“A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” (2005) Review

“A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” (2005) Review

I have been a fan of novels written by Agatha Christie since the age of the thirteen. Mind you, I do not like all of her novels. But there are a handful that have been personal favorites of mine for years . . . and remain personal favorites even to this day. One of those is the 1950 novel, “A Murder Is Announced”

Superficially, the plot to the 1950 novel seemed pretty simple. During Britain’s post-World War II era, a handful of citizens from Chipping Cleghorn read a notice in their local newspaper announcing that a “murder is announced” and would take place at Little Paddocks, the home of a spinster named Letitia Blacklock. Many of Little Paddocks’ inhabitants and local neighbors assume that this “murder” is actually a game in which a fake murder occurs and the party guests have to solve it. However, Miss Blacklock never placed the advertisement. Realizing that some people might pay a visit out of sheer curiousity, she makes arrangements for an impromptu party.

Right on cue, several guests arrive. They include:

*Colonel Archie Easterbrook, a retired Army officer
*Mrs. Sadie Swettenham, a local widow
*Lizzie Hinchcliffe, a local farmer
*Amy Murgatroyd, Miss Hinchcliffe’s companion and lover
*Edmund Swettenham, Mrs. Swettenham’s only son

Also attending the party are other inhabitants of Little Paddock:

*Dora Bunner, Miss Blacklock’s old friend and companion
*Patrick Simmons, Miss Blacklock’s cousin
*Julia Simmons, Patrick’s sister and Miss Blacklock’s cousin
*Phillipa Haymes, Miss Blacklock’s tenant and a war widow
*Mitzi Kosinski, Miss Blacklock’s Central European servant and a former war refugee

Not long after the party begins, the lights inside Little Paddock immediately go out. Someone brandishing a flashlight announces a stickup and demands that everyone raise their hands. Seconds later, several gunshots ring out. When the lights are restored, Miss Blacklock and her guests discover the dead body of a young man on the floor. Detective-Inspector Dermot Craddock is assigned to solve the case. Before long, he finds himself being assisted by the story’s leading lady, the elderly amateur sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. The latter was staying at the hotel where the dead victim, Rudi Scherz, worked at. And she eventually arrived at Chipping Cleghorn as a vistor of one of Miss Blacklock’s guests. After a bit of investigation into Scherz’s past as a hotel clerk and a petty thief, both Miss Marple and Inspector Craddock come to the conclusion that the killer had intended to kill Miss Blacklock and merely used Scherz to set up the crime and be used as a patsy.

All right. Perhaps the plot of “A Murder Is Announced” was not that simple, especially since involved family conflicts, a great inheritance and greed. I do know there have been one stage and three television adaptations of the 1950 novel. One of the TV adaptations aired on NBC’s “THE GOODYEAR TELEVISION PLAYHOUSE” back in 1956. The second TV adaptation aired on the BBC series, “MISS MARPLE” and starred Joan Hickson. And the third adaptation, Geraldine McEwan, aired on ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” back in 2005. This article is a review of the 2004 adaptation.

I noticed that screenwriter Stewart Harcourt made a good deal of changes from Christie’s novel. And yet . . . “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” did not suffer from these changes. Certain characters were deleted from this adaptation. Laura Easterbrook, wife of Colonel Archie Easterbrook did not appear in this story, making the latter a divorced man. This scenario also allowed Harcourt to create a romance between Easterbrook and the widowed Mrs. Sadie Swettenham. As for the latter’s young son Edmund, his literary romance was nipped in the bud due to his opposition against his mother’s romance with the alcoholic Colonel Easterbrook. That is correct. Colonel Easterbrook is an alcoholic in this story. Two other characters deleted were the Reverend Julian Harmon and his wife, Diana “Bunch” Harmon. This proved to be something of a problem, considering that in Christie’s novel, Miss Marple stayed with the Harmons during her visit to Clipping Cleghorn. In this adaptation, Miss Marple stayed with farmer Miss Hinchcliffe and her companion, Amy Murgatroyd. Miss Murgatroyd, like the literary Mrs. Harmon, was her goddaughter. Also, Harcourt made it slightly more apparent than Christie did that Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd were also lovers. Aside from these changes, Harcourt’s adaptation of the 1950 novel was faithful.

And yet . . . Harcourt’s changes did not harm Christie’s novel one bit. Perhaps the reason why his changes did not have a strong and negative impact was due to them being quite minor. Creating a slightly different romance along with deleting two minor characters simply did not have an impact on Christie’s story. Thank God. “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” has always been one of my favorite novels written by the author. The idea of a movie or television screenwriter inflicting major changes upon its narrative would have been abhorrent to me.

The main reason behind my admiration for “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” is its portrayal of post-World War II Britain and how it affected the actions of various characters in this story. In one paragraph of the 1950 novel, Miss Marple explained how the war had upset the staid and knowing world of various villages and towns throughout the country:

“(Chipping Cleghorn is) very much like St. Mary Mead where I live. Fifteen years ago (before the war) one knew who everybody was . . . They were people whose fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers, or whose aunts and uncles, had lived there before them. If somebody new came to live there, they brought letters of introduction, or they’d been in the same regiment or served on the same ship as someone already there. If anybody new – really new – really a stranger – came, well, they stuck out . . . But it’s not like that any more. Every village and small country place is full of people who’ve just come and settled there without any ties to bring them. The big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come – and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.”

In “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”, Miss Marple and Detective-Inspector Craddock discovered that Miss Blacklock had been a wealthy financier’s secretary before the war. Following Randall Goedler’s death, his widow inherited his money. However, Mrs. Goedler is dying. But since they had no children, Goedler left his money to Miss Blacklock in the event of his wife’s death. The will also stipulated that if Miss Blacklock should die before Mrs. Goedler, then the children of Goedler’s estranged sister – Pip and Emma. Due to the upheaval nature of British society during the post-war years, neither Miss Marple or Inspector Craddock know who Pip or Emma are. Or for that matter, their mother, Sonia. Either two or all three might be residing at Chipping Cleghorn, waiting for Belle Goedler’s death and ensuring that Miss Blacklock will die before it happens. “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” is one of those rare Christie stories in which the story’s time period has such a major impact upon it. And despite the changes regarding some of the adaptation’s characters, Harcourt never changed the core of the teleplay’s narrative.

Do I have any complaints about “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”? If I must be honest . . . not really. Well . . . perhaps a few minor ones. A part of me wish that Harcourt had expanded a bit more on Miss Marple’s conversation with Dora Bunner, Miss Blacklock’s companion and old friend, at a local tea cafe. A part of me felt as if enough had been said. I also wish that Harcourt had utilized the role of Miss Blacklock’s maid, Mitzi, just as Christie had did in the novel. I found the literary version of Mitzi’s role in the murderer’s exposure very dramatic. It seemed that the drama of that moment had been cut by Harcourt’s screenplay. In fact, I would add that that the teleplay’s last ten to fifteen minutes struck me as a bit rushed. A part of me wish that this adaptation had been a little longer than 94 minutes.

Another aspect that made “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” work for me were the performances featured in the production. The teleplay marked Geraldine McEwan’s fourth outing as Miss Jane Marple and she did an excellent job in conveying the character’s intelligence and subtle sense of humor. However, I was especially impressed by the actress in a scene that featured Miss Marple’s discovery of a third murder victim.

There were four other performances that I regard as first-rate. The first came from  Zoë Wanamaker, who gave a superb performance as Letitia Blacklock. Wanamaker did an excellent job of conveying her character from a competent retired secretary to a beleaguered woman who becomes increasingly paranoid over the threat of being killed for a great fortune. The second excellent performance came from Robert Pugh, who was excellent as Archie Easterbrook, the alcoholic former Army officer battling his demons, romantic desire and loneliness. Cheri Lunghi also gave a superb performance as Colonel Easterbrook’s object of desire, the lonely widow Sadie Swettenham. One of my favorite characters from Christie’s Miss Marple novel was the police investigator, Dermot Craddock. Just about every actor who has portrayed Craddock has done an excellent job. And that includes Alexander Armstrong, who portrayed the police detective in “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”. I was surprised to learn that Armstrong is basically known as a comedian and singer in Great Britain, especially since he gave such a strong performance as the no-nonsense Detective-Inspector Craddock.
However, the television movie also featured excellent performances from the rest of the cast. They include performances from the likes of Keeley Hawes, Frances Barber, Claire Skinner, Elaine Page, Matthew Goode, Sienna Guillory, Christian Coulson, Virginia McKenna, Catherine Tate and Richard Dixon. And if you are patient, you just might catch Lesley Nicol of “DOWNTON ABBEY” in a small role. I can honestly say that I did not come across one performance that I would consider questionable or merely solid.

Overall, I did not merely enjoyed “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”. I loved it. Yes, I thought its running time could have stretched a bit past 94 minutes. But I thought screenwriter Stewart Harcourt and director John Strickland did an excellent job of adapting one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels of all time. And both were ably supported by a first-rate cast led by the always talented Geraldine McEwan.

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Top Ten Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1950s

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Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1950s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1950s

1 - A Nero Wolfe Mystery

1. “A Nero Wolfe Mystery” (2000-2002) – Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin starred in this adaptation of novels and short stories about the New York City based private detective from Montenegro, Nero Wolfe.

 

2 - The Company

2. “The Company” (2007) – Robert Littell produced this three-part miniseries adaptation of his 2002 novel about the Cold War during the mid and late 20th century. Half of the series is set during the 1950s. Chris O’Donnell, Rory Cochrane, Alessandro Nivola, Alfred Molina and Michael Keaton starred.

 

3 - Agatha Christie Miss Marple

3. “Miss Marple” (1984-1992) – Joan Hickson starred in this adaptation of Agatha Christie murder mysteries featuring the elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. The series was produced by George Gallaccio.

 

4 - MASH

4. “M*A*S*H” (1972-1983) – Larry Gelbert developed this Award winning adaptation of the 1970 movie and Richard Hooker’s 1968 novel, “M*A*S*H: A Novel About Three Army Doctors” about a U.S. Army field hospital during the Korean War. Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers and Mike Farrell starred.

 

5 - Agatha Christie Marple

5. “Agatha Christie’s Marple” (2004-2013) – Both Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie portrayed Miss Jane Marple in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novels about the elderly sleuth.

 

6 - The Hour

6. “The Hour” (2011-2012) – Romola Garai, Dominic West and Ben Whishaw starred in this series about a BBC news show set in the mid-to-late 1950s. The series was created by Abi Morgan.

 

7 - Magic City

7. “Magic City” (2012-2013) – Mitch Glazer created this STARZ series about a Miami hotel owner during the late 1950s. The series starred Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Olga Kurylenko.

 

9 - Ill Fly Away

8. “I’ll Fly Away” (1991-1993) – Regina Taylor and Sam Waterston starred in this series about a Southern black housekeeper and her complicated relationship with her employer, a white attorney in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The series was created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey.

 

10 - Grantchester

9. “Grantchester” (2014-Present) – James Norton and Robson Greene starred in this adaptation of “The Grantchester Mysteries”, James Runcie’s series of mystery stories that feature an unlikely partnership between a Church of England vicar and a police detective during the 1950s.

 

8 - Ordeal By Innocence

10. “Ordeal of Innocence” (2018) – Sarah Phelps wrote and produced this third adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1958 novel. The three-part miniseries starred Bill Nighy, Anna Chancellor and Anthony Boyle.

 

 

Adapting “WARLEGGAN”

ADAPTING “WARLEGGAN”

Do many fans of the current adaptation of Winston Graham’s “POLDARK” saga have an unnatural hatred of the character known as Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan? Or do they merely dislike her? Did this “dislike” lead producer Debbie Horsfield and the BBC to sanction a major change in the relationship between Elizabeth and the saga’s protagonist, Ross Poldark during the current series’ Season Two? A change that I personally found disturbing? Or was it something else? 

Last summer, I encountered rumors that “POLDARK” producer Debbie Horsfield and the BBC had decided to make a major change to the series’s adaptation of the 1953 novel, “Warleggan: A Novel of Cornwall, 1792-1793” – a change that eventually reflected in Episode Eight (Episode Seven in the U.S.) of the series’ second season. Horsfield and the BBC decided to deliberately change the nature of an encounter between Ross Poldark and Elizabeth Poldark in an effort to preserve Ross’ “heroic” image. Nearly a month after learning this decision, I learned that both leading man Aidan Turner and co-star Heida Reed (who portrays Elizabeth Poldark) had met with Horsfield. Turner claimed, along with Horsfield and Graham’s son, Andrew Graham, that the May 9, 1793 encounter between Ross and Elizabeth had been consensual sex and not rape, when the protagonist appeared at his cousin-in-law’s home (the Trenwith estate) to convince her not to marry his on-going nemesis, banker George Warleggan. Judging from what I had read in the 1953 novel, I find this opinion hard to accept:

“‘I can’t help this either.’ He kissed her. She turned her face away but could not get it far enough round to avoid him.

When he lifted his head, her eyes were lit with anger. He’d never seen her like it before, and he found pleasure in it.

‘This is – contemptible! I shouldn’t have believed it of you! To force yourself . . . To insult me when – when I have no one . . .

‘I don’t like this marriage to George, Elizabeth. I don’t like it! I should be glad of your assurance that you’ll not go through with it.’

‘I’d be surprised if you believed me if I gave it you! You called me a liar! Well, at least I do not go back on my promises! I love George to distraction and shall marry him next week-‘

He caught her again, and this time began to kiss her with intense passion to which anger had given an extra relish, before anger was lost. Her hair began to fall in plaited tangles. She got her hand up to his mouth, but he brushed it away. Then she smacked his face, so he pinioned her arm . . .

She suddenly found herself for a brief second nearly free. ‘You treat me -like a slut-‘

‘It’s time you were so treated-‘

‘Let me go, Ross! You’re hateful — horrible! If George –’

‘Shall you marry him?’

‘Don’t! I’ll scream! Oh, God, Ross … Please . . .’

‘Whatever you say, I don’t think I can believe you now. Isn’t that so?’

‘Tomorrow-‘

‘There’s no tomorrow,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t come. Life is an illusion. Didn’t you know? Let us make the most of the shadows.’

‘Ross, you can’t intend . . . Stop! Stop, I tell you.’

But he took no further notice of the words she spoke. He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the bed.”

This is how Graham had ended both the chapter and the scene . . . with Ross forcing Elizabeth on her bed . . . against her will. It did not end with any hint that they were about to embark upon consensual sex.

Many fans of the series, especially young female fans had reacted with joy over the news. What they had failed to realize was that in making this change, Horsfield threatened to undermine the lesson of Ross and Elizabeth’s story arc and what it really meant. Winston Graham – a male writer – had the balls to show that even the “heroic” Ross Poldark was capable of a monstrous act. He had the courage to reveal that Ross was not some romance novel hero, but a complex and ambiguous man, capable of not only decent acts, but monstrous ones as well. Like any other human being on the face of this Earth. More importantly, his assault of Elizabeth revealed the consequences that rape victims tend to pay in a patriarchal society – past or present – in the novels that followed. It seemed Debbie Horsfield and the BBC were only willing to portray Ross as an adulterer. Is it possible they believed it would be easier for viewers to accept Ross simply as an adulterer, instead of an adulterer/rapist? Some individuals, including Turner, claimed that Ross was incapable of rape. Bullshit! Although a fictional character, Ross Poldark is also a human being. And humans are basically capable of anything. Hell, Agatha Christie had the good sense to realize this. Why is it that so many other humans are incapable of doing the same?

The moment I had learned that she had decided to turn Ross’ rape into an act of consensual sex between him and Elizabeth, I suspected that fans would end up slut shaming the latter. I suspected that even though many fans would be “disappointed” in Ross, they would eventually forgive him. However, I also suspected that these same fans would end up branding Elizabeth as a whore until the end of this series. It is soooo typical of this sexist society. The woman is always to blame. Even in the eyes of other women.

So, what actually happened between Ross and Elizabeth in the BBC’s recent adaptation of “Warleggan”? In Episode 8 (Episode 7 in the U.S.), Ross returned home to Nampara, his personal estate, and discovered a letter from Elizabeth in which she announced her engagement to George Warleggan. Despite his wife Demelza’s protests, Ross decided to go to Trenwith and try to convince or perhaps coerce Elizabeth into breaking the engagement. He showed up at Trenwith, barged into both the house and Elizabeth’s bedroom. An argument commenced between the two in which Ross tried to shame Elizabeth into breaking the engagement. She refused to comply, making it clear that her actions stemmed from saving her immediate family at Trenwith from further financial problems and ensuring her son (and Ross’ cousin) Geoffrey Charles’ future.

And . . . what happened next? Ross began to force himself upon Elizabeth. She tried to put up a fight, while insisting that he leave. He eventually forced her on the bed. And just as he was about to rape her, Elizabeth capitulated at the last minute. This last moment of consent was Horsfield and the BBC’s way of stating that the entire scene between Ross and Elizabeth was basically consensual sex. Can you believe it? Considering the manner in which Elizabeth tried and failed to fight off Ross before she “consented”, the entire scene might as well have been rape. After all, Elizabeth fought Ross until he had her pinned on the bed. If she had not “consented”, chances are he would have raped her anyway. Worse, the culmination of the entire scene projected the negative image of a “rape fantasy”. I am sure that many of you know what I mean. When a woman or a man says “no”, he or she really means “yes”.

You may be wondering why I would include a potential male victim in this scenario. Simple . . . many people harbor the illusion that men do not mind being the victim of a woman’s rape. Also, I saw this same scenario play out in a “BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” Season Six episode called (6.11) “Gone”. In this episode, the series’ protagonist had been rendered invisible by some ray gun (go with me here) invented by a trio of geeky scientists. Using her invisibility to indulge in her own desires, Buffy decided to pay a call to chipped vampire Spike (with whom she had begun an affair earlier in the season) at his crypt. She barged into the latter, shoved a frightened Spike against the wall and started to rip off his clothes. He only consented to have sex at the last minute when an uncontrolled giggle from Buffy revealed her identity. What made this scene rather sickening to watch was that it was written as comedy relief. I have the oddest feeling that producer Debbie Horsfield may have seen this particular episode and decided to write her own version of the situation in order to spare Ross Poldark from being labeled a rapist.

Someone had pointed out that the 1975 adaptation produced by Morris Barry and Anthony Coburn had adapted this sequence with more honesty. After a recent viewing of this series, I am afraid that I cannot agree. What happened? Well … one scene featured a conversation between Elizabeth and her sister-in-law, Verity Poldark Blamey, in which she made it clear that her reason for marrying George Warleggan was for money and more social clout. To make matters worse, the scene had Verity instructing Elizabeth to explain to Ross that the latter was considering the family’s salvation from a future filled with poverty and Geoffrey Charles’ future. But Elizabeth made it clear – in a rather bitchy and unsympathetic manner conveyed by actress Jill Townsend – that her reasons for George was all about a new life for her – with a wealthy husband. And she set out to include this in her letter to Ross. Even worse, the screenwriter had drastically changed Elizabeth’s personality once the series had commenced upon adapting “Warleggan” in Episode Thirteen. She suddenly began behaving as “The Bitch of the Century”.

When Ross had finally confronted her in Episode Fifteen, Elizabeth still insisted that a marriage to George was a way for her to have a new life. What I found distasteful about the whole thing is that this was NOT Elizabeth’s true reason for marrying George Warleggan in the 1953 novel. She truly made the decision to marry George in order to spare her family – especially Geoffrey Charles – a long future trapped in poverty, as was conveyed in the 2016 series. But I ended up acquiring the ugly feeling that Barry, Coburn and screenwriter Jack Russell had decided to change Elizabeth’s reason for marrying George in order to justify Ross’ rape of her.

And yes . . . Ross did rape Elizabeth in the 1975 series. Unlike the 2016 version, there was no last minute consent on Elizabeth’s part. But I found the entire scene rather rushed. Once Ross and Elizabeth barely had time to discuss or argue over the matter, the former quickly tackled the latter to the bed and began to rape her, as the scene faded to black. However, both versions set out to regain Ross’ reputation with the viewers by the end of their respective adaptations of “Warleggan”. How did they achieve this? Screenwriter Jack Russell included a scene in the last episode of the 1975 series in which George Warleggan had enclosed the Trenwith land from the tenants, forcing them to transform from small peasant proprietors and serfs into agricultural wage-laborers. This action led to a riot in which the former tenant farmers stormed the Trenwith manor house and burn it to the ground. During the riot, Ross and Demelza arrived to save the recently married Elizabeth and George from mob violence. This also gave the series’ producers and Russell to have Elizabeth ask Ross why he had decided to save George from the mob. What the hell? The enclosures happened in the novel. But not the riot. What was the purpose of this? To give Ross an opportunity to give Elizabeth a “you are beneath me” glare?

Debbie Horsfield decided to resort to a similar scenario in the 2016 version. However, before she could subject television audiences to this idiocy, she included a scene in which an angry Demelza Poldark got a chance to slut shame Elizabeth during an encounter between the pair on a deserted road. This scene, by the way, never happened in the novel. And quite frankly, I never understood Horsfield’s purpose by including this scene. What did she expect from the audience? Viewers pumping their fists in the air while crying, “Demelza, you go girl?” Perhaps there were fans that actually did this or something similar. I did not. In fact, I merely shook my head in disbelief. Pardon me, but I found it difficult to cheer on Demelza’s behalf, when I just recently watched her husband force himself on Elizabeth. Unlike the 1975 version, the Trenwith riot sequence did not end with the house burned to the ground. Instead, it ended with Nampara servant Jud Paynter, whipping up a mob to march on Trenwith and Ross preventing Demelza (who had gone to Trenwith to warn Elizabeth and George about the impending riot) from being shot by one of the rioters. The scene even included Ross riding through the crowd on a horse and sweeping Demelza up onto the saddle. It seemed like a scene straight from a Harlequin Romance novel. And I had to struggle to force down the bile that threatened to rise up my throat.

From the moment Elizabeth Poldark had decided to inform Ross of her upcoming marriage to George Warleggan to the latter’s confrontation with Ross over the Trenwith enclosures, the adaptations of Winston Graham’s 1953 novel for both the 1975 and 2016 series . . . well, for me they have been major disappointments. I am certain that many would continue to insist that Ross did not rape Elizabeth. Despite Debbie Horsfield and Andrew Graham, Winston Graham had verified what happened in this passage from his last “Poldark” novel, 2002’s Bella Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1818-1820″:

“They took Ross to Trenwith, the nearest of the big houses and about equidistant from the nearest cottage of St Ann’s. They made an improvised stretcher of an old door, and he lay on a blanket and covered by a blanket. Amadora, confronted by the emergency, in all ignorance put him in the very bedroom where he had taken Elizabeth against her will twenty-seven or more years ago, and so had started all this trouble, which had gone on so relentlessly and for so long. Dwight caught up with the procession just as it reached Trenwith, so followed the four men carrying the door upstairs.”

Were producers Morris Barry, Anthony Coburn and Debbie Horsfield unwilling to allow television audiences to face the truth about Ross’ violent act against his soon-to-be former cousin-in-law? Was that why all three television producers had insisted upon changing the circumstances that surrounded Ross and Elizabeth’s encounter on that May 1793 night? Or were they pressured by the BBC to make these changes, who may have feared that television audiences could not openly face or accept Ross as a rapist? Or perhaps the three producers, along with the BBC, knew that many viewers could accept Ross as an adulterer, but not as a rapist? Who knows? I know one thing. I hope and pray that one day, some television producer would be able to adapt “Warleggan” without resorting to excessive changes.

 

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

 

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

When news of Twentieth Century Fox releasing its own version of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, “Murder on the Orient Express”, many people groaned. In a way, I could understand their reaction. This new movie would mark the fifth adaptation of the novel – the second theatrical version. However, being a major fan of Christie’s story about a murder aboard the famed trans-European train, I was among those who did not groan. 

Directed by Kenneth Branaugh, who also starred as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” begins in Jerusalem 1934, where Poirot has been asked to solve the theft of a valuable artifact from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. After achieving his goal, Poirot boards a boat that conveys him to Istanbul in Turkey. Among his fellow passengers is a British governess named Mary Debenham and a Afro-British former-Army soldier-turned-physician named Dr. John Abuthnot. Poirot plans to remain in Istanbul for a few days of rest. But he receives a telegram, summoning him to London to solve another case. Monsieur Bouc, a young friend of his who happens to serve as a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, manages to acquire a berth in one of the second-class compartments in the Calais coach of the Orient Express.

Both Poirot and Bouc are surprised to discover that the Calais coach is unusually full for the winter season. A day following the train’s departure from Istanbul, one of the passengers – an American “businessman” named Samuel Rachett – informs Poirot that he had received death threats and wants to hire the Belgian detective to serve as his bodyguard. Due to his instinctive dislike of Rachett, Poirot refuses the offer. During the second night of the train’s journey, the Orient Express becomes stranded somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod, thanks to an avalanche. The following morning, Rachett’s dead body is discovered with a dozen stab wounds. Bouc asks Poirot to discover the killer’s identity. Since each train car was locked at night, Poirot has focused his suspicions on those who were inside the Calais coach:

*Mary Debenham
*Dr. John Abuthnot
*Hector McQueen, Rachett’s secretary
*Edward Masterman, Rachett’s English valet
*Mrs. Caroline Hubbard, a middle-aged American tourist
*Pilar Estravados, a Spanish-born missionary
*Princess Dragomiroff, an exiled Russian princess
*Hildegarde Schmidt, Princess Dragomiroff’s German maid
*Biniamino Marquez, a Spanish-born automobile salesman
*Count Rudolph Andrenyi, a Hungarian aristocrat/acclaimed dancer
*Countess Helena Andrenyi, Count Andrenyi’s German-born wife
*Gerhard Hardman, a German scholar
*Pierre Michel, the Calais coach’s car attendant

Not long after he begins his investigation, Poirot discovers Rachett’s true identity – a gangster named Lanfranco Cassetti, who had kidnapped a three year-old heiress named Daisy Armstrong two years earlier. After Daisy’s parents had paid the ransom, Cassetti killed young Daisy and fled the United States. It becomes up to Poirot to discover which Calais coach passengers have connections to the Armstrong kidnapping case and find the killer.

What can I say about this adaptation of Christie’s 1934 novel? Of the five versions of “Murder on the Orient Express”, I have only seen four. But I am not here to discuss the other three versions I have seen . . . only this new adaptation.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” was not a perfect movie. Well to be honest, I have yet to see a perfect adaptation of Christie’s novel. But there were a few aspects of this film that I did not like. Most of those aspects had a lot to do with camera shots. I did not like how Branaugh had allowed his passengers to board through the dining car at the end of the train. Honestly? I did not care for that tracking shot of Poirot making his way through the train . . . with the camera focused on him through the windows. I found it rather distracting and slightly confusing. Nor did I care for how Branaugh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos shot the scene featuring the discovery of Rachett’s body. From the moment when the victim’s valet discovered the body to Dr. Abuthnot examined it and conveyed his prognosis, Branaugh and Zambarloukos did the entire scene from a high angle shot from above in which I could barely, if at all, see the victim’s body. I found it very frustrating to watch. And rather unnecessary. I have one last complaint and it concerned a character. Namely . . . Count Rudolph Andrenyi. In Christie’s novel, Count Andrenyi was described as a hot-blooded Hungarian and a diplomat. In “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the Count remained a hot-blooded Hungarian. But for some reason, Branaugh and screenwriter Michael Green had decided to change his profession from a diplomat to a professional dancer. Why? Other than showing Count Andrenyi in a fight with two men at the Sirkeci train station, I saw no earthly reason to change the character’s profession. Worse, while being questioned by Poirot, the latter brought up the matter of a diplomatic passport. Why would Poirot bring up this matter to a man who was a professional dancer?

Thankfully, I managed to enjoy “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” a great deal, despite its flaws. Thanks to Branaugh and a first-rate crew, the movie radiated a sharp rich elegance that struck me as different as the previous adaptations. And I have to give credit to cinematographer Zambarloukos for this look. There were others who had contributed to the film’s look and style. I especially have to commend production designer Jim Clay for his re-creation of the Orient Express – along with the help of the art direction team led by Dominic Masters and set decorator Rebecca Alleway:

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I doubt that the film’s re-creation of the famous luxury train at Longcross Studios was completely accurate. But I must admit that I was more than impressed by how people like Clay, Masters and Alleway still managed to re-create the style and ambiance of the famous train. My admiration for their work at Longcross also extends to their re-creation of the famous Sirkeci railway station. I found it rich in detail and atmosphere . . . and if I must be honest, slightly mind blowing:

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I suspect that none of crewmen who worked on “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” will receive any recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their work. Pity. As for Patrick Doyle’s score, I must be honest and admit that I did not find it particularly memorable. In fact, I found Doyle’s occasional use of 1930s tunes more memorable than his original work.

How did I feel about Branaugh and screenwriter Michael Green’s treatment of Christie’s novel? Aside from my nitpick about the Count Rudolph Andrenyi character, I had no problems with it. Yes, I realize that both Branaugh and Green had made some changes to Christie’s story. But you know what? So did the other versions I have seen. And there were no real changes to the plot, aside from allowing the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping to occur two years previously, instead of more. Most of the changes were made to some of the characters, instead of the plot. For instance:

*Although Hector McQueen had remained Rachett’s secretary, he was discovered to be embezzling from the latter.
*John Abuthnot is portrayed as an Afro-British doctor, who is also a former Army sniper, instead of a British Army colonel stationed in India
*Swedish-born missionary Greta Ohlsson becomes the Spanish-born missionary Pilar Estravados, whose name was borrowed from Christie’s 1938 novel, “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas”
*Italian-born car salesman Antonio Foscarelli becomes the Spanish-born salesman Biniamino Marquez
*Monsieur Bouc is portrayed as a much younger man, who profession is dependent upon family connections

As one can see, the changes in characterizations is based upon changes in ethnicity and nationality. Hell, I had more of a problem with the changes made by the Count Andrenyi character than I did with the above changes. And if I must be honest, I found the changes made to the John Abuthnot character rather impressive and interesting. Despite these changes, he remained intensely in love with Mary Debenham and protective of her. Another change I noticed is that Branaugh and Green had allowed Poirot to question the suspects in different parts of either the Calais coach, the dining car, the Pullman lounge car and various spots outside of the stranded train. I must admit that I found this variation in minor locations around the train rather refreshing. Watching Poirot question most of the suspects (with the exception of Princess Dragonmiroff and Hildegarde Schmidt) inside the Pullman coach had struck me as a bit repetitive in the 1974 and 2010 versions.

I would not be surprised if certain Christie fans and film critics had accused Branaugh of political correctness. Not only did the screenplay pointed out Dr. Abuthnot’s race via characters like Gerhard Hardman, but also Biniamino Marquez’s ethnicity via Hector McQueen. Considering that the movie is set in 1934, I did not mind. More importantly, it would have been odd if someone had not commented on Dr. Abuthnot’s race or Senor Marquez’s nationality. In fact, in Christie’s original novel, some characters made a big deal over the nationalities of the other suspects.

The important thing is that despite these changes, Michael Green’s screenplay more or less adhered to Christie’s novel. And he did so with style and a good deal of pathos in the film’s last half hour that I found more than satisfying. I was especially surprised by how the film treated Poirot’s character in the end. In the novel and previous adaptations, Poirot had remained on the train after solving the murder. Not in this adaptation. After exposing the crime and reporting his findings to the police in Brod, Poirot left the train. And I was thrilled. As I have stated numerous times, if I had been Poirot, I would have left that train myself.

I must admit that I had experienced a few qualms when I learned that Kenneth Branaugh had cast himself as the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. The large moustache he had utilized for his performance did not comfort me, until I realized that it matched the description of the literary Poirot’s moustache. I have stated in the past that I believe that British actors with a Continental background – like Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina and David Suchet – tend to give more believable portrayals of Poirot than English speaking actors. Branaugh ended up proving me wrong. He gave a very charming and energetic performance as Poirot, without wallowing in the occasional moments of hammy acting. I also enjoyed how he portrayed Poirot’s development in the story from a charming and intelligent man seeking a little peace before his next case to the slightly outraged man who found himself conflicted over how to handle the consequences of Rachett’s murder.

There were other performances that I found very interesting. One came from Johnny Depp, who gave an effectively slimy portrayal of the former kidnapper-turned-murder victim. His performance really impressed me, especially in one particular scene in which Rachett requested Poirot’s services as a bodyguard. Depp displayed his versatility as an actor by conveying his character’s attempt at friendliness and a sinister form of intimidation. I also appreciated Michelle Pfieffer’s portrayal of the extroverted Caroline Hubbard, which I found both humorous and sexy. And yet, Pfieffer’s finest moment came near the film’s end, when Poirot exposed her character’s deep secret. She gave a very emotional and effective performance. Leslie Odom Jr. and Daisy Ridley portrayed the two suspects that Poirot had first encountered – namely Dr. John Abuthnot and Mary Debenham. It is interesting that the literary versions of this pair proved to be more hostile (and bigoted) toward Poirot than the other passengers. In this version, both are more friendlier toward Poirot, yet both maintained a subtle wariness toward his presence. I also enjoyed how Odom and Ridley managed to convey more complexity into their performances, when confronted with their lies by Poirot and their willingness to fiercely protect each other.

I never thought I would say this, but I thought Josh Gad gave the most complex performance as Rachett’s secretary, Hector McQueen I have ever seen on screen. Thanks to Gad’s first-rate performance, his McQueen literally oozed with moral ambiguity – especially in the film’s second half. Another interesting performance came from Derek Jacobi, who portrayed Rachett’s English valet, Edward Masterman. I was particularly impressed at how Jacobi conveyed his character’s nervousness in being caught in a slip of character by Poirot. And there was Penelope Cruz’s performance as the Spanish missionary, Pilar Estravados. Cruz’s portrayal of the missionary was a far cry from the literary character by portraying her not only as intensely religious, but also intense and slightly intimidating. I found her performance very interesting. Judi Dench gave a very imperious and entertaining performance as the elderly Princess Dragonmiroff. The movie also featured first-rate performances from the rest of the cast that included Olivia Colman, Tom Bateman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Willem Dafoe, Marwan Kenzari, Lucy Boynton and yes, Sergei Polunin. I may not have liked the change made to the Count Andrenyi character, but I cannot deny that Poluin gave an effective performance.

I recently learned that 20th Century Fox given approval for a sequel to “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”. It may not have been a major box office hit, but it was financially successful. Personally, I am glad. I really enjoyed this new take on Christie’s 1934 novel. And I was not only impressed by the cast’s excellent performances in this film, but also by Kenneth Branaugh’s direction and his superb portrayal of the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. If a sequel is being planned, I cannot wait to see him reprise his portrayal of the famous literary sleuth.

 

“NEMESIS” (1987) Review

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“NEMESIS” (1987) Review

Although not highly regarded by many Agatha Christie fans, I have always been a long time fan of her 1971 novel, “Nemesis”. It possessed a slow, melancholic air about it that has always impressed me. As far as I know, there have been a radio adaptation of the novel and two television movie adaptations. One of the latter was a BBC production that aired in 1987. 

“NEMESIS” began with the death of a millionaire named Jason Rafael, whom Miss Jane Marple had first met in Christie’s 1964 novel, “A Caribbean Mystery”. Through his will, Rafael charges Miss Marple to solve a crime that he believes remain unsolved – the murder of his ne’er do well son Michael’s former fiancée, Verity Hunt. If Miss Marple is successful, she will inherit £20,000. Rafael arranges for Miss Marple to join a bus tour of famous British homes and gardens that includes one Miss Elizabeth Temple, the headmistress of a famous girls’ school that Verity had attended; a Professor Winstead, a psychiatrist who had examined Michael Rafael to judge whether the latter was capable of murder; a young woman named Miss Cooke, whom Miss Marple had spotted in St. Mary’s Mead; and the latter’s companion, a Miss Barrow. Accompanying Miss Marple is her nephew/godson Lionel Peel, a character created by screenwriter T.R. Bowen. During one stop of the bus tour, Miss Marple meets a Mrs. Lavinia Glynne and her two spinster sisters – Clotilde and Anthea Bradbury-Scott. Miss Marple learns that Rafael had arranged for the three sisters to take care of her during the tour’s more physically challenging segments. She also discovers that at least two of the sisters – Clotilde and Anthea – knew both Verity and Michael very well, since the former’s parents knew the Bradbury-Scotts before their deaths.

Despite my high regard for Christie’s novel, I must admit that I am not a major fan of the 1987 adaptation. I managed to enjoy the movie. But I would never regard it as one of my favorite adaptations that featured the Jane Marple character. I have at least three problems with this production. One, “NEMESIS” seemed to move at an incredibly slow pace. Granted, many of the “MISS MARPLE” television movies were guilty of slow pacing. But there were times when it seemed that a snail moved faster than the pacing for this film. Another problem I had with “NEMESIS” is that the story does not feature many suspects. Not really. It seemed pretty obvious in the story that most of the characters that knew Michael Rafael and Verity Hunt – Elizabeth Temple, Professor Winstead, an Archdeacon Brabazon and Lavinia Glynne – made improbable suspects. That only left the two remaining Bradbury-Scott sisters, Clotilde and Anthea, Miss Cooke and Miss Barrow. Actually, Bowen’s screenplay tried to include Michael Rafael as a suspect by placing him in the area when Elizabeth Temple was killed. But that did not really work for me.

Which leads me to my third problem with this production . . . namely Michael Rafael. In Christie’s novel, the latter had been in prison for a decade, convicted of Verity Hunt’s murder (and possible the murder of a local girl named Nora Brent). However, Bowen changed matters by allowing Michael to roam free as a suspect who had never arrested or convicted. Worse, he had Michael roaming the streets of London as a homeless man, acting as some kind of advocate for many of London’s homeless. Every time the story focused on Michael, I had to reach for my remote and push the fast forward button. It was either that or allow the Michael Rafael sequences put me to sleep. Not even Bruce Payne’s performance could keep me interested. If I must be more brutally frank, I thought the 2007 adaptation handled its changes of the Michael Rafael character a lot better. I wish that Bowen had adhered to Christie’s original story by allowing Michael to remain in prison, if he was that intent upon closely following the novel.

However, “NEMESIS” was not a terrible movie. Despite its shortcomings, it proved to be pretty solid adaptation. Bowen and director David Tucker did an admirable job in adapting Christie’s novel for the television screen. More importantly, they did an equally admirable job of adhering to the novel with very few changes. Although I am not particularly thrilled with the changes done to the Michael Rafael character, I have to admit that I liked the addition of the Lionel Peel character. He strongly reminded me of the Arthur Hastings character and actually managed to somewhat assist Miss Marple in her investigation.

The best aspect of “NEMESIS” is that it did not deviate from the novel’s theme . . . namely love. I read another review of the movie that tried to hint that the changes in Bowen’s screenplay emphasized on the topic of decay. Recalling Christie’s original novel, it was an argument that I found hard to accept. More than anything, I believe love played a major role in this story. Due to a series of interviews with other characters in the story, Miss Marple came to the conclusion that Verity Hunt was a much beloved young woman. In fact, her observation led her to question the stark condition of Verity’s resting place. The love Verity shared between Michael Rafael had led to her murder and emotionally ruined his life. The love theme that seemed to permeate the screenplay convinced me that both Bowen and Tucker to maintain the melancholic air that made the novel so interesting . . . and haunting.

I certainly had no problems with the production’s performances. Joan Hickson gave one of her best performances as the truth-seeking Jane Marple. In fact, this particular movie featured one of my favorite Hickson moments on film . . . the moment in which Miss Marple confronts the murderer and reveals the latter’s motive and methods. “NEMESIS” also featured superb performances from Margaret Tyzack, Anna Cropper and Valerie Lush, who portrayed the very interesting Bradbury-Scott sisters. Despite my complaints about the Michael Rafael character, I cannot deny that Bruce Payne gave a very intense performance as the hard-luck drifter. Both Roger Hammond and Patrick Godfrey nearly made a perfect screen team as Jason Rafael’s pair of solicitors, Mr. Broadribb and Mr. Schuster. Peter Tilbury gave an entertaining performance as Miss Marple’s mild-mannered nephew (or godson), Lionel Peel. And I found Helen Cherry’s portrayal of the former school headmistress, Elizabeth Temple, very poignant. Another poignant performance came from Liz Fraser, who portrayed the mother of the missing and presumed dead Nora Brent. The movie also featured solid performances from Ann Queensberry, Jane Booker, Alison Skilbeck, John Horsley and Peter Copley.

I suppose I should be grateful that “NEMESIS” did not prove to be a narrative mess, like the 2007 adaptation of the same novel. Yes, it possessed flaws that made it difficult for me to regard it as one of my favorite Miss Marple adaptations. But it still managed to somewhat closely follow the 1971 novel and maintain its melancholic air. And it also featured excellent performances from a cast led by Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. On a whole, it proved to be a pretty damn good movie.

“ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” (2013) Review

“ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” (2013) Review

It is believed by many that the 1976 novel, “Curtain”, was the last one written by Agatha Christie that featured Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Not quite. “Curtain”, which Christie wrote during World War II, was the last Poirot novel to be published. The 1972 novel, “Elephants Can Remember” proved to be the last Poirot novel written by the author. 

Forty-one years following its publication, “Elephants Can Remember” was adapted as an 89-minute television movie for the last season of ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. Although the movie’s screenwriter, Nick Dear, retained a great deal of Christie’s novel; he embellished the story by adding a present day murder. He also either deleted or merged some supporting characters.

“ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” begins with Adriande Oliver attending a literary luncheon in London, when a middle-aged woman named Mrs. Burton-Cox approaches her. Knowing that Mrs. Oliver is the godmother of her son Desmond’s fiancée, Celia Ravenscroft, Mrs. Burton-Cox wants to know if the young woman’s parents had died via a murder-suicide or a double suicide. Some ten or fifteen years earlier, the bodies of Mrs. Oliver’s close friend Margaret Ravenscroft and General Alistair Ravenscroft were found near their manor house in Overcliffe. The original police investigation revealed that both had bullet wounds and that a revolver found between their bodies bore the fingerprints of the married couple. This made it impossible for the police to prove whether The Ravenscrofts’ deaths were a case of double suicide or if it was a murder-suicide. Following her encounter with Mrs. Burton-Cox, Mrs. Oliver contacts Celia Ravenscroft, who asks her to look into the case.

Mrs. Oliver seeks the help of Hercule Poirot, but he has his own case to solve. The latter is requested by an old friend, a psychiatrist named Dr. Willoughby, to investigate the murder of his father, who operated the Willoughby Institute for psychologically troubled patients. While investigating the elder Dr. Willoughby’s death, Poirot discovers a connection between his case and the Ravenscrofts’ case. Apparently, Mrs. Ravenscroft’s sister, Dorothy Jarrow, had been a patient of Dr. Willoughby senior before the couple’s deaths. Following this discovery, he decides to help Mrs. Oliver with her mystery as well.

Cold cases have featured in some of the most interesting novels that Agatha Christie had written throughout her career. Four of her most interesting novels about cold cases were “Five Little Pigs” (1942)“Ordeal by Innocence” (1958)“Hallowe’en Party” (1969)“Nemesis” (1971) and “Sleeping Murder” (1976). I wish I could say the same about “Elephants Can Remember”. But if I must be brutally honest, I have never read the novel. But thanks to this 2013 television adaptation of the novel and the Wikipedia website, I found myself familiar with its plot. As for the production itself . . . well, it seemed pretty solid to me.

I know what you are thinking. Pretty solid? Why not first-rate or excellent? To be perfectly honest, “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” did not exactly blow my mind. My problem with the film is I feel that Nick Dear’s additions to Christie’s story may have slightly undermined its dramatic impact. “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” had the potential to be a poignant mystery about the past. However, by adding both a murder and attempted murder to the story may have undermined this poignancy.

As I have earlier pointed out, “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” was not the first “cold case” mystery written by Christie. And to be perfectly honest, three of those “cold case” mysteries like “Ordeal by Innocence”“Nemesis” and “Sleeping Murder” did feature additional “present-day” murders to their narratives. But those murders were all about the killers’ attempts to prevent from being exposed after a period of time. In the case of “Hallowe’en Party”, it featured a good number of additional murders – both past and present – that were all about preventing the exposure of the murderer. I thought the addition of another murder and attempted murder in “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” had taken away some of the emotional impact of the Ravenscrofts’ deaths. This addition also made the plot a bit more confusing than necessary.

Despite Nick Dear’s major change in Christie’s story, I still managed to enjoy “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER”. The story managed to remain somewhat intriguing. But there were other aspects of the television movie that I enjoyed. Thanks to Jeff Tessler’s production designs and Miranda Cull’s art direction, “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” proved to be a very attractive looking production. Gavin Finney’s cinematography also added to the production’s attractive look. But there were times when his photography looked slightly fuzzy and ended up irritating me.

“ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” also featured some first-rate performances. David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker were wonderful, as always, as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and mystery writer Mrs. Ariadne Oliver. There were three other performances that also impressed me. Iain Glen gave a very interesting performance as Poirot’s charming, yet adulterous friend, Dr. Willoughby. Greta Scacchi was marvelous as always as the snobbish, yet mercenary Mrs. Burton-Cox. I was also impressed by Alexandra Dowling’s complicated performance as the mysterious secretary, Marie McDermott, who was having an affair with Dr. Willoughby. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Vanessa Kirby, Elsa Mollien, Adrian Lukis, Ferdinand Kingsley, Claire Cox, Caroline Blakiston and Vincent Regan.

Yes, I had a few quibbles about “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER”. My quibbles mainly focused on some of the additions that screenwriter Nick Dear made to Agatha Christie’s plot. But despite it, I still managed to enjoy the teleplay, thanks to John Strickland’s direction and a solid cast led by David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker.

“THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” (2004) Review

“THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” (2004) Review

I have another of my many confessions to make . . . I have never been a big fan of Agatha Christie’s 1930 novel, “The Murder at the Vicarage”. Never mind that it featured the first appearance of elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, in a feature-length novel. I am just not a big fan. 

One could assume that the novel’s setting – in the small village of St. Mary Mead – could be the reason why this particular tale has never rocked my boat. Not particularly. I can think of numerous Christie tales set in a small village – including St. Mary Mead – that really impressed me. The problem with “The Murder in the Vicarage” is that I never found it to be a particularly thought provoking tale. Nor did it include any special circumstances that made it unique. And my borderline apathy toward the 1930 novel even extended to the television movie adaptation that aired in 1986. Some eighteen years later, another adaptation of the novel aired on television. This particular version starred Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple. And its running time was at least eight minutes shorter.

In “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE”, the citizens of St. Mary Mead are rocked by the murder of Colonel Protheroe, the local churchwarden and magistrate, whose body was found inside the study of the vicar, Reverend Len Clement. The man was disliked by many; including the vicar, the vicarage’s curate, Protheroe’s second wife Anne, her lover Lawrence Redding, Protheroe’s daughter from his first marriage Lettice, the vicar’s wife Grieselda Clement, and a mysterious new resident named Mrs. Lester who seemed to have produced a strange reaction from Protheroe. Not long after the vicar discovers the body, Lawrence Redding, who is a painter, confesses to the murder. Although he has been clashing with Colonel Protheroe over his painting of Lettice, it turns out that he has been Anne Protheroe’s lover for quite some time. Upon learning about his confession, Anne confesses as well. Miss Marple eventually points out to Inspector Slack that it was impossible for either to commit the murder and suggests that the latter search for the killer among other St. Mary’s Mead citizens.

As I had pointed earlier, I am not a big fan of Christie’s novel or its 1986 adaptation. But for some reason, I enjoyed this adaptation. For example, it is a bit more colorful than the previous version. I am aware that all of the Miss Marple television adaptations of the 1980s and early 1990s tend to look rather faded. But there are more reasons why I find this 2004 version more colorful. I realize that many tend to demand that a movie or television adaptation is faithful to its source novel. But I thought the changes made by Stephen Churchett made the production somewhat more lively for me. One, Churchett changed two characters (one of them an archeologist) by giving them a World War II connection to Protheroe and a reason to want him dead. And two, Churchett included World War I flashbacks of a brief love affair between Miss Marple and a married Army officer. At first glance, these flashback seemed irrelevant to the main story. In the end, they served as a tool in which Miss Marple managed to ascertain the murderer’s identity. But the best thing I can say about “THE MURDER IN THE VICARAGE” is its pacing. This is a well-paced film, thanks to Charlie Palmer’s direction. For me, this is an important element for a low-key mystery like “THE MURDER IN THE VICARAGE”.

But there are other aspects of the movie that I enjoyed. I was really impressed by Nigel Walters’ cinematography. It was sharp, colorful and perfect for the movie’s setting. The photography also enhanced Jeff Tessler’s production designs, which struck me as a perfect reflection of an English village in 1951. He also had the task of re-creating a London railway station circa 1915-1917. And he did a pretty good job. But I really enjoyed Phoebe De Gaye’s costume designs. I found them colorful and very spot-on for each particular character, based upon age, class, personality, etc. By the way, Ms. De Gaye had also served one of the two costume designers for the BBC’s “THE MUSKETEERS” and the 2002-2003 miniseries, “THE FORSYTE SAGA”.

The performances were first-class. I tried to think of one that seemed somewhat off. But . . . I thought they were all well-done. “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” marked Geraldine McEwan’s second time at the bat as Miss Jane Marple. I feel this particular performance might be one of her better ones. I found her performance intelligent, sharp and particularly poignant. Other performances that impressed me came from Janet McTeer and Jason Flemyng, the adulterous couple, who found themselves at the center of village gossip and police inquiries following Protheroe’s murder. On paper, television viewers should have been outraged at their infidelity. But both McTeer and Flemyng gave such poignant and passionate performances that they managed to allow viewers to care about their fate.

Rachael Stirling gave an exuberant performance as the vicar’s outgoing wife, Grisielda Clements. At first glance, it seemed as if Derek Jacobi’s portrayal of the victim, Colonel Protheroe, would come off as a one-note blustering idiot. Thankfully, there were moments when Jacobi infused a good deal of humanity into his performance – especially in scenes involving the mysterious Mrs. Lester. Mark Gatiss’ portrayal of the vicarage’s curate Ronald Hawes, who seemed torn over his past actions involving the embezzling of funds at his previous assignment struck me as rather emotional and a bit sad. I also have to commend Stephen Tompkinson for his complex performance as the irascible Detective Inspector Slack. I enjoyed how he slowly allowed Slack’s character to develop an admiration for Miss Marple’s detective skills. The television movie also featured solid performances from Tim McInnerny, Herbert Lom, Christina Cole, Jane Asher, Robert Powell, Angela Pleasance, Miriam Margolyes and especially, Julie Cox and Marc Warren, who gave affecting performances as the younger Jane Marple and her World War I lover.

I may not be a fan of Agatha Christie’s 1930 novel. But I cannot deny that I rather enjoyed its 2004 television adaptation. Thanks to director Charlie Palmer and screenwriter Stephen Churchett, “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” proved to be a colorful, yet emotional tale about love, passion and ghosts from the past. The production was also enhanced by some eye-catching behind-the-scenes artistry and excellent performances from a cast led by the incomparable Geraldine McEwan.