“AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” (1987) Review
Agatha Christie’s 1965 novel is a bit of a conundrum for me. It strikes me as one of the most unusual novels she has ever written. When I first saw the television adaptation for it, I found myself wondering how the director and the screenwriter would handle it.
“AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” beings with Miss Jane Marple arriving in London to spend a holiday at Bertram’s Hotel, a place she used to stay during her youth. Her first reaction to Bertram’s is sheer rapture, as she realizes that the hotel has retained its late Victorian/Edwardian atmosphere after many decades. The plumbing and communication system may have been modernize. Otherwise, the hotel’s atmosphere, interior designs, the food and the style of the hotel’s staff has not changed a whit. But it does not take Miss Marple long to realize that the hotel’s lack of change seemed unusual, considering that most long-standing hotels tend to change over the years. And thanks to an encounter with an old friend named Lady Selina Hazy, Miss Marple also becomes aware of a family drama being played out inside Bertram’s, between an adolescent girl of good family named Elvira Blake and her estranged mother, a famous adventuress and socialite named Bess, Lady Sedgwick. Their relationship seems to be tangled with two men – a Polish-born race car driver named Ladislaus Malinowski, who seemed to be romancing both women; and Bertram’s commissionaire, an Irishman named Michael “Micky” Gorman, whose conversation with Lady Sedgwick is overheard by both Elvira and Miss Marple. Everything comes to a head when one of the hotel guests, a forgetful clergyman named Canon Pennyfeather, disappears on the night the Irish Mail train was robbed; and on the following night, Bertram’s commissionaire, Michael “Micky” Gorman, is shot dead in front of the hotel.
I might as well say it. “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” does not feature one of the best murder mysteries written by Christie. When I first read the novel, it did not take me long to figure out Michael Gorman’s killer. Even worse, the murder does not occur until the last third of the movie. However, one must remember that the title of this particular tale centers around Bertram’s Hotel. If one really wants to enjoy a good mystery in this tale, it can be found in the mysteries that surround the hotel itself – the “old-fashioned” atmosphere, the presence of freewheeling types like Lady Sedgwick and Malinowski in such an archaic establishment, and the sightings of hotel guests like Canon Pennyfeather at recent robbery scenes. The hotel itself proves to be the real mystery that not only captures Miss Marple’s attention, but also the attention of Scotland Yard’s Chief-Inspector Fred “Father” Davy.
I have to give director Mary McMurray credit for exploring the movie’s rich atmosphere of 1950s London and Bertram’s itself. There were other factors in the movie that contributed to its atmosphere, including Jill Hyem’s screenplay, Judy Pepperdine’s costume designs, and especially Paul Munting’s production designs. However, “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” has its flaws. Aside from a lackluster murder mystery, the movie also suffered from faded coloring. Looking at the movie, I get the feeling that the actual television movie had been shot with inferior film. And as much as I liked the mystery surrounding the hotel itself, “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” also suffered from a slow pacing, thanks to McMurray’s direction. But that seems to be the case for many of the Miss Marple films that starred Joan Hickson.
The strongest virtues of “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” seemed to be its cast. Joan Hickson was marvelous as always as intelligent and observant Miss Marple. Joan Greenwood gave an entertaining portrayal of Miss Marple’s more elegantly dressed, yet gossipy friend, Lady Selina Hazy. I really enjoyed George Baker’s warm, yet colorful performance as Chief Inspector Fred Davy, who not only proves to be just as intelligent as Miss Marple, but also appreciative of her sleuthing skills and a solid afternoon tea. Robert Reynolds’ portrayal of Ladislaus Malinowski seemed like a cliche of Eastern Europeans, despite the sexy overtones. Brian McGrath practically oozed of Irish charm (of a slightly seedy nature) in his performance as murder victim Michael Gorman. Preston Lockwood gave a charming performance as the sweet, yet befuddled Canon Pennyfeather. But the two best performances – in my opinion – came from Caroline Blakiston and Helena Michell as mother and daughter, Lady Sedgwick and Elivra Blake. Lady Sedgwick has always struck me as one of the most colorful characters created by Christie, and Blakiston made the character even richer in her superb performance. And Michell did an excellent job in combining the two contrasting traits of Elivra’s personality makeup – her passionate feelings for Malinowski and her cool, yet conniving ability to manipulate others for her own personal gain.
“AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” is not exactly one of the best Miss Marple films I have ever seen. Then again, it is based on one of the oddest Christie novels ever. But if a viewer can overlook the movie’s flaws – especially the disappointing murder mystery – that person might end up enjoying the movie’s atmosphere, the mystery surrounding the hotel itself and especially the performances from an excellent cast led by Joan Hickson.