“ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” (2007) Review

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“ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” (2007) Review

Many people would be surprised to learn that not many of Agatha Christie’s novels featured another one of her famous literary sleuths, Miss Jane Marple. The latter served as the lead in at least twelve novels, in compare to the thirty-three novels that starred her other famous sleuth, Hercule Poirot. It is because of this limited number of novels that the producers of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” featured adaptations of Christie novels in which she appeared in the television films, but not in the novels. One of them is “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE”.

Based upon Christie’s 1958 novel, “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” opened with the murder of the Argyle family’s controlling matriarch, Rachel Argyle. Mrs. Argyle was a wealthy heiress who had adapted several children, due to her inability to have her own. She also proved to be a controlling – almost tyrannical – mother who managed to alienate her adoptive children and husband. It did not take the police very long to focus upon one suspect – the family’s black sheep, Jack “Jacko” Argyle. Apparently, the latter quarreled with the victim over money. Jacko claimed that he had been given a lift by a stranger, when Rachel was murdered. But said stranger never stepped up to give him an alibi and Jacko was hanged for the crime. Two years later found the Argyle family celebrating the family’s patriarch Leo Argyle to his secretary, Gwenda Vaughn. The latter had invited her former employer, Jane Marple, to attend the wedding. A day or two before wedding, a stranger named Dr. Arthur Calgary appeared at the family estate, claiming to be the stranger who had given Jacko a lift on the night of Rachel’s murder. Due to Dr. Calgary’s confession, the Argyle family and Gwenda found themselves under suspicion for murder.

As I have stated in other movie reviews, I never had a problem with changes in adaptations of novels and/or plays, as long as these changes worked. “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” featured a few changes. The biggest change featured in the inclusion of Jane Marple as the mystery’s main investigator. Arthur Calgary served in that role in the novel. The television film also featured the addition of a character that was not in the novel – Jacko’s fraternal twin Bobby Argyle. Another major change featured the film’s second murder victim. Screenwriter Stewart Harcourt switched the identity of the story’s second victim. And how did these changes work?

I have to be frank. The addition of Bobby Argyle to the story did not seemed to have much of an impact upon me. The character became the executor of his adopted mother’s will, which placed him in charge of her money and his siblings’ trust funds. The problem I had with his story arc is that audiences were left in the dark on whether he had lost their money when he committed fraud . . . or he simply lost his own money. As I had previously stated, Harcourt and director Moira Armstrong had switched the identity of the story’s second victim. I will not reveal the identities of both the old and new identities. But I must admit that the second victim’s death – at least in this television movie – added a rather sad and poignant touch to this adaptation. The last major change featured Jane Marple as the story’s major investigator. Arthur Calgary, the man who could have provided Jacko Argyle an alibi, was the main investigator in Christie’s novel. In this film, he was more or less regulated to the role of a secondary character. Ironically, this change did not diminish his role, for Calgary more or less served as Miss Marple’s eyes, ears and feet; while remained at the Argyle estate. And this meant several scenes that featured Calgary engaging in a good deal of investigations on Miss Marple’s behalf.

Despite these changes, “ORDEAL OF INNOCENCE” more or less retained the main narrative Christie’s story. More importantly, I thought both Harcourt’s screenplay and Armstrong’s direction did an excellent job in maintaining the story’s angst, poignancy and more importantly, irony. Thanks to the director and screenwriter, “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” conveyed how Rachel Argyle’s presence managed to cast a shadow upon her family. And how her absence lifted that shadow, until Dr. Calgary’s revelation about Jacko’s innocence. I was also impressed at how the television movie did an effective, yet subtle job in conveying the bigotry faced by the family’s only person of color – Christina “Tina” Argyle.

While watching “ORDEAL OF INNOCENCE”, it occurred to me that Christie’s tale would not have worked if it had not been for the cast’s exceptional performances. All of them, I believe, really knocked it out of the ballpark. Mind you, there were solid performances from supporting cast members like Reece Shearsmith, Andrea Lowe, Camille Coduri, Pippa Haywood, and James Hurran. But I must confess that I was really impressed by those who portrayed members of the Argyle household. Burn Gorman radiated a mixture of charm and slime as the doomed Jacko Argyle. Richard Armitage was equally memorable as the avaricious and bitter ex-R.A.F. pilot who had married into the Argyle family, Philip Durrant. Singer Lisa Stansfield gave a subtle performance as Philip’s emotional, yet reserved wife Mary Argyle Durant, blinded by intense love for her husband. I enjoyed Bryan Dick’s portrayal of the volatile Micky Argyle, but there were moments when he threatened to be over-the-top. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, on the other hand, gave a performance that matched Stansfield’s subtlety as the blunt Tina Argyle, who hid her resentment of the racism she faced behind a sardonic mask. Stephanie Leonidas gave an effectively tense performance as the family’s youngest member, Hester Argyle, struggling to face her past involvement with brother-in-law Philip. And the always reliable Tom Riley did an excellent job with his portrayal of morally questionable Bobby Argyle.

But the performances that really impressed me came from the cast’s more veteran performers. Geraldine McEwan was marvelous as always in conveying the quiet intelligence of Miss Jane Marple. Despite being on the screen for only a few minutes, Jane Seymour really knocked it out of the park and domineering and sharp-tongued Rachel Argyle. She made it easy to see how the character managed to cast a shadow over the Argyle family. Julian Rhind-Tutt struck me as both entertaining and effective as the scholarly Dr. Arthur Calgary, who gave Jacko Argyle his alibi two years too late. What I found impressive about Rhind-Tutt’s performance is that he managed to convey his character’s intelligence and strength behind the nebbish personality. Alison Steadman’s portrayal of the Argyle’s judgmental housekeeper struck me as both subtle and frightening – especially in her stubborn belief that Gwenda Vaughn was Rachel’s killer. Denis Lawson has my vote for the best performance in “ORDEAL OF INNOCENCE”. There . . . I said it. And I stand by this. Lawson did a brilliant job in conveying the weak and suggestible personality of Leo Argyle. There were moments when I could not decide whether I liked him or despised him. It is not every day one comes across a fictional character brimming with quiet charm and unreliability.

It has been years since I saw the 1984 television adaptation of Christie’s 1958 novel. So, I have no memories of it. And I have seen the recent 2018 television adaptation. But I must be honest. I really enjoyed this 2007 adaptation. Yes, it has a few flaws. But I really believe that it did a superb job in conveying the poignant and ironic aspects of the novel. And I have director Moira Armstrong, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt and a superb cast led by Geraldine McEwan to thank.

“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.

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.

 

 

“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.

“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

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“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1931 novel, “The Sittaford Mystery”. And I have read a lot of her novels. But since the novel did not feature Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, or Tommy and Tuppence Beresford; I never took the trouble to read it. Well, that is not fair. I can think of at least two or three Christie novels that did not feature any of these sleuths that I have read. But I have never read “The Sittaford Mystery”.

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the ITV channel had aired an adaptation of the novel in which Geraldine McEwan appeared as Jane Marple. Okay. This is not the first time this has happened, considering that Christie did not write that many Miss Marple novels. “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” revolved around the murder of a politician who is viewed as a potential Prime Minister in the 1950s. The story begins in the 1920s Egypt, where Clive Trevelyan and a few companions stumble across an important archaeological discovery. Then the story jumps nearly thirty years later when Trevelyan, now a politician, returns to his home Sittaford House in Dartmoor with his aide John Enderby, while Parliament decides on whether he will become Britain’s new Prime Minister, following the retirement of Sir Winston Churchill. Due to his friendship with the novelist Raymond West, Trevelyan finds himself forced to accept the latter’s elderly aunt, Miss Jane Marple, as a house guest.

Much to Miss Marple and Enderby’s surprise, Treveylan decides to chance the snowy weather outside and stay at a local hotel six miles away. The hotel include guests who seemed to be very familiar with Treveylan or familiar with an escapee from the local Dartmoore prison. One of the guests conduct a séance using a Ouiji board, which predicts Treveylan’s death. Hours later, the politician is found stabbed to death in his room. With Miss Marple stuck at Sittaford House (temporarily); Enderby; a young journalist named Charles Burnaby; and Emily Trefusis, the fiancee of Treveylan’s wastrel ward James Pearson; set out to find the murderer. However, it is not long before the trio find themselves seeking Miss Marple’s help.

“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” strikes me as a rather confusing tale. I have a deep suspicion that in his effort to somewhat change the plot from Christie’s original novel, screenwriter Stephen Churchett ended up creating a very convoluted story . . . right up to the last reel. I have seen this movie twice and for the likes of me, I still have no real idea of what was going on . . . aside from the first fifteen minutes and the movie’s denouement. I was aware that the hotel featured guests that had connections with or knew Treveylan, including a former lover, her wallflower daughter, a middle-aged woman who seemed to be a fan of Treveylan, and an American businessman and his aide.

Churchett created a script filled with so many red herrings – unnecessary, as far as I am concerned – that I simply gave up in trying to guess the murderer’s identity and waited for Miss Marple to expose him or her. Upon my first viewing. Upon my second viewing, I tried to examine the plot for any hints or clues that would lead to the killer’s identity. Unfortunately, that did not happen until at least fifteen minutes before Miss Marple revealed the killer. I was also disappointed with how the movie resolved the romantic entanglements of Emily Trefusis, Charles Burnaby, James Pearson and a fourth character. I found it so contrived, for it came out of left field with no set up or hint whatsoever. What I found even more unconvincing was the last shot of the murderer staring at the camera with an evil grin. This struck me as an idiotic attempt by director Paul Unwin to channel or copy Alfred Hitchcock’s last shot of Anthony Perkins in the 1960 movie, “PYSCHO”. I found that moment so ridiculous.

I will give kudos to Rob Harris, the movie’s production designer. I thought he did a competent job in creating the movie’s setting – a snowbound English community in the early-to-mid 1950s. But do to the majority of the film being limited to either Treveylan’s home and the hotel, Harris really did not have much to work with. Frances Tempest certainly did with her costume designs. I found nothing outstanding about them. But I must admit that I found them rather attractive, especially the costumes that actress Zoe Telford wore. On the other hand, I found Nicholas D. Knowland’s cinematography rather odd . . . and not in a positive way. I did not like his photography, if I must be brutally honest. His unnecessary close-ups and odd angles struck me as an amateurish attempt by him and Unwin to transform “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” into an independent film or Hammer-style horror flick.

The performances in “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” proved to be a mixed bag. I have usually been a fan of Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of Miss Jane Marple. But I feel that she took the whole “verbose elderly lady” act a bit too far . . . especially in her scenes with Timothy Dalton during the first fifteen to twenty minutes. If I must be honest, most of the performances in the film seemed to be either over-the-top or close to being over-the-top. This was especially the case for Michael Brandon, Zoe Telford, Laurence Fox and Patricia Hodge. James Murray managed to refrain himself during most of the film. But even he managed to get into the act during the movie’s last fifteen minutes or so. Carey Mulligan’s performance seemed competent. She did not blow my mind, but at least she did not annoy me. Robert Hardy made a cameo appearance as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This marked the eighth or ninth time the actor portrayed the politician and honestly, I could see this appearance was nothing more than a walk in the park for him. There were only four performances I truly enjoyed. One came from Mel Smith, who gave a very competent performance as Treveylan’s right-hand man, John Enderby. I could say the same about Rita Tushingham, who gave a nuanced performance as a mysterious woman with knowledge of an ugly part in Treveylan’s past. The role proved to be his last, for he passed away not long after the film’s production. James Wilby was satisfyingly subtle as the town’s local hotel owner, who had a secret to maintain. For me, the best performance came from Timothy Dalton, who was dazzling at the story’s main victim, Clive Trevelyan. Considering that he was portraying a somewhat theatrical character, it is amazing that he managed to keep his performance under control, and struck a tight balance between theatricality and subtlety.

It is obvious to anyone reading this review that I did not like “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY”. I could complain about the changes made to Agatha Christie’s novel. But I have never read it, so I saw no point in making any comparisons. But I still cared very little for the movie. I found the direction and photography rather amateurish. And aside from a few first-rate performances, I was not that impressed by the majority of the cast’s acting – including, unfortunately, Geraldine McEwan’s.

Favorite Films Set in the 1810s and 1820s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the 1810s and 1820s:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1810s AND 1820s

1 - Sense and Sensibility

1. “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) – Ang Lee directed this superb adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel about two sisters in love and financial straits. Adapted by Emma Thompson, the movie starred both her and Kate Winslet.

 

 

2 - Persuasion 1995

2. “Persuasion” (1995) – Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds starred in this entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1818 novel about the reunion between two former lovers. Roger Michell directed. – Tie

 

 

2 - Persuasion 2007

2. “Persuasion” (2007) – I am also a big fan of this equally entertaining adaptation of Austen’s 1818 novel about the two former lovers, Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth. Adrian Shergold directed. – Tie

 

 

3 - Vanity Fair 2004

3. “Vanity Fair” (2004) – I rather enjoyed this surprisingly first-rate adaptation of William Thackery Makepeace’s 1848 novel about the rise, fall and rise of an ambitious early 19th century Englishwoman. Directed by Mira Nair, the movie starred Reese Witherspoon.

 

 

4 - The Deceivers

4. “The Deceivers” (1988) – Pierce Brosnan starred in this exciting adaptation of John Masters’ 1952 novel about a British Army officer’s discovery of the Thugee cult. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, the movie co-starred Saeed Jaffrey and Helena Michell.

 

 

5 - The Journey of August King

5. “The Journey of August King” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this first-rate adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about a North Carolina farmer, who unexpectedly finds himself helping a young slave escape from her master.

 

 

6 - Northanger Abbey

6. “Northanger Abbey” (2007) – Felicity Jones and J.J. Feild starred in this delightful adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1817 novel about a young girl’s misadventures during a visit to the resort town of Bath and at a family’s mysterious estate. Jon Jones directed.

 

 

7 - Davy Crockett and the River Pirates

7. “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates” (1956) – Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen starred in this superior sequel to the first Davy Crockett television movie about the adventures of the frontiersman and his friend George Russel along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

 

 

8 - Emma 1997

8. “Emma” (1996-97) – Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong starred in this solid adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about the matchmaking efforts of a wealthy young woman in early 19th century England. The movie was adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence.

 

 

9 - Brother Future

9. “Brother Future” (1991) – Phil Lewis starred in this entertaining historical/science-fiction movie about a Detroit teen who is hit by a car and wakes up to find himself a slave in 1822 Charleston. Directed by Roy Campanella II, the movie co-starred Carl Lumbly and Moses Gunn.

 

 

10 - Hawaii

10. “Hawaii” (1966) – George Roy Hill directed this energetic adaptation of James A. Michener’s 1959 novel about the experiences of a missionary couple from New England in the early 19th century Hawaiian Islands. Julie Andrews, Max Von Sydow and Richard Harris starred.

“4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (2004) Review

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“4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (2004) Review

I have been a major fan of Agatha Christie’s 1957 novel, “4.50 From Paddington”, ever since I was in my teens. In fact, I consider it one of my top ten favorite Christie novels of all time. So, it is not surprising that I would approach any movie or television adaptation of this story with great anticipation.

As far as I know, there have been at least two adaptations of Christie’s 1957 novel. Both were television movies that starred Joan Hickson as Jane Marple in 1987 and Geraldine McEwan in 2004. Just recently, I watched the McEwan version and all I can say is . . . hmmmmm. “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (also known as “WHAT MRS. McGILLICUDDY SAW”) begins with Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy leaving London by train, following a Christmas shopping trip. She is on her way to St. Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Miss Jane Marple in St. Mary Mead. Sometime during the journey, Mrs. McGillicuddy looks out of her window and spots a man with his back to her strangling a woman in a train traveling parallel to hers. Upon reaching St. Mary Mead, Mrs. McGillicuddy reports the murder to Miss Marple, before the pair reports it to an unbelieving railway official.

While Mrs. McGillicuddy travels on to visit relatives in Ceylon for the holidays, Miss Marple takes matters into her own hands. She comes to the conclusion that the murderer had dumped the body off the train before it could be discovered at an estate owned by the Crackenthorpe family called Rutherford Hall, near Brackhampton. Miss Marple recruits a professional housekeeper named Lucy Eylesbarrow to hire herself out to the Crackenthorpes with the pretense that she wants to be near her “aunt” – namely Miss Marple – and hunt for the missing body. Eventually, Lucy does find the body . . . and more mayhem ensues.

I was not particularly fond of the 1987 Joan Hickson adaptation. And if I must be brutally honest, I do not have a high opinion of this 2004 version. Both versions seemed to be marred by two major problems – too many changes and the love triangle involving the Lucy Eylesbarrow character. And if I must be honest, Lucy proved to be a problem all on her own. Stephen Churchett made changes that I found particularly unnecessary. The movie began with a World War II flashback that featured the death of the Crackenthorpe family matriarch, which seemed to have an impact on the family patriarch, Luther Crackenthorpe. Although poignant, this scene struck me as a complete waste of time that did not seem to have anything to do with the main narrative. And once again, this version ended with a resolution to the love triangle that surrounded Lucy Eylesbarrow. Apparently, no one seemed to care how Christie deliberately left the matter opened in regard to Lucy’s choice. I have always regarded the Lucy Eylesbarow character as something of a “Mary Sue”. The 1987 version of the character was transformed into a humorless prig. Although the 2004 version of the character managed to regain some wit, she also came off as an even bigger “Mary Sue” than the literary version. The television movie introduced Lucy singing with Noel Coward (of all people) to his guests at a dinner party. She was dressed to the nines . . . and still serving as a housekeeper. What the hell? When I saw this, I could not believe my eyes. And why on earth did Churchett and director Andy Wilson allowed Miss Marple to reveal the murderer to an audience . . . aboard a moving train? This struck me as incredibly contrived and rather uncomfortable.

The movie also featured some severe character changes. Harold Crackenthorpe was transformed into a serial rapist, who has targeted Lucy as his latest victim. Alfred Crackenthorpe remained a minor crook, who seemed to be constantly weeping over a former girlfriend who had dumped him. Instead of being the oldest living brother, Cedric Crackenthorpe became the youngest sibling in the family and a failed painter. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. And Churchett completely jettisoned him from the love triangle concerning Lucy Eylesbarrow. This version featured a love triangle between Lucy, Bryan Eastley (Luther’s son-in-law), and Inspector Tom Campbell, the investigating detective for the case. Yes, that is correct. Once again, the Dermot Craddock character (who was the investigating detective in the novel) was eliminated from another adaptation. In his place was another detective with close ties to Miss Marple. Which is ironic, considering that he had appeared in the 2004 version of“A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”. Speaking of Bryan Eastley, he was transformed into an American war veteran. Only the Luther Crackenthorpe, Emma Crackenthorpe and Dr. Quimper characters remained intact.

However, “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” did have its share of virtues. I have to give kudos to Jeff Tessler for his excellent production designs. His work made it very easy for television audiences to find themselves transported back to 1951. Also adding to the movie’s setting were Pilar Foy’s art direction and Phoebe De Gaye’s costume designs. I also enjoyed the production’s cinematography, thanks to Martin Fuhrer’s sharp and colorful work. And Jeremy Gibbs’s editing greatly enhanced the sequence in which Elspeth McGillicuddy first witnessed the murder. Despite my dissatisfaction with the overall adaptation of Christie’s 1957 novel, I must admit that Andy Wilson did a solid job as director. This was evident in the movie’s pacing and performances.

Speaking of performances, I tried to think of one or two performance that seemed out of step to me. But if I must be honest, I could not find one. “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” provided some pretty good, solid performances. Geraldine McEwan was in fine form, as usual, as Miss Jane Marple. And she clicked very well with three particular cast members – Pam Ferris, who did an excellent job in portraying the pragmatic Elspeth McGillicuddy; John Hannah, who gave a nice performance as the rather quiet and intelligent Tom Campbell; and Amanda Holden, who seemed to be a bundle of charm as the talented and dependable Lucy Eylesbarrow. Jenny Agutter gave a very poignant performance in her brief appearance as the dying Agnes Crackenthorpe. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Niamh Cusack, Griff Rhys Jones, Charlie Creed-Miles, Kurtis O’Brien, Ciarán McMenamin, and Celia Imrie, who was rather funny as a Russian dancing mistress being interviewed by Tom Campbell and Miss Marple.

But there were four performances that proved to be my favorite. One came from Rose Keegan, who was even more funny as Lady Alice Crackenthorpe, Harold’s aristocratic wife. My second favorite performance came from David Warner was at times, poignant, rather funny and very sardonic (depending on the scene) as family patriarch Luther Crackenthorpe. Ben Daniels was equally funny and sardonic as the despairing Alfred Crackenthorpe, who seemed to have more regard for the woman who had dumped him, than his family. And perhaps I should be grateful that screenwriter Stephen Churchett transformed the Bryan Eastley character to an American. This gave American-born Michael Landes a chance to make the character more than bearable. Landes did something that Christie’s novel and actor David Beames failed to do in the 1987 version . . . make Bryan Eastley sexy and charismatic.

I will not deny that “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” had its virtues. The movie can boast fine performances from a cast led by Geraldine McEwan. I really had no problem with Andy Wilson’s direction. And the movie’s 1951 was beautiful to look at, thanks to the production staff. But I still had problems with the movie’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1957 novel. There were too many unnecessary changes to a story that had become one of my favorites penned by the author. Pity.

“SLEEPING MURDER” (2006) Review

 

“SLEEPING MURDER” (2006) Review

I might as well say it. The 1976 novel, “Sleeping Murder” is one of my favorites written by mystery writer, Agatha Christie. In fact, it is such a big favorite of mine that when I learned about the recent 2006 adaptation that aired on Britain’s ITV network, I made a great effort to find it on DVD.

Although the 1976 novel proved to be the last Christie novel featuring elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, the author wrote it during the early years of World War II. In fact, she did the same for the 1975 Hercule Poirot novel, “Curtain”. Christie wrote both novels and placed them in a bank vault, in case she failed to survive the Blitz. During the early 1970s, the author authorized the publication of “Curtain” for 1975 and “Sleeping Murder” for 1976. I never warmed up to the 1975 novel, but I became a fan of the latter one. The novel produced two television adaptations and a radio version. Just recently, I watched a DVD copy of the 2006 television movie that featured Geraldine McEwan as Miss Jane Marple.

“SLEEPING MURDER” begins in 1933 India, where British diplomat Kelvin Halliday receives news that his wife Claire had just been killed in a traffic accident. The widower returns home to England with his three year-old daughter Gwenda and meets one Helen Marsden, a singer with a troupe of music performers known as “The Funnybones”. Nineteen years later, a recently engaged Gwenda Halliday returns to England in order to find a home where she and her future husband Giles, who is a wealthy businessman living in India, can live. Accompanied by Giles’ assistant, Hugh Hornbeam, Gwenda finds a house in Dillmouth, a town on the south coast of England. While workmen set about repairing the house, Gwenda realizes that it seems familiar to her. Hugh suggests she speak to an old acquaintance of his, Miss Jane Marple of St. Mary Mead. Gwenda and Hugh meet with Miss Marple at a local theater showing the John Webster play, “The Duchess of Malfi”. During one of the play’s climatic scenes, Gwenda screams in terror , as she remembers witnessing a pair of hands strangling a woman. Along with Miss Marple and Hugh, Gwenda realizes she may have witnessed a murder when she was a child living in Dillmouth. All three also discover that the murdered woman may have been Gwenda’s stepmother, Helen Marsden Halliday.

I . . . did not dislike “SLEEPING MURDER”. I thought this adaptation featured fine performances from a cast led by the always superb Geraldine McEwan. The television movie also featured memorable performances from Sophia Myles and Aidan McArdle as Gwenda Halliday and Hugh Hornbeam. I was also impressed by Julian Wadham as Kelvin Halliday; Martin Kemp, Dawn French and Paul McGann as three of Helen’s Funnybones colleagues; and Phil Davis as Dr. James Kennedy, Kelvin’s original brother-in-law. It was nice to see Harriet Walter give a cameo as an actress portraying the lead role in “The Duchess of Malfi” production. The rest of the cast gave solid performances, aside from two struck me as slightly problematic. Sarah Parish’s portrayal of Funnybones wallflower-turned successful singer Evie Ballatine seemed to be an exercise in character extremism . . . and a bit over-the-top. I could say the same about Geraldine Chapln’s portrayal of the gloomy Mrs. Fane, mother of Walter Fane, a mild-mannered lawyer who knew Gwenda’s mother.

“SLEEPING MURDER” also benefited from colorful and sharp photography, thanks to Alan Almond’s cinematography. I also found Frances Tempest’s costume designs for the early 1950s sequences rather gorgeous to look at. However, her designs for the 1930s scenes seemed to be something of a mixed bag. Overall, I had no complaints about the movie’s production designs and the performances. But I did not love this movie. In fact, I barely liked it.

The problem – at least for me – is that the positive aspects of “SLEEPING MURDER” failed to hide or compensate what proved to be the movie’s real problem . . . namely the screenplay written by Stephen Churchett. I do not completely blame him. The producers of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” and director Edward Hall were willing to use it. I have no problems with a screenwriter changing certain aspects of a source novel or play for a screen adaptation. Especially if said change manages to improve the story or make it more effective for a screen adaptation. But the changes Churchett made to Christie’s story did not improve it in the end or made it effective for the television screen. Personally, I found Churchett’s changes more convoluted than a novel written by James Ellroy.

First of all, Churchett, Hall or both allowed the Gwenda Reed character from the novel to become the unmarried Gwenda Halliday, engaged to be married. The Giles Reed character was reduced to Gwenda’s unseen and wealthy fiancé, who turned out to be a jerk. Churchett and Hall decided to create a new love interest for Gwenda, the quiet and faithful Hugh Hornbam, who works for her fiancé. Why did Hall and Churchett give Gwenda a new love interest? What was wrong with using the original Giles Reed character from the novel? Was it really that important to inject a new romance, which seemed to be the hallmark of many “MARPLE” productions? Also, a musical troupe known as the Funnybones was introduced to this story. Three of the original suspects – Richard “Dickie” and Janet Erskine, and Jackie Afflick – became members of the Funnybones, along with Helen. The addition of the Funnybones also produced another suspect for the story – a singer named Evie Ballatine. Why did Churchett create the Funnybones in the first place? Perhaps he and Hall thought the musical troupe would make Helen’s character more “colorful”. On the other hand, I found the addition of the musical troupe UNNECESSARY . . . like other changes and additions to this story.

The above changes seemed nothing to me compared to the changes made to the Helen Halliday character. It is bad enough that Churchett transformed her from a nice, young woman who became a stepmother and wife to a professional singer. Go figure. Worse . . . Helen Marsden Halliday was eventually revealed to be Kelvin Halliday’s first wife, Claire. In other words, Gwenda’s mother and stepmother proved to be one and the same. How did this happen? Well, when Claire Kennedy went to India to get married, she changed her mind and became a thief. She met Kelvin Halliday, married him and gave birth to their only child Gwenda. However, when the police in British India became suspicious of her, Claire and Kelvin plotted her fake death, she returned to England and joined the Funnybones, and “married” Kelvin as Helen Marsden, following his and Gwenda’s return to India. Confused? I was when Miss Marple revealed all of this to Gwenda, Hugh and the suspects. When this whole scenario regarding Claire/Helen’s background was revealed, I could only shake my head in disbelief. What on earth was Churchett thinking when he created this confusing background for her? What were the producers and Hall thinking for accepting it? In fact, all of the changes made for this adaptation proved to be unnecessary, but also transformed “SLEEPING MURDER” into one convoluted mess.

What else can I say about “SLEEPING MURDER”? It featured some pretty good performances from a cast led by Geraldine McEwan. I liked its production values very much, especially Alan Almond’s photography and Frances Tempest’s costume designs for the 1950s sequences. But . . . I feel that screenwriter Stephen Churchett made a lot of unnecessary changes to Christie’s original story that left the movie into a big, narrative mess. And I cannot help but wonder what director Edward Hall and the producers were thinking to allow these changes to happen.

“AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” (2007) Review

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“AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” (2007) Review

Not long ago, I had written a review of an Agatha Christie television movie called “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL”. It was a 1987 adaptation of the writer’s 1965 novel. Twenty years later, ITV aired its own version that starred Geraldin McEwan as Miss Jane Marple. 

But I am not interested in comparing the two adaptations. Instead, I want to discuss only one of them – the recent 2007 televised film. The movie began with a flashback to the early 1890s in which a young Jane Marple stayed at the fashionable London hotel, Bertram’s, with a relative. Sixty years later, the elderly resident of St. Mary Mead’s pay another visit to the hotel and discovers that its interior has not really changed over the years. Miss Marple is there She is there to meet an old friend named Lady Selina Hazy, who is visiting for the reading of a will of her millionaire second cousin, who had been declared dead after being missing for seven years and owned Bertram’s. Also there for the reading of the hotel owner’s will are his ex-wife Bess, Lady Sedgwick; and daughter Elvira Blake. Bertram’s Hotel also seemed to be used as a center to smuggle Nazi war criminals and their stolen treasure; and for jewel thieves.

Christie’s 1965 novel is not considered one of her stronger ones and I can see why. The story’s murder mystery is rather weak and easy to solve. They mystery behind the hotel proved to be more interesting. The 1987 television movie with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple closely followed the novel. Despite a sluggish pacing, it still proved to be entertaining. Screenwriter Tom McRae decided to “solve” the matter of Christie’s narration by “improving” it with major changes. And you know what? It sucked. Big time. Without a doubt, “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” – at least this 2007 version – is one of the worst Christie adaptations I have ever seen. Period.

One of the first sentences that Miss Marple observes when she arrives at Bertam’s after many years is that the hotel had not changed . . . even after sixty years. And yet that was NOT the impression I encountered. In Christie’s novel and the 1987 film, the elderly sleuth noticed that the hotel’s quiet and elegant atmosphere had remained intact after many years. I NEVER got that impression in this 2007 film . . . certainly not with the noisy bustling going on upon her arrival. To make matters worse, McRae’s script had Louis Armstrong and his band break out into a jam session in one of the hotel’s ballroom. He is joined by one of the writer’s fictional characters, an American-born black jazz singer Amelia Walker. WTF????? I cannot image Louis Armstrong staying at some quaint little London hotel like Bertram’s. The screenplay also had the Lady Sedgwick character receiving clumsily written death threats, Nazi war criminals and their hunters disguised as hotel guests. The screenplay even featured an extra murder victim – a hotel maid named Tilly Rice. It also made the actual murder of Bertram’s commissionaire a lot more complicated than necessary. And to make matters even more worse, McRae added another maid character named Jane Cooper, who becomes a younger version of Miss Marple – another talented amateur sleuth. And she acquired a love interest of her own – an Inspector Larry Byrd, a World War II veteran with post-traumatic stress. He also replaced the much older Chief Inspector Fred Davy character, as the story’s main police investigator. The screenplay allowed the young Miss Cooper to reveal most of the hotel’s mysteries before Miss Marple exposed the actual killer.

I do not mind if changes were made to Christie’s story. I can think of a good number of Christie adaptations in which changes were made to her original novels and ended up being well-made movies. But I feel that those changes needed to be well-written or be necessary as an improvement to the author’s original tale. “At Bertram’s Hotel” was not a perfect or near-perfect novel. But the changes made for this particular adaptation did not improve the story. On the contrary, the changes made for “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” transformed Christie’s rather eccentric tale into one big convoluted mess. The only positive change that emerged in this adaptation was a shorter running time of ninety-three (93) minutes. Thanks to this shorter running time, “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” managed to avoid the occasionally sluggish pacing of the 1987 movie.

The performances in “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” proved to be a mixed bag. I had nothing against Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of the quiet, yet intelligent Miss Jane Marple. She was her usual more than competent self. I enjoyed her performance so much that I wish that the screenplay had not seen fit to saddle her with the Jane Cooper character. Yes, I hated the idea of another amateur sleuth in this tale. But I must admit that Martine McCutcheon gave a very good performance as Jane. But the producers of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” want another amateur sleuth that badly, create another series for her . . . or him. Francesca Annis managed to rise above the material given to her and gave a very funny and entertaining performance as Miss Marple’s old friend, Lady Selina Hazy. However, why do most or all of Miss Marple friends tend to look more glamorous . . . and older than her? Stephen Mangan gave a solid and intense performance as Inspector Larry Byrd. More importantly, he managed to portray a post-traumatic stress victim without engaging in excessive acting. I was not particularly thrilled by McRae and director Dan Zeff’s changes to the Lady Sedgwick character. They replaced Christie’s vivacious and elegant socialite/adventuress into a hard-nosed and somewhat cold businesswoman. However, I cannot deny that actress Polly Walker gave a more than competent performance as Lady Sedgwick, despite the changes to the character.

Naturally, there were the performances that either failed to impress me, or I found troubling. I was not that impressed by Emily Beecham’s portrayal of the young Elvira Blake. I simply found it unmemorable. I can say the same for Mary Nighy’s portrayal of Elvira’s friend, Brigit Milford; Vincent Regan’s performance as hotel commissionaire Mickey Gorman; Nicholas Burns’ portrayal of twin brothers Jack and Joel Britten; and Charles Kay as one Canon Pennyfather, who struck me as a dull and stuffy character. Ed Stoppard portrays a Polish race car driver named Malinowski, who is suspected by many of being a former Nazi. He gave a pretty good performance, although there were a few moments when he dangerously veered into hammy acting. The role of Amelia Walker proved to be singer Mica Paris’ second and (so far) last dramatic role. Mind you, she gave a pretty good performance, but the moment she opened her mouth, I immediately knew she was not an American. I found her accent rather exaggerated at times. I have always been impressed by Peter Davidson in the past. But I must admit that I did not care much for his portrayal of hotel employee Hubert Curtain. I found it unnecessarily exaggerated . . . especially in one scene.

What else can I say? “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” does featured a good deal of atmosphere. Unfortunately, it struck me as the wrong kind of atmosphere for this particular story. And some of the good performances featured in this movie – especially by Geraldine McEwan, Francesca Annis and Polly Walker – could not save the movie from the shabby screenplay written by Tom MacRae. Honestly, I found the whole thing a mess. I only hope that there will be a better written adaptation some time in the future.

“THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” (2004) Review

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“THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” (2004) Review

I might as well say it. Agatha Christie’s 1942 novel, “The Body in the Library” has never been a particularly favorite of mine. Nor have I ever been that fond of the 1984 television adaptation that starred Joan Hickson. So, when ITV aired another adaptation of the novel, I was not that eager to watch it. But I did. 

“THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” proved to be a slightly complicated tale that begins with the discovery of a dead body in the library of Gossington Hall, the home of Colonel Arthur and Dolly Bantry. The body turns out to be a peroxide blonde in her late teens with heavy make-up and dressed in a satin gown. The police, led by Colonel Melchett, Chief Constable of the County, first suspects a local St. Mary Mead citizen named Basil Blake, who has clashed with Colonel Bantry in the past. However, Colonel Melchett discovers there is a living, breathing peroxide blonde in Blake’s life named Dinah Lee. Superintendent Harper of the Glenshire police becomes a part of the investigation, when he reveals the identity of the corpse as eighteen year-old Ruby Keene, a professional dancer who worked at the Majestic Hotel Resort in Danemouth. Ruby’s body is identified by her cousin Josie Turner, another professional dancer at the Majestic.

While both Colonel Melchett and Superintendent Harper investigate Ruby’s death, Dolly Bantry recruit her old friend and neighbor, Jane Marple to conduct her own investigation. Both the police and Miss Marple discover that another old friend of the Bantrys – a wealthy guest named Conway Jefferson, had reported Ruby’s disappearance. During the last year of World War II, Jefferson’s son and daughter were killed during a V-1 attack; leaving him physically handicapped and his son-in-law Mark Gaskell and daughter-in-law Adelaide Jefferson widowed. Since her arrival at the Majestic Hotel, Ruby had grown close to Jefferson. Their relationship led the latter to consider adopting Ruby and leaving her his money, instead of his in-laws. But despite their strong motives, both Mark and Adalaide had alibis during Ruby’s murder. Also more suspects and another corpse – a sixteen year-old Girl Guide – appear, making the case even more complicated.

Kevin Elyot’s screenplay featured changes from Christie’s 1942 novel. Like many “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE”movies, “THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” is set during the 1950s. Certain characters from the novel, including Miss Marple’s old friend Sir Henry Clithering, were eliminated. Jefferson’s family is killed during World War II by a V2 rocket, instead of in a plane crash. Jefferson’s son and Mark Gaskell were RAF pilots. And one of the murderers’ identity was changed, leading to an even bigger change that will remained unrevealed by me. But do to Elyot’s well-written screenplay and Andy Wilson’s colorful direction, the changes did not affect my enjoyment of the movie. And that is correct. I enjoyed“THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” very much. Mind you, I did not find it perfect. Following the killers’ revelation, there was a scene in which the latter were being booked by the police that I found a bit silly and over dramatic. Also, a part of me wished that Miss Marple’s exposure of the killers could have occurred in their presence and in the presence of the other suspects. But . . . considering the circumstances and emotions behind the two murders, I could understand why Elyot did not.

“THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” proved to be one of the most colorful and lively Miss Marple productions I have ever come across. And I find this ironic, considering my feelings for the original novel and the 1984 television movie. First of all, I have to give credit where it is due – namely to director Andy Wilson. Not only did his direction infuse a good deal of energy and style into a story I had previously dismissed as dull. More importantly, he maintained a steady pace that prevented me from falling asleep in front of the television screen. Martin Fuhrer’s photography of the British locations in Buckinghamshire and East Essex certainly added to the movie’s colorful look. Production designer Jeff Tessler did an excellent job of re-creating the look and color of a seaside British resort in the 1950s. But the one aspect of movie’s production that really impressed me were the movie’s costumes designed by Phoebe De Gaye. They . . . were . . . beautiful. Especially the women’s costumes.

The performances were first rate. “THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” proved to be Geraldine McEwan’s first time at the bat as Miss Jane Marple. Ironically, the 1984 version of this story proved to be the first time Joan Hickson portrayed the elderly sleuth. And like Hickson, McEwan immediately established her own style as the soft-spoken, yet uber-observant Jane Marple, by injecting a bit of eccentric behavior and habits into the mix. Joanna Lumley gave a deliciously vibrant performance as Miss Marple’s close friend, Dolly Bantry, who gets caught up in the murder investigation and the glamour of the Majestic Hotel’s atmosphere. Ian Richardson struck the right emotional note as the physically disabled Conway Jefferson, who re-focused his feelings upon the doomed Ruby Keene, after years of dealing with the loss of his family. Both Simon Callow and Jack Davenport gave funny performances as the two police officials in charge of the case – the occasionally haughty Colonel Melchett and the sardonic Superintendent Harper. Mary Stockley gave a subtle performance as Ruby’s cousin, the no-nonsense Josie Turner, who has to deal with the death of a close relative. Jamie Theakston had a great moment in a scene that featured Mark Gaskell’s conversation with Miss Marple about his character’s difficulties in dealing with the loss of his wife and friends during the war and his financial difficulties since. Tara Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Jefferson’s daughter-in-law, Adelaide, struck me as warm and very sympathetic. Ben Miller did a great job in portraying the colorful, yet slightly pathetic personality of Suspect Number One Basil Blake. And James Fox had a small role in “THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY”, but he did a very good job in conveying Arthur Bantry’s embarrassment over the discovery in his library and the gossip directed at him.

The flaws featured in “THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” struck me as minimal, in compare to the movie’s virtues. More importantly, Andy Wilson’s direction and Kevin Elyot’s screenplay infused an energy into this adaptation that seemed to be lacking not only in the 1984 movie, but also in Christie’s novel. This might prove to be one of my favorite Miss Marple movies to feature the always talented Geraldine McEwan.