Most fans of author Agatha Christie have their favorite cinematic incarnation of Miss Marple firmly entrenched in their mind, with a strong argument for anyone who suggests someone else. Usually, it depends on who they were exposed to first. When I was a kid, watching whatever happened to be on TV on a Saturday afternoon (depending on what the aerial could pick up), it was probably one of the Margaret Rutherford MGM Marple mysteries that first formed my impression of Christie's elderly spinster sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. Ridiculously hilarious, Rutherford had almost nothing to do with the Marple described by Christie, but she was marvelously funny, so -- she was Marple to me.
And I've never been one to carp about liberties taken with the stories, when adapted to the screen or television. It's an age-old debate, and I always come down to on the side of the source material and film being two separate entities, which can be enjoyed as such -- separately. Barring making Miss Marple a young married sleuth with two kids and a lovable mutt, I don't much care what they do with the stories as long as the films are entertaining in themselves. The books still remain; the pleasures of reading them have nothing to do with seeing the films, and vice versa.
That's why these latest Granada productions from Britain, starring celebrated stage actress Geraldine McEwan, are a revelation to me. In a word, they're spectacular. The last Marple series that I watched on a regular basis were the celebrated Joan Hickson versions. I was never a big fan (oh boy, here come the emails); I always thought the Hickson films were far too sedate, far too "reverential" of the source material; most of the time, I felt I was being asked to love them because they slavishly followed the books, not because they were good films in and of themselves. Well, there's no chance of that happening with Agatha Christie Marple: Series 2. These marvelous little gems are a wonder of razor-sharp direction, smart, funny scripting, atmospheric lighting, sumptuous set decoration, and spot-on acting. Producer Matthew Read has faithfully translated the spirit of Christie's literary mysteries into full-blown cinematic charmers that you'd be lucky to find at your local movie house.
Obviously, producer Read has a love of old movies (or maybe more accurately, a love of the memories of watching old movies), because these Marples emphasize a style and panache reminiscent of the best of Hollywood's Golden Age. The camera prowls through astoundingly evocative sets, eliminating any fears that these stories are going to be little "chamber pieces." The directors of the four stories keep the scenes coming, fast, sure and tidy, with no time for the plots to lag. Rich, primary colors in the cinematography alternate with gauzy, lush lighting to create a marvelous, nostalgic glow. The costumes are gorgeous, and correct for the times portrayed. Of course, evocative direction, lighting, and set decoration mean nothing without good scripts, and here, they don't disappoint. Catty and clever, the dialogue snaps, never missing a beat or sounding a false note. Also of note: the jaunty, bouncy little theme that heads every film, by Dominik Scherrer -- do I detect a faint nod to Ron Goodwin's delightful theme for the Margaret Rutherford Marples here?
The actors are top notch, as well. There's always been a notion with American critics that British actors are somehow better trained than American actors, although if you ask most British actors, they're equally envious of American actors' sense of immediacy. But clearly, for this type of mystery, British actors reign, and this series does an amazing job of picking both seasoned pros and fresh faces to bring the stories to life. Geraldine McEwan is a delightful choice as Miss Marple. Her bright-penny, shining eyes twinkle mischievously, seeing right through the various liars who cross her path. She brings a welcome energy to the character, as well as a sly, dead-pan humor to her line readings. It's nice to see that even though the producer has Miss Marple be a sport when it comes to the various edgier people she encounters (when someone asks her if she's familiar with the term "nymphomaniac," she giggles -- you'd never see Hickson laugh at that!), she's still the moral compass that Christie imagined, never surprised at the depths to which people will sink to entertain their baser emotions and desires.
And speaking of the delights of baser emotions, it's great to see adults enjoying themselves in adult ways, without worrying about modern prudes shaking their fingers -- everyone drinks, and everyone smokes. Even Miss Marple enjoys a toddy now and then. You forget how sensuous it is to watch a beautiful woman smoke a cigarette (see a perfectly turned out Emilia Fox smoke one in The Moving Finger, and rue the day the tobacco companies got sued).
Part of the fun, at least for me, is not trying to figure out whodunit; I like the story to just take me along. Not that I could probably figure them out anyway; Christie was a master at not only characterization, but also plot mechanics. So don't worry; I won't print any spoilers. Here are the four stories presented in Agatha Christie Marple: Series 2, with descriptions taken from their cases:
Gwenda arrives in England, looking forward to her impending marriage and new life in a lovely old coastal estate. But almost immediately, she begins to experience sinister visions. Enter Miss Marple, who concludes that the bride-to-be witnessed a murder in that very house as a child. But how could she, since Gwenda had spent her entire life in India? With the patience of an experienced knitter, Miss Marple unsnarls the tangled skein of a family's past.
By the Pricking of My Thumbs
Something wicked this way comes to the Sunny Ridge Retirement Home for Ladies. Miss Marple teams up with detective duo Tommy and Tuppence to investigate the suspicious death of Tommy's Aunt Ada and sudden disappearance of Ada's friend, Mrs. Lancaster, both residents of Sunny Ridge. An oddly doctored painting and tantalizing crossword clues lead Tuppence and Miss Marple to Farrell St. Edmund, a village that seems straight out of a fairy tale -- complete with lurking evil.
The Moving Finger
When Jerry Burton moves to Lymstock to convalesce after a motorcycle crash, he meets villagers who traffic in gossip and double-entendres. But the accusations in several anonymous poison-pen letters go beyond the usual prattle. In fact, scandalous hate mail leads two citizens to commit suicide. Or were they murdered? With her keen powers of observation and quite common-sense analysis, Miss Marple uncovers the shameful secrets that sent a quaint village into turmoil.
The Sittaford Mystery
Among the guests at a Dartmoor hotel, a seance starts out as an amusing diversion to pass the time on a snowy evening but then takes a sinister turn. Supernatural events point to danger to Trevelyan, an infamous local staying at the hotel. Meanwhile, six miles away at Sittaford House, Miss Marple finds a not-so-supernatural death threat naming the same man. With snow piling up and blocking the roads, can anyone reach him in time?
Super-sharp images highlight the 16:9 widescreen presentation here. Flawless.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 English stereo mix cleanly picks up the dialogue and atmospheric music.
Each disc contains a behind-the-scenes featurette, the majority of the running time made up of clips from each film, with some interview clips with the stars. The featurettes don't add much to our understanding of the films, or offer much insight into the characters or the production. There are also photo galleries of each production, as well as titles-only filmographies for the major players, on each disc. There's a general print biography of Agatha Christie on the first disc.
Rarely has a television production grabbed my imagination like these Granada productions of Agatha Christie Marple: Series 2. Sensational production values, imaginative direction, whipsmart writing, and infectious, knowing performances make these four films an absolute delight -- and an absolute must-see for Christie and mystery fans. Even if you're not familiar with Christie, I still highly recommend these charming, lively films -- a perfect accompaniment to a languid, rainy Saturday afternoon.
<Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.