The fourth series/season of Agatha Christie - Marple (why not "Agatha Christie's 'Marple?'") introduces a new actress in the title role, in four brand-new 93-minute mysteries that are lavishly produced with excellent casts, but which are also very uneven and ultimately disappointing. The series debuted in Ireland in late-2008 and have been airing on PBS's Masterpiece Mystery! this month. (Perhaps tellingly, they've yet to air in the United Kingdom.)
Acorn Media's four-disc set presents the shows in very nice 16:9 enhanced widescreen, with fine stereo audio. As usual, it's light on extras.
Sixty-eight-year-old Julia McKenzie is television's third Miss Marple in recent years. Joan Hickson is widely regarded as the definitive Miss Marple; she played the role in a series of television movies (all under the banner Miss Marple) produced during 1984-1992. They were able to film adaptations of all 12 "Miss Marple" novels before Hickson's retirement - she died in 1998 at the age of 92. Unlike other looser adaptations - most famously the Margaret Rutherford films of the 1960s - Hickson's Marples were much more authentically Christie, both in their fidelity to the original stories and especially in terms of Hickson's portrayal.
There seemed little point in re-launching the series with Hickson's performances such a constant presence on cable television and home video. Marple is, in one sense, much less pliable than her other famous character, Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot. Christie wrote 33 Poirot novels and 51 short stories, but only about half as many Marples, just the 12 novels and about 25 short stories.
Neverless, ITV in Britain and WGBH in Boston, in association with Agatha Christie Ltd., decided it was time for a new series of Miss Marples. They cast veteran actress Geraldine McEwan, but audiences didn't take to her as they did with Hickson. More alarming for Christie purists was that the new series played fast-and-loose in adapting the series, all apparently in an effort to draw a younger demographic. There was a greater emphasis on the younger characters and their unsavory escapades; storylines were altered to the extent that even the identity of the killer in once instance was changed. And, for want of fresh material, the producers have turned to non-Marple stories for inspiration - in other words, sometimes awkwardly inserting the character into stories in which she was never meant to appear.
That's true of two of the four TV-movies here: Murder Is Easy is adapted from a 1939 Christie novel featuring a character (in five Christie novels) named Superintendent Battle. Nor was she a part of Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, which has the son of a local vicar and the daughter of an English lord trying to solve a mystery. Why not just create original Marple stories? Grafting her into other works does her character no good, nor does it somehow make them an iota more faithful to Christie.
Re-adapting them to accommodate Miss Marple is not successful. Why Didn't They Ask Evans? is particularly annoying in this regard. Those unfamiliar with Christie's original work will wonder whom this story is supposed to be about. It's called a "Marple," but all the early scenes feature Bobby Attfield (Sean Biggerstaff), who discovers a man dying on a seaside cliff ledge. Intrigued by his dying words, "Why didn't they ask Evans?" Bobby begins snooping around, but then things get all mucked up when a brazen socialite, "Frankie" Derwent (Georgia Moffett), expresses a proprietary interest in the case. She becomes the main player for a long while; at the same time, Miss Marple comes to town offering crime-solving tips and generally pointing them in the right direction, only she comes off like a pushy stage mother whispering directions from the wings.
Murder Is Easy is a bit better, with Marple intrigued by the wild claims of a seemingly crazy old woman (Sylvia Syms) that a series of murders has gone undetected in her small town. When the old lady is herself murdered, busybody Marple shows up and befriends a local retired policeman who quickly recognizes Marple's detecting skills. The show is, like so many of these, ludicrously over-plotted - it feels like half the town has been brutally murdered before it's over - and confusingly told, but it captures the quaint small village settings of Christie's stories quite well, and some of the acting is good.
A Pocketful of Rye and They Do It with Mirrors, bona fide Marple stories, fare somewhat better. The former is pretty good actually, while an unusually good cast bolsters the latter. In A Pocketful of Rye (from Christie's 1953 novel), Marple becomes involved in the poisoning death of Rex Fortescue (Kenneth Cranham), an unpleasant but wealthy businessman. The adaptation is notable - and McKenzie makes a good first impression, this being the first to air - because it expresses Miss Marple's humanity quite poignantly. What prompts her arrival on the scene is a second murder, of Marple's uneducated, naïve former housemaid. Her maternalistic affection for the unfortunate girl is quite sweet, and the twist ending is a surprise in the mystery sense, but beyond that it's uniquely touching.
They Do It with Mirrors has a fairly star-studded cast, including Joan Collins (neatly playing to type), Brian Cox, Ian Ogilvy, Penelope Wilton, and Sean Hughes, among others. The story is far-fetched: Marple investigates attempts on the life of a matriarchal head of a family-funded reformatory for juvenile delinquents. (At least that's what they were in the novel; here, they all look like they're in their forties!) Add to that, members of the family are preparing an amateur stage show for the almost-convicts. Again - too much convoluted plot and too many red herrings, but the cast seems to be enjoying themselves, and that helps.
As for Julia McKenzie, she's okay. Though Miss Marple is supposed to be nosy Hickson was always pretty subtle about it while McKenzie at times becomes almost grating. Her self-effacing strategy to gain access into people's homes comes off as disingenuous, and her enthusiasm for crime-solving borders on a clinical addiction in McKenzie's hands.
In all other respects though she's just fine - believably spinsterly yet highly observant and intelligent, grandmotherly but crafty. The shows are as well-produced as the recent Poirot films. Dominik Scherrer's sprightly scores help enormously, and the bright, colorful title design captures the period flavor and mood quite well.
Video & Audio
Agatha Christie - Marple - Series 4 presents four 93-minute shows on four single-sided DVDs in 16:9 enhanced widescreen. The shows look great, and the Dolby Digital Stereo is up to contemporary standards. SDH subtitles are included.
The only supplements are the usual text biographies of Christie and McKenzie, and for each show a pretty decent photo gallery with abbreviated cast biographies, limited to three or so of the leading players.
Those new to the world of Agatha Christie and Miss Marple are better off hunting down the complete collection of the Joan Hickson shows, but as movie-length TV productions these are well-produced with good casts, just minor overall. Rent It.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is on sale now.