Purely subjective, I know...but I just couldn't warm to this new Marple. Acorn Media has released Agatha Christie Marple - Series 5 (I'm right with you, Stuart: why can't someone add an apostrophe "s" to that annoying title?), a 4-disc, 3-movie set featuring Cranford's Julia McKenzie as Christie's seemingly indestructible elderly sleuth. Adaptations of The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, The Secret of Chimneys, and The Blue Geranium. A bonus disc includes, among other extras, a documentary, Agatha Christie's Garden (see-apostrophe "s"-not so hard), that looks at Christie's personal retreat in Devon. Let's look very briefly at the three films here.
The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side
Slimcase synopsis: "St. Mary Mead is abuzz with the news that Hollywood star Marina Gregg has moved into Gossington Hall. When Marina and her dashing young husband host a party for the village, a garrulous fan drops dead after drinking a poisoned cocktail. But was the drink meant for her or for Marina? Miss Marple ponders a cast of suspicious characters."
Just a little general background covering all the films, before we briefly touch on the specifics. I've written several times before about Christie TV adaptations, and invariably I'll receive a few emails from readers chastising me for not picking up on differences, whether they be omissions or additions, between her works and the subsequent cinematic versions (this was particularly true for the controversial Geraldine McKeown adaptations). I'm not a Christie scholar or "expert" by any means; even though I read, years ago, many of her novels. So I don't have them committed to memory, where I can tick off all of her scenes as well as minor characters, as I watch these films. More importantly, I've never been too particularly concerned with the licenses taken with cinematic adaptations of literary works...unless, hypocritically, of course, it's a book I really love. The two art forms-books and films-operate as two wholly different aesthetic experiences, so they can stand alone from each other without having to slavishly follow each other scene for scene, character for character, or even in overall concept or design. So for example if Miss Marple has been "inserted" into The Secret of Chimneys, that only bothers me if the film producers botch the graph, not the actual invention itself.
As for my take on McKenzie as Marple (this is my first time seeing her in the role; I didn't review Series 4 of Marple), as with any reoccurring fictional character that lasts through several incarnations by various actors, I'm always constantly balancing who my favorite actor was in that particular role, versus all newcomers. And I have a theory (well, perhaps not a theory but maybe an inkling), that we tend to identify most strongly with that actor or actress we first encountered....especially if we were younger (for example, Sean Connery will forever be James Bond to me, regardless of how much I enjoyed subsequent Bonds, such as George Lazenby or Roger Moore). As for Miss Jane Marple, for me, that will always be Margaret Rutherford-certainly the most perverse choice for "favorite Marple" because she was so unlike anything Christie had intended for the character (apparently Christie most strongly disapproved of her portrayals, as well). But those four delightful films Rutherford made as Miss Marple will forever be stuck in my happy childhood memories, and that's a tough nut to crack no matter how aware one becomes of later, more faithful adaptations (if I wanted to be truly perverse, I might say I also highly enjoyed Elsa Lanchester spoofy turn as "Jessica Marbles" in Neil Simon's delicious Murder by Death, but that's going too far for most Christie fans). Certainly if the yardstick is "faithfulness," then, and again, we come into sticky territory there as noted above ("faithful" to you may mean something entirely different to someone else, when we largely receive and reconstruct literary works in our imaginations), then Joan Hickson's versions for Miss Marple, which originally aired from 1984 to 1992, would satisfy the most exacting fans of Christie-a series, again, for which I have great fondness in my memories. As for Julia McKenzie...I had quite a time trying to pin down why she wasn't connecting with me as the sleuth, until I realized that she seemed to have only one expression constantly used in the reaction shots given to her: one of pained embarrassment at the behavior and revelations of the people involved in the various mysteries. When someone acts gauche, she ducks her head and ever-so-slightly shakes it. When someone becomes too passionate and commits a faux pas, she blinks apologetically for the offender, and "understands" with her demeanor. Chalk it up to faulty memory (which I have no doubt some Christie experts out there might very well do if they email), but I don't remember Miss Marple being that way. Did she have that appeasing, too willing-to-please attitude that simultaneously suggests a passive superiority in behavior, because if she did, than the disaffecting McKenzie has that quality nailed down pat. I just didn't feel any spark or fire in her performance (granted, Miss Marple was aged, and not exactly a firebrand), but instead saw an accommodation, if you will, that almost said to the viewer, "Please excuse me for taking over this role. I'm ever so sorry, and I'll try and be as quiet and unassuming as a mouse with it." It may not have been a "faithful" interpretation of Marple, but I found McKeown's twinkly-eyed, bouncing turn as Marple (at least the first few adaptations) much more interesting than McKenzie because as least she was trying to do something new with the role. McKenzie seems all too aware that she's taking on a literary giant of a character, and she's cowed by the opportunity.
That being said, as for The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, it's certainly seems to closely follow the novel (as I remember it), with smooth, assured direction by Tom Shankland and an adroit, fast-moving script by Kevin Elyot that gives the careful viewer plenty of clues...but damned little chance to actually solve the mystery (if you're as dense as I am with these things). As with most of these Agatha Christie Marple films, the emphasis (perhaps at the expense of other, more important elements?) is on the production design, which is sumptuous enough for a big-screen feature film (the cinematography by Cinders Forshaw is rather remarkable in its gauzy, faux-nostalgic delicateness). As for the film's impact, however, it jarred me that Joanna Lumley of Ab Fab fame was all but begging the audience to write in and demand that she become a regular character in the series; it's an overwrought, obvious performance that I'm sure everything thought was amusing on the set, but which comes across as too knowing and self-reflexive for the film's own good. As for McKenzie...would Christie's Miss Marple really cry in a movie theatre over a filmed adaptation of Marie Antoinette's life story? Nitpicky, yes, but it's that tone of unconvincing whimsy that bothered me with this adaptation (made more prominent by Lumley's grating turn). Not a great start for the box set.
The Secret of Chimneys
Slimcase synopsis: "Miss Marple accompanies Lady Virginia Revel to her family home of Chimneys, a great house once famed for its diplomatic gatherings. MP George Lomax has persuaded Virginia's father to host an evening for an Austrian count. George has also proposed to Virginia, who is torn between her duty and her heart. Then a murder in a secret passageway puts Miss Marple on the path to uncovering Chimney's dark past."
I'm not familiar with this particular Christie short story, but apparently, Miss Marple was not featured in it, and this adaptation has eliminated quite a bit of the complicated, Ruritanian politics that made up the short story. As it stands here, shaped and adapted by Paul Rutman and directed by John Strickland, it's a decidedly drab affair, with an all-purpose mystery framework that I found, to my shock, that I was able to decipher right along with Miss Marple (normally, I just let the mystery "happen." I don't try and solve these Christie films...because I can't). So if I was able to stay one step ahead of the mystery...maybe the producers should have stuck closer to Christie's original format (it also doesn't help having heavyweight Edward Fox in the cast; he's so good at letting us in on the secret that we just know he's the murderer...we just have to figure out the whys and wherefores). As for the inclusion of Miss Marple into the story, it's quite apparent she has been grafted onto the story. Chief Inspector Finch (silkily played by Stephen Dillane) is more than interesting enough to carry this mystery, and the promised low-key "battle of wits" between Marple and he never materializes. I rather enjoyed his challenge that she wasn't going to embarrass him by solving the case, as she had done with other local investigators, but the screenwriter doesn't follow through with that tantalizing undercurrent. As for McKenzie, it's more of her same apologetic head-ducking that fails to register with me as Marple. A thoroughly ordinary entry in the series.
The Blue Geranium
Slimcase synopsis: "Miss Marple turns to her old friend Sir Henry Clithering, retired from Scotland Yard, for help with a troubling case. Did the wealthy and unpopular Mary Pritchard really die of shock when the geranium on her wallpaper turned blue? And what about the murder that happened soon after, and the body discovered shortly before? Miss Marple has new evidence and must stop a court hearing before the wrong person is found guilty."
Now this is more like it. Closer in spirit to the Christie world view that I always get when I read her novels, this dark, depressing mystery benefits from stellar performances and a nasty tone that was a marked improvement over the jauntiness of the first entry in this boxed set. I know the temptation to make Miss Marple cute and cuddly and jaunty is irresistible (just look at my choice for the best version of her), but I've always found Christie's world quite inhospitable and quite terrifying, really, in showing the callous, murderous impulses that seem to throb beneath the most innocent circumstances. With Poirot, you always feel like that world is held at bay by the vain pomposity of the detective who views that world with scorn, but with fail, elderly Miss Marple, anything can happen in this cruel world. And I felt that to some extent in this excellent adaptation by Stewart Harcourt, with sensitive direction by Dave Moore. In the original short story (from the collection, The Thirteen Problems), Marple hears about the mystery second-hand from Clithering. Here, she's an active participant (who later recounts the story to Clithering, a neat reversal by Harcourt), and I must say that enjoyed McKenzie much more this time, where she employs a gravity to her demeanor that I hadn't seen in the first two adaptations here (her scene on the bus with the disturbed Eddie Seward, memorably played by Jason Durr, is beautifully staged, and quite delicately turned out by McKenzie). Sharon Small, however, grabs the lion's share of attention here as the disturbed Mary Pritchard, and she's nothing short of remarkable in a fearless, gutsy, loud, and ultimately touching performance that really anchored the episode. In this film, perhaps for the first time in one of these Agatha Christie Marple adaptations, I felt that tension Christie frequently referenced when one of her sleuths knew that someone was going to die, but that they were powerless to stop it until they could gather their wits about them and stop the deed. That comes through here quite well, and this somber, downbeat mystery seems the most in-line with what I take away from Christie. More episodes like this, and I could come to enjoy McKenzie in the role.
As with all of these Agatha Christie Marple movies, production values are king, and these anamorphically enhanced, 1.78:1 widescreen transfers look beautiful, with correctly valued skin tones, relatively solid blacks, a sharpish image (that is not soft by any transfer problems, but by design in the cinematography), and no compression issues. Good show.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo audio tracks are quite evocative, with subtle separation effects, no hiss, and clean dialogue. English subtitles are included for the main features.
Each of the three feature episode discs include small text extras. On disc one, "interviews" with Julia McKenzie and Joanna Lumley are presented, along with some brief info on Dorney Court (where The Mirror Crack'd was filmed), along with cast filmographies and a brief rundown of events that coincide with the 120 year anniversary of Christie's birth. On disc two, a text history of filming location Knebworth House is included, along with standard cast filmographies. On disc three, the same 120 year anniversary text info is included, along with some cast filmographies...all of which can be found on-line, an in far greater depth. As a bonus fourth disc, Agatha Christie's Garden: Murder & Mystery in Devon is included. Running just over an hour, it's a fascinating look at Christie's private retreat...as well as a beautifully produced documentary that explores the connection between this lovely place and Christie's work. Three additional short segments, totaling a little over nine minutes, look further into the Christie biography, and her connection to Greenway Garden. Overall, this fourth disc is a perfect little bonus for Acorn's normally stingy extras.
I have my doubts about Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple...but then again I liked Rutherford, Lanchester and McKeown, so who am I to judge? As for these latest adaptations, only the final entry, The Blue Geranium, came closest to presenting a dark, disturbing mystery, with undercurrents of base motivations that make Christie's work far from comforting Sunday afternoon reading. I'm recommending Agatha Christie Marple - Series 5 to Christie fans on the basis of that episode alone, along with the nice bonus disc included here...but if you're new to Marple, I recommend a rental, first.
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.