare for the role, and it shows a little in these first two films – she’s suitably old and is a very, very, very good actress, but she’s still developing the traits and tics that make up the character. (She’ll get there, though.) My favourite element is how she occasionally quotes literature, but not in the annoying television way where the quote is easily recognisable and all the characters know it. Here, half the time, Marple herself will forget where it comes from.

(It should be pointed out that – yes-  I recognise they have substantially reworked the novel, including the murderer’s age and motives. But, as I’ve said before, not every Christie mystery has the construction of Murder on the Orient Express or the character depth of Endless Night. While remaining true to the spirit of the novel – which can, after all, still be read in its original form, so I don’t see why we have to pander and provide a literal translation for illiterate idiots – Murder is Easy creates a solid story with dimensional characters whose actions are understandable. I only object to loose adaptations when the primary aim seems to be the writer’s arrogance and laziness, resulting in the use of Christie’s characters and tropes for their own ends; that’s not the case here.)

The deaths come thick and fast, but – I have to say – there was only one person I really suspected, and I turned out to be right. Perhaps it was just because, with the number of disconnected deaths, it was easier to find one person around whom the other characters pivoted. But I’m not concerned: the flashbacks to the murders are horrific and unnerving, the acting of the murderer convincing, and the rationale behind the crimes is tragic and – in a maddening kind of way – logical. For the most part, the solution is handled well, with a lengthy final scene in which McKenzie, Henderson and Hugo Speer are perfect (although Margo Stilley as Bridget leaves a bit to be desired, particularly as so many of the reaction shots are for her – and she comes across as only vaguely interested.) Henderson is the standout though, one of those actresses whose entire career rests on a double-edged sword: like Bernadette Peters or Megan Mullally, her unusual voice and non-Hollywood looks make her stand out, but she’s been very lucky to get such great roles, and – to my knowledge – has never failed to knock them out of the park.

Before I go on to the third film, let me interject: this “Marple full of lesbians” business is rubbish. The most prominent lesbians in Marple remain the genuine Christie ones from A Murder is Announced. That’ll teach me to listen to fan opinions without making my own, but it’s just a shame that this series gets a bad rap for the occasional – almost always subtle – introduction of real-world elements that wouldn’t have passed muster in Christie’s time.

Georgia Moffet as Frankie Derwent in "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?"

On to Why Didn’t they Ask Evans?, the second of two non-Marple books adapted this season (as is par for the course at this point). It’s worth pointing out that – even these films are a far cry from their respective books – they’re almost always smashing entertainment. Sometimes I feel like a right misanthrope even critiquing these, since I’m sure I could sit back for 90 minutes each week and just enjoy the cast, the cinematography and the visuals, and hope that the plotting and characterisation keeps up. Evans? opens with perhaps the strangest get-to-the-point sequence since The Secret Adversary some three decades earlier. Bobby (the lovely Sean Biggerstaff) finds a body, who asks the film’s eponymous question. Bobby then meets old acquaintance ‘Frankie’ Derwent (Georgia Moffet), the two are misled by someone who wants to cover up the death, they figure this out, and then we see how Miss Marple slots into the proceedings. Effectively, we’ve already found out everything that would be in the book’s blurb, and we’re only six minutes in!

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is something of a thriller wrapped up in a country house murder. Frankie goes undercover in a family manor of Sylvia Savage (Samantha Bond) and peopled by her oddball family. There’s the stoic valet (Richard Briers); the lecherous Commander Peters (Warren Clarke); a pianist who has conned his way into the family (Rafe Spall, who has a great look but is one those actors who just comes across as ‘modern’ no matter how you dress him); Claude Evans (Mark “Mr. Weasley” Williams) whose arrival twigs Frankie’s spidey-sense; and Rik Mayall in a mannered but effective turn as  the worrying Dr. Nicholson, whose presence in the house is debated by the younger family members.

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? looks utterly marvelous, with some smashing cinematography and gorgeous costume designs: as an adventure romp, it takes on a lighter tone than some of the previous stories, which is useful since there are also a few negatives. The film quickly diverges away from the novel, however unlike Murder is Easy, we’re left with scores of hidden identities and unexpected knowledge of snake venom, and the feeling that we’ve wandered into one of Christie’s lesser thrillers. The complexity of the murders seems particularly redundant in the end, when we learn that the villains weren’t suspects (at least until Marple came along), so they could have just bashed their victims on the head and run off, rather than resorting to such opaque methods. And while the twisted nature of the Savage family is well written, the young actors playing the teenagers leave much to be desired. Hannah Murray as Dorothy and Freddie Fox as her fey brother Tom just aren’t up to the task, I’m afraid. I don’t expect them to be tween Derek Jacobis, and I applaud the show’s willingness to give young actors a chance to learn their craft alongside their elders, but… well, if Doctor Who can consistently find wonderful child actors, why can’t Marple? Fox is a bit one-note, I’m afraid, and Murray’s performance is so mannered she makes Nicole Kidman seem subtle. Okay, I’ll stop there, largely because I’m a young actor too, and I know that people need time to learn and evolve: it’s really only a pity that, toward the end of the film, the emotional burden is laid on the shoulders of the wrong actors.

Sean Biggerstaff as Bobby Jones in "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?"

On the other hand, our core trio are a delight. Rather than making Bobby & Frankie merely a reworking of Tommy & Tuppence, they’re given individual character traits that are, at first, offputting. Bobby is quiet, almost monk-like, unable to take compliments and playing the organ (always the early sign of a serial killer, surely!). Frankie, meanwhile, is obnoxious and reckless to the extreme, pranging her car outside the Savage manor in an excuse to go undercover. As the film goes on, of course, we come to enjoy their antics, and McKenzie gives her best performance of series four here, as she and Bobby end up going undercover as well. There’s a remarkable scene between McKenzie and Mayall that solidified her as Marple in my mind. She interrogates him by playing up her ‘old biddy’ image, talking over him so he can’t ask pertinent questions, even as he is forced to answer her just to ease his own growing annoyance. She’s eccentric enough to mask the fact that she’s actually investigating and not just musing inanely, but so keen-eyed that we always know exactly what step she’s up to. It’s a bit more crowd-pleasing than the later Poirot episodes, but it’s played with such panache that I don’t mind.

Finally, there’s They Do It With Mirrors, which for some reason was held back considerably in the UK, I assume simply because there was quite a delay between series four and five. (As yet, there is no word on a potential series six, although the upswing in interest in period pieces – in the aftermath of Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey may make this more profitable.)

Ruth van Rydock (Joan Collins) asks Marple – an old friend – to visit Stonygates, the home of her sister Carrie Louise (Penelope Wilton) as Ruth fears Carrie Louise’s life is in danger, for no tangible reason. As expected, the household is full of potentially suspicious types: Carrie Louise’s plain daughter Mildred (Sarah Smart) loathes her gorgeous, adopted sister Gina (Emma Griffiths Malin) ; while her overprotective third husband Lewis (Brian Cox), his creepy, jittery private secretary  Edgar (the talented and beautiful Tom Payne) wanders the halls claiming he’s Winston Churchill’s son; and her step-son Stephen (Liam Garrigan) and loyal housekeeper “Jolly” Bellever (Maxine Peake, in a very strong performance) also lurk in the shadows. Things kick off shortly after Marple arrives, with the joint arrivals of Carrie Louise’s second husband Johnny (Ian Ogilvy), a hot-blooded actor, and her (older) step-son Christian (Nigel Terry), who is brutally killed one night whilst the entire household are in the same room. It’s a perplexing mystery filled with startling characters and – aside from some minor rewrites – is quite faithful to the book, even managing to pull off the central, somewhat contrived, element of the crime without much difficulty.

To be honest, They Do It With Mirrors didn’t quite hold my interest as much as the other films of series four, but it works because structurally, it’s very well done. There are so many characters at Stonygates, yet all of them fit perfectly into the film’s construction, and there’s a powerful, melancholy streak running through things, exemplified by Gina’s morose, anti-social husband Wally (Elliot Cowan). Cowan is one of several great casting choices: Maxine Peake and Brian Cox hide themselves in their characters so well, you almost fail to notice the actor at all. And Tom Payne is the film’s most valued player: aside from pulling a Charlize Theron and completely disguising his stunning visage, he makes the character of Edgar – who could so easily be a cliche – into a fully realised, slightly creepy human being. McKenzie is also at her most expressive here. She spends much of the film dressed in more dour clothing and something about it lends McKenzie an air of Joan Hickson, which goes well with the fact that by now she’s got a handle on the character, and she’ll be even better come series five.

Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple and Joan Collins as Ruth van Rydock in "They Do It With Mirrors"

There are, however, a few unusual casting oddities: Collins and Wilton play American sisters… okay, fair enough. Collins at least has much experience in playing such characters, and she slides right into her Dynasty like role (the opening scene where she comments on how much younger she looks than Marple is a gem). Wilton, however, struggles with the accent, and unfortunately sticks out. She’s never bad (I don’t think she could be!) but – and perhaps this is just because Wilton is such a known figure on British television – you can never shake the knowledge that this character is just “Penelope Wilton putting on a vague accent”.

While it may not be the most dynamic film in the series, They Do It With Mirrors works on almost every angle. In fact, in one area this bests both Christie’s novel and the Joan Hickson adaptation: atmosphere. The original novel, written late in Dame Agatha’s career, could never really capture the ambience of Stonygates: a manor which now functions as a reform home for juvenile delinquents. Instead, her youths came off as toffs and the home feels like any other from the era. Hickson’s adaptation, meanwhile, wasn’t much better in that regard. Here, however, Stonygates is positively vibrant. Gina relishes the attention she gets from the young men, for example, and we attend the weekly dinner at which Carrie Louise and her family dine with the inmates. There’s a genuine sense of the rigorous, yet friendly, world they exist in, which comes through particularly at the jovial talent night. Overseen by the hilariously verbose Dr. Maverick (Alexei Sayle), Stonygates simply comes to life.

Finally, there are the Inspectors, played by Sean Hughes and Alex Jennings. Series 4 has been unusual in that McKenzie’s Marple seems to just psychically worm her way into the confidence of the law, to the point where she’s simply never challenged. (In fact, a running joke in series 5 will be that she’s in dozens of case files, and everyone already knows about her!) However, in all four films it is deftly done. While Marple has spent the rest of the season being helpful to amateurs, she here proves her worth from the very first meeting, noticing a key clue. They don’t trust her very much, but there’s the clear understanding that this seemingly innocent woman on the inside may be useful,  and there’s some lovely business between the amateur and professional investigators.

All in all, Julia McKenzie’s first series as Miss Marple is a triumph. Series 5, in my opinion, will be even better.