Watching Acorn Media's latest batch of Granada TV adaptations of Agatha Christie Marple: Series 3, it became immediately apparent that something was definitely off from that previous marvelous set. Going back and checking the credits for these latest four films (Towards Zero, Nemesis, At Betram's Hotel, and Ordeal by Innocence), I noticed that they had a different producer than the four films in the Agatha Christie Marple: Series 2 boxed set. Whereas those adaptations were marked by an obvious love of old films, with a pulpy, peripatetic approach to the productions that enlivened and reinvigorated the Miss Marple character, these new films of Set 3 were...entirely predictable and worse, ordinary.
The Granada adaptations have caused quite a bit of talk among Christie enthusiasts, with most viewers coming down against the films for various trespasses against the original novels, including inventing or eliminating key characters, switching locales, and jumbling up key plot points. As I wrote in my review of Agatha Christie Marple: Series 2 (please click here here to read that review), I've always viewed books and their cinematic adaptations as entirely separate aesthetic experiences. If the movie is good, it doesn't matter if elements are changed from the book; the book still exists, and can be enjoyed for its own worth. Movies owe nothing to literary traditions anyway; they're altogether different mediums, and as such, don't need to follow the same rules.
What I loved about the Agatha Christie Marple: Series 2 was the producer's (Matthew Read) obvious affection and appreciation for old movie conventions. The films from that set played like mini "B" programmers, with fast action, clever, sometimes striking camera work, and a juicy, pulpy reveling in the possibilities of telling the story in cinematic terms first - something that can't be said for most Christie film adaptations. Now, with Agatha Christie Marple: Series 3, the new producer, Karen Thrussell, has all but eliminated that "movie movie" feel of the previous films, and we're left with relatively straightforward - and largely unexciting - adaptations. Gone are the dizzying camera moves, the overinsistent, wonderfully obvious lighting, and the ever-so-slightly hammy performances. Instead, we now have in the Agatha Christie Marple: Series 3 films the equivalents of the later Peter Ustinov Poirot movie and TV adaptations: certainly lush looking, conventionally shot and directed period pieces. The results are well-meaning, watchable, and ultimately, quite dull.
Geraldine McEwan, whom I found adorable as the new Miss Jane Marple, seems strangely shunted off to the side here, as other characters take center stage in these dramas. In At Bertram's Hotel, she seems largely irrelevant to the dramatics (mightily changed from Christie's original), unless it's to bestow highly suspect moral approval of other characters' actions. Looking frequently ridiculous in clothes that don't suggest dowager dowdiness as much as desperate homelessness, McEwan is frequently seen to poor advantage, not only in her physical appearance, but in her reduced, marginalized screen presence. While I broke up laughing when they had Miss Marple exclaim, "Balls!" (ostensibly referring to balls of yarn), instances like that were few and far between in Agatha Christie Marple: Series 3; I didn't get that charge I received from McEwan that really lifted Series 2. By the fourth and last adaptation of Agatha Christie Marple: Series 3, I had a difficult time recalling them with any distinction; too much dreary exposition and too little inspired producing and direction had muddied the stories together.
Here are the 4, 93-minute episodes of Agatha Christie Marple: Series 3, as described on their slimcases:
Miss Marple visits her old school friend Lady Tressilian at the formidable aristocrat's Devon estate. Eyebrows arch higher when the dashing Wimbledon tennis star Nevile Strange arrives with his attractive but high maintenance new wife, even though his first wife is also attending. Miss Marple observes the tightly wound group as they holiday by the sea, sensing the sexual tensions and unresolved jealousies that lead to murder.
Miss Marple faces her greatest challenge yet when she receives a request from an old friend, the recently deceased Mr. Rafiel, to investigate a "possible crime." But there's a further catch: his instructions don't tell her what the crime is. Instead, she has been told to look for clues on a mystery bus tour, a trip Mr. Rafiel's instructions say may be dangerous.
Episode 3: At Bertram's Hotel
Revisiting a glamorous London hotel that she remembers fondly from her girlhood, Miss Marple finds that nothing has changed, including the atmosphere of danger beneath its highly polished veneer. She observes various other guests, including fortune hunters and other unsavory characters, and comes to realize the truth about the hotel is even darker than she had imagined.
Ordeal by Innocence
Delighted to be invited to the wedding of Gwenda, her former housemaid, Miss Marple travels to the isolated island where Gwenda lives with her fiancÚ, Leo Argyle, and his grown children. Though they are happy for their father, the Argyles are still reeling from the murder of their mother and the execution of their brother Jacko for the crime. Then a stranger arrives who exonerates Jacko, leading all to realize that the real murderer is still in their midst.
The anamorphically enhanced, 1.78:1 widescreen video transfers for Agatha Christie Marple: Series 3 look quite amazing, with colors delicately shaded, a sharply detailed picture, and no compression issues I could spot.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo mix was entirely adequate for the largely dialogue-driven films here. Close-captioning options were available.
Minor bonuses include a text bio on Agatha Christie, text filmographies for the cast, and a photo gallery.
The shift in production direction - away from Series 2's delirious "movie movie" adaptations towards more conventional renderings - was clearly evident in the blankly lush, thoroughly ordinary films of Agatha Christie Marple: Series 3. McEwan is also left behind in the production switch, thereby robbing the new series of a big part of its appeal. Christie completists and those who like their mysteries undemanding will no doubt enjoy a rental here - a wise move before buying.
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.