“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.

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“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.

“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

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“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

William Makepeace Thackery’s 1848 novel about the life and travails of an ambitious young woman in early 19th century has generated many film and television adaptations. One of them turned out to be the 2004 movie that was directed by Mira Nair. 

“VANITY FAIR” covers the early adulthood of one Becky Sharp, the pretty and ambitious daughter of an English not-so-successful painter and a French dancer during the early years from 1802 to 1830. The movie covers Becky’s life during her impoverished childhood with her painter father, during her last day as a student at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies, where she meets her only friend Amelia Sedley – the only daughter of a slightly wealthy gentleman and her years as a governess for the daughters of a crude, yet genial baronet named Sir Pitt Crawley. While working for the Crawleys, Becky meets and falls in love with Sir Pitt’s younger son, Captain Rawdon Crawley. When Sir Pitt proposes marriage to Becky, she shocks the family with news of her secret marriage to Rawdon. The couple is ostracized and ends up living in London on Rawdon’s military pay and gambling winnings. They also become reacquainted with Amelia Sedley, who has her own problems. When her father loses his fortune, the father of her beau, George Osborne, tries to arrange a marriage between him and a Jamaican heiress. Leery of the idea of marrying a woman of mixed blood, he marries Amelia behind Mr. Obsorne’s back, and the latter disinherits him. Not long after George and Amelia’s marriage, word reaches Britain of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and control of France. Becky and Amelia follow Rawdon, George, and Dobbin, who are suddenly deployed to Brussels as part of the Duke of Wellington’s army. And life for Becky and those close to her prove to be even more difficult.

The first thing I noticed about “VANITY FAIR” was that it was one of the most beautiful looking movies I have ever seen in recent years. Beautiful and colorful. A part of me wonders if director Mira Nair was responsible for the movie’s overall look. Some people might complain and describe the movie’s look as garish. I would be the first to disagree. Despite its color – dominated by a rich and deep red that has always appealed to me – “VANITY FAIR” has also struck me as rather elegant looking film, thanks to cinematographer Declan Quinn. But he was not the only one responsible for the film’s visual look. Maria Djurkovic’s production designs and the work from the art direction team – Nick Palmer, Sam Stokes and Lucinda Thomson. All did an excellent job of not only creating what I believe to be one of the most colorful and elegant films I have ever seen, but also in re-creating early 19th century Britain, Belgium, Germany and India. But I do have a special place in my heart for Beatrix Aruna Pasztor’s costume designs. I found them absolutely ravishing. Colorful . . . gorgeous. I am aware that many did not find them historically accurate. Pasztor put a bit more Hollywood into her designs than history. But I simply do not care. I love them. And to express this love, the following is a brief sample of her costumes worn by actress Reese Witherspoon:

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I understand that Witherspoon was pregnant at the time and Pasztor had to accommodate the actress’ pregnancy for her costumes. Judging from what I saw on the screen, I am beginning to believe that Witherspoon’s pregnancy served her role in the story just fine.

Now that I have raved over the movie’s visual look and style, I might as well talk about the movie’s adaptation. When I first heard about “VANITY FAIR”, the word-of-mouth on the Web seemed to be pretty negative. Thackery’s novel is a long one – written in twenty parts. Naturally, a movie with a running time of 141 minutes was not about to cover everything in the story. And I have never been one of those purists who believe that a movie or television adaptation had to be completely faithful to its source. Quite frankly, it is impossible for any movie or television miniseries to achieve. And so, it was not that surprising that the screenplay written by Julian Fellowes, Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet would not prove to be an accurate adaptation. I expected that. However, there were some changes I could have done without.

Becky Sharp has always been one of the most intriguing female characters in literary history. Among the traits that have made her fascinating were her ambitions, amorality, talent for manipulation and sharp tongue. As much as I enjoyed Reese Witherspoon’s performance in the movie – and I really did – I thought it was a mistake for Fellowes, Faulk and Skeet to make Becky a more “likeable” personality in the movie’s first half. One, it took a little bite not only out of the character, but from the story’s satirical style, as well. And two, I found this change unnecessary, considering that literary fans have always liked the darker Becky anyway. Thankfully, this vanilla-style Becky Sharp disappeared in the movie’s second half, as the three screenwriters returned to Thackery’s sharper and darker portrayal of the character. I was also a little disappointed with the movie’s sequence featuring Becky’s stay at the Sedley home and her seduction of Amelia’s older brother, Jos. I realize that as a movie adaptation, “VANITY FAIR” was not bound to be completely accurate as a story. But I was rather disappointed with the sequence featuring Becky’s visit to the Sedley home at Russell Square in London. Perhaps it was just me, but I found that particular sequence somewhat rushed. I was also disappointed by Nair and producer Jannette Day’s decision to delete the scene featuring Becky’s final meeting with her estranged son, Rawdy Crawley. This is not out of some desire to see Robert Pattinson on the screen. Considering that the movie’s second half did not hesitate to reveal Becky’s lack of warmth toward her son, I felt that this last scene could have remained before she departed Europe for India with Jos.

Despite my complaints and the negative view of the movie by moviegoers that demanded complete accuracy, I still enjoyed“VANITY FAIR” very much. Although I was a little disappointed in the movie’s lighter portrayal of the Becky Sharp, I did enjoy some of the other changes. I had no problem with the addition of a scene from Becky’s childhood in which she first meets Lord Steyne. I felt that this scene served as a strong and plausible omen of her future relationship with the aristocrat. Unlike others, I had no problems with Becky’s fate in the end of the movie. I have always liked the character, regardless of her amoral personality. And for once, it was nice to see her have some kind of happy ending – even with the likes of the lovesick Jos Sedley. Otherwise, I felt that“VANITY FAIR” covered a good deal of Thackery’s novel with a sense of humor and flair.

I have always found it odd that most people seemed taken aback by an American in a British role more so than a Briton in an American role. After all, it really depends upon the individual actor or actress on whether he or she can handle a different accent. In the case of Reese Witherspoon, she used a passable British accent, even if it was not completely authentic. More importantly, not only did she give an excellent performance, despite the writers’ changes in Becky’s character, she was also excellent in the movie’s second half, which revealed Becky’s darker nature.

Witherspoon was ably assisted with a first-rate cast. The movie featured fine performances from the likes of James Purefoy, Deborah Findley, Tony Maudsley, Geraldine McEwan, Eileen Atkins, Douglas Hodge, Natasha Little (who portrayed Becky Sharp in the 1998 television adaptation of the novel), and especially Romola Garai and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Amelia Sedley and George Osborne. But I was especially impressed by a handful of performances that belonged to Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans and Gabriel Byrne. Bob Hoskins was a delight as the slightly crude and lovesick Sir Pitt Crawley. Rhys Ifans gave one of his most subtle performances as the upright and slightly self-righteous William Dobbins, who harbored a unrequited love for Amelia. Jim Broadbent gave an intense performance as George’s ambitious and grasping father. And Gabriel Byrne was both subtle and cruel as the lustful and self-indulgent Marquis of Steyne.

In the end, I have to say that I cannot share the negative opinions of “VANITY FAIR”. I realize that it is not a “pure” adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s novel or that it is perfect. But honestly, I do not care. Despite its flaws, “VANITY FAIR” proved to be a very entertaining movie for me. And I would have no problem watching it as much as possible in the future.

“NEMESIS” (2007) Review

 

“NEMESIS” (2007) Review

Without a doubt, Agatha Christie’s 1971 novel, “Nemesis”, is one of her most unusual works. It is not as celebrated as 1934’s “Murder on the Orient Express” or her 1926 novel, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”. But it was the last novel she had written. And it possesses a slow, yet melancholic air that I find very rare in her body of work.

Two adaptations of the novel have aired on British television. BBC aired the first adaptation, which starred Joan Hickson as Jane Marple, in 1987. Twenty years later, the ITV network aired its own version with Geraldine McEwan in the lead. While the 1987 version adhered as close as possible to the novel, this latest version turned out to be a very loose adaptation, thanks to screenwriters Stephen Churchett and Nicolas Winding Refn, who also served as the film’s director.

“NEMESIS” begins in 1940, when a German Luftwaffe pilot is forced to bail from his damaged plane during the Battle of Britain. Not long after he reaches the ground, he is spotted by a young, beautiful woman, who comes to his aid. The movie jumps some eleven years to 1951. Jane Marple has received news about the death of a friend – a financier/philanthropist named John Rafiel aka Faber, who was a refugee from Nazi Germany twenty years earlier. Rafiel recruits her from the grave to solve a murder that the murder may or may not have taken place. And the victim is unknown. All that he has given her are two tickets on the Daffodil Tour Company’s Mystery Tour. Miss Marple recruits her nephew, novelist Raymond West, to accompany her on the tour. During the early stages of the tour, Miss Marple and Raymond realizes that the other members of the tour had also been “selected” by Rafiel. Miss Marple also discovers that she had been recruited the solve the murder or disappearance of a young woman named Verity Hunt – the same woman who had met the German pilot during the war. And the German pilot turned out to be one Michael Faber, Rafiel’s estranged son.

I might as well state it loud and clear. “NEMESIS” is not one of the best Christie adaptations featuring Geraldine McEwan. Refn and Churchett had inflicted so many changes in the plot, it almost left me confused. Not only were some of the characters from Christie’s novel eliminated, new ones were created for the film. Refn and Churchett also changed the identity of the murderer and the crime’s setting. The pair even changed the identity of the Rafiel character from an English millionaire, whom Miss Marple had met in an earlier novel, to a German refugee from Nazi Germany who had befriended the elderly sleuth (he remained wealthy). And his son transformed from a ne’er-do-well to a former Luftwaffe pilot, embittered by his father’s refusal to help him and Verity during the war.

The addition of World War II as a setting for Verity’s death brought about other changes that left me scratching my head in confusion. In the novel, another young woman was murdered, so that her body would be confused with Verity’s. In the movie, there was some kind of confusion over the identity of a RAF pilot who had died at the very convent where Verity was serving, when she first met Michael. I wish I could explain the whole matter, but I found it rather confusing. Come to think of it, I found the Verity/Nora body switching rather confusing in Christie’s novel. The war did serve the movie’s plot in one positive manner – namely the character of Michael Faber and his brief, wartime romance with Verity. Their romance proved to be more poignant and tragic than Verity’s literary romance with Michael Rafiel.

The cast for “NEMESIS” proved to be a mixed bag. There were some . . . theatrical performances that I found wince inducing. The worst came from Ronni Ancona, who gave a ridiculously hysterical performance as Verity’s half-cousin and Raymond West’s former paramour, the aristocratic Amanda Dalrymple. Another over-the-top performance came from Emily Woof, who portrayed Rowena Waddy, the possessive wife of war veteran and former RAF pilot, Martin Waddy. At the other extreme, Amanda Burton gave a disturbingly minimalist performance as Sister Clotilde, one of the two nuns who knew Verity. Perhaps I had been kind by describing Burton’s performance as “minimalist”. Frankly, she struck me as silent and wooden.

Thankfully, there were plenty of first-rate portrayals that made “NEMESIS” enjoyable. I was impressed by solid performances from Laura Michelle Kelly, who had to portray two characters – Verity Hunt and a young wife named Margaret Lumley; George Cole, who portrayed the former butler of Verity’s illegitimate father; Ruth Wilson, who gave a charming performance as the tour’s guide and potential paramour for Raymond; Lee Ingleby, who portrayed the main investigator and budding novelist, DC Colin Hards; and Anne Reid, who portrayed Sister Clotilde’s older and pragmatic colleague, Sister Agnes.

But there were at least four outstanding performances from the cast. One came from Will Mellor, whose portrayal of Martin Waddy, the war veteran with the damaged face, struck me as very intense and sympathetic. An equally intense performance came from the future “DOWNTON ABBEY” star, Dan Stevens. He did an outstanding job in portraying the many aspects of Michael Faber’s complex personality. Richard E. Grant was a marvelous addition as Miss Marple’s nephew and traveling companion, the witty Raymond West. I was amazed at how he managed to create some kind of screen chemistry with more than one cast member – especially Ruth Wilson, Lee Ingleby and Geraldine McEwan. Speaking of Ms. McEwan, she was superb as the quiet and always observant, Jane Marple. She also infused a great deal of wit and warmth into her portrayal of the elderly sleuth.

“NEMESIS” has some aspects of its production to admire. Production designer Michael Pickwoad, costumer designer Sheena Napier and cinematographer Larry Smith all did a great job in contributing to the movie’s early 1950s setting and even the 1940 preclude. The movie could also boast some fine performances, especially from Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple. But many of the changes to Agatha Christie’s original plot left me shaking my head in confusion. Honestly, it is not one of the better adaptations I have seen. The 1987 adaptation is better . . . but only slightly better.

Top Ten Favorite AGATHA CHRISTIE Movies

About two years ago, I had posted my ten favorite movies based upon some of Agatha Christie’s novel. Two years later, my tastes have changed a bit. Here is my new list: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE AGATHA CHRISTIE MOVIES

1. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his debut as Hercule Poirot in this intriguing mystery about the detective’s investigation into the death of a wealthy Anglo-American bride on her honeymoon, during a cruise down the Nile River. Directed by John Guillerman, David Niven co-starred.

2. “Evil Under the Sun” – Peter Ustinov portrays Hercule Poirot for the second time in this witty and entertaining mystery about the detective’s investigation into the murder of a famous stage actress. Guy Hamilton directed.

3. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – Poirot investigates the 15 year-old murder of a famous, philandering artist in order to clear the name of his widow, who had been hanged for killing him. David Suchet and Rachael Stirling starred.

4. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this classic, all-star mystery about Hercule Poirot’s investigation of the death of a mysterious wealthy American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

5. “A Murder Is Announced” (1986) – Joan Hickson stars as Jane Marple in this superb adaptation of Christie’s story about an unusual newspaper announcement that leads curious village inhabitants to a supper party and a murder. John Castle co-starred.

6. “After the Funeral” (2006) – When a man disinherits his sole beneficiary and bequeaths his wealth to others just prior to his death, Poirot is called in to investigate. David Suchet and Geraldine James stars.

7. “Towards Zero” (2007) – Geraldine McEwan starred as Jane Marple in this excellent adaptation of Christie’s 1944 novel about the investigation of the murder of a wealthy, elderly woman.

8. “Sad Cypress” (2003) – Poirot races against time in this haunting tale to prove whether or not a young woman was responsible for the murder of her aunt and the latter’s companion.

9. “Cards on the Table” (2005) – In this fascinating mystery, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a mysterious dinner host named Mr. Shaitana, in which four of the suspects may have committed a previous murder. David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker starred.

10. “The Mirror Crack’d” (1980) – Four years before she stepped into the role of television sleuth Jessica Fletcher, Angela Landsbury portrayed Jane Marple in this entertaining mystery about a visiting Hollywood star filming a movie in St. Mary’s Mead. Guy Hamilton directed.

“TOWARDS ZERO” (2007) Review

“TOWARDS ZERO” (2007) Review

When it comes to the television adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple novels, I tend to stick with those that featured the late Joan Hickson as the elderly sleuth. However, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to watch a movie that starred Geraldine McEwan as Miss Jane Marple. And this movie is the 2007 adaptation of Christie’s 1944 novel called “Towards Zero”

The adaptation of Christie’s novel has drawn a good deal of criticism from purists. First of all, the novel is not a Jane Marple mystery. Instead, the main investigator in “Towards Zero” turned out to be Superintendant Battle, who had been featured in a few other Christie novels, including one Hercule Poirot tale – “Cards on the Table”. However, Battle did not appear in the 2007 adaptation. Jane Marple replaced him as the story’s main detective, with the police represented by Alan Davies as one Superintendant Mallard. Since “Towards Zero” has always been one of my favorite Christie novels, I decided to give the movie achance.

In “TOWARDS ZERO”, Jane Marple is invited to a house party hosted by an old school friend named Lady Camilla Tressilian. Also included in the party are the following:

*Neville Strange – Professional tennis star and Lady Tressilian’s ward

*Kay Strange – Neville’s younger second wife

*Audrey Strange – Neville’s reserved ex-wife

*Thomas Royce – Owner of a Malaysian plantation and Audrey’s distant cousin

*Mary Aldin – Lady Tressilian’s companion

*Ted Latimer – Kay’s childhood friend

*Mr. Treves- Lady Tressilian’s friend and solicitor

The house party turned out to be a tense affair, due to emotions running rampant between the characters. Neville discovered that he was still in love with his first wife, Audrey. She seemed to harbor emotions for him, despite her reserved behavior. Thomas seemed jealous of Neville, due to his love for Audrey. Mary seemed attracted to Thomas and a little envious of Audrey. Kay was obviously jealous of Audrey. And Ted was also jealous of Neville, due to his love for Kay.

During a supper party, Mr. Treves recalled an old murder case in which a child had made deliberate preparations to kill another and make it look like an accident. That child, according to Mr. Treves, had a peculiar physical trait. All of the suspects possessed a peculiar physical trait. And following the supper party, Mr. Treves died from a heart attack after climbing some stairs that lead to his hotel room. Someone had placed a NOT IN SERVICE sign in front of his hotel’s elevator. Another day or two later, this same person brutally murdered old Lady Tressilian with a blow to the head.

As I had earlier stated, the 1944 novel has always been a favorite of mine. Christie had crafted a complex and original mystery filled with characters of great psychological depth. By inserting another Christie creation – Jane Marple – as the story’s main investigator, I feared that this 2007 adaptation would prove to be a bust. Imagine my surprise when my fears proved to be groundless. Thanks to director David Grindley and screenwriter Kevin Elyot, I found myself surprisingly satisfied with this movie. Despite a few changes – namely the post-World War II setting, Jane Marple as the story’s main detective, the deletion of a character named Andrew MacWhirter, the addition of another character named Diana, the new police officer in charge of the case – Superintendant Mallard, and the budding romance in the story’s conclusion that did not happen in the novel. Perhaps that is why I had enjoyed it so much. Both Grindley and Elyot recognized the novel’s first-rate plot and tried to follow it as closely as possible.

The production values for “TOWARDS ZERO” impressed me as well. Production designer Michael Pickwoad did an excellent job in re-creating Britain of the early-to-mid 1950s. And he was ably supported by Sue Gibson’s beautiful photography, which struck me as rich in color and sharp. Sheena Napier’s costumes not only captured the era perfectly, but also the personality of each character. I do have one quibble – namely Saffron Burrows’ hairstyle. I am aware that some women wore their hair slightly long past the shoulders. But I got the impression that the hairdresser could not decide whether to give Burrows a 1950s hairstyle or a modern one. Her hair struck me as a confusing mixture of the mid 20th century and the early 21st century.

The cast turned out better than I had expected. If I must be honest, I could not spot a bad performance amongst the entire cast . . . even from Julian Sands, whom I have never been that impressed by in the past. But there were a handful that really impressed me. One came from Saffron Burrows, who gave one of the most enigmatic and intense performances I have ever encountered in a Christie film. I could never tell whether her character was guilty of the two murders or not. And Burrows did a superb job in conveying this ambiguity of the Audrey Strange character with very little dialogue. I was also impressed by Zoe Tapper’s portrayal of the more extroverted Kay Strange. Tapper could have easily given an over-the-top performance, considering the type of character she had portrayed. But the actress conveyed Kay’s passionate nature without turning the character into a one-note scream fest. I also enjoyed Alan Davies as Superintendant Mallard, the new police investigator in this mystery. I not only enjoyed his wit, but also his transformation from his contempt toward Jane Marple’s investigative skills to a full partnership with the elderly amateur sleuth. And Eileen Atkins provided a great deal of comic relief as the second victim, Lady Camilla Tressilian. Not only did she provide much of the story’s sharp humor, Atkins also captured the character’s bombastic and arrogant nature. Her Lady Tressilian struck me as a modern day Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but with a stronger moral center.

But I believe the two best performances came from Greg Wise and Geraldine McEwan as Jane Marple. I found myself completely surprised by Wise’s impressive portrayal of the tennis pro with the two wives, Neville Strange. His performance perfectly portrayed Neville as the complex force of nature that had a major impact upon the other characters in “TOWARDS ZERO”, without indulging in any hammy acting. But I was more than impressed by Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of Jane Marple. I had seen McEwan’s portrayal of Miss Marple in “THE SITFORD MYSTERY”, and found her performance ridiculously mannered and annoying. No such exaggerated mannerisms marred McEwan’s performance in “TOWARDS ZERO”. The actress gave a subtle performance laced with subtle humor and her character’s intelligence. One of McEwan’s best moments featured very little dialogue on her part in a scene between Miss Marple and the verbose Lady Tressilian, inside the latter’s bedroom.

Most Agatha Christie purists might automatically dismiss this adaptation of “TOWARDS ZERO”. Especially since the script changed the main investigator from the literary Superintendant Battle to a cinematic Jane Marple. But despite this major change, along with another that included a romance that emerged in the film’s final scene; David Grindley’s direction and Kevin Elyot’s script remained surprisingly faithful to Agatha Christie’s novel. Normally, I would care less about changes in an adaptation of a novel. But in the case of “TOWARDS ZERO”, this close adherence ended up working in the movie’s favor.

“THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” (1982) Review

“THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” (1982) Review

Back in 1982, the BBC turned to 19th century author Anthony Trollope for a seven-part miniseries called “THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES”. The miniseries was based upon the author’s first two Barchester novels about the Church of England. 

Directed by David Giles and written by Alan Plater, ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” is an adaptation of ”The Warden” (1855)and ”Barchester Towers” (1857). The novels focused upon the the dealings and social maneuverings of the clergy and gentry literature concern the dealings of the clergy and the gentry that go on between the citizens and members of the Church of England in the fictitious cathedral town of Barchester. Episodes One and Two, which are adaptations of ”The Warden”, center on the impact upon the Reverend Septimus Harding and his circle when a zealous young reformer named John Bold launches a campaign to expose the disparity in the apportionment of Hiram House, an almshouse for bedesmen, and its income between the latter and its officer, Reverend Harding. Mr. Bold embarks on this campaign out of a spirit of public duty, despite his previously cordial relationship with Mr. Harding and his romantic involvement with the latter’s younger daughter, Eleanor. Mr. Bold attempts to enlist the support and interest of Tom Towers, the editor of The Jupiter, who writs editorials supporting reform of the charity, and a portrait of Mr. Harding as being selfish and derelict in his conduct of his office. Despite the efforts of his bombastic, but well-meaning son-in-law, the Archdeacon Grantly, to ignore Mr. Bold’s reform campaign, and continue his position as warden of Hiram House. But Reverend Harding concludes that he cannot in good conscience continue to accept such a generous salary and resigns the position. John Bold, who had tried in vain to reverse the injury done to Mr. Harding, returns to Barchester and marries Eleanor.

In the remaining five episodes, based upon ”Barchester Towers”, the beloved Bishop of Barchester dies and many assume that his son, Archdeacon Grantly, will gain the position in his place. However thanks to a new Prime Minister, a newcomer, the Reverend Proudie, becomes the new bishop. His overbearing wife, Mrs Proudie, exercises an undue influence over the new bishop and becomes unpopular with right-thinking members of the clergy and their families. Her interference in the reappointment of the universally popular Mr Septimus Harding as warden of Hiram House is not well received, even though she gives the position to a needy clergyman with a large family to support. Even less popular than Mrs Proudie is the bishop’s newly appointed chaplain, the hypocritical Mr. Obadiah Slope, who takes a fancy to Harding’s wealthy widowed daughter, Eleanor Bold. He hopes to win her hand in marriage by interfering in the controversy over the wardenship of Hiram House. Due to Mrs. Proudie’s influence, the Bishop and Mr. Slope order the return of Dr. Vesey Stanhope from Italy. Dr Stanhope has been there, recovering from a sore throat for 12 years and has spent his time catching butterflies. His wife and three children accompany him back to Barchester. Dr. Stanhope’s only son also has eyes on Eleanor and her fortune. And the younger of his two daughters, the serial flirt Signora Madelina Vesey Neroni, causes consternation and hostility within Mrs. Proudie and threatens the plans of Mr. Slope.

Over the years, ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” has become a highly acclaimed television production amongst costume drama fans and the critics. It also received several BAFTA nominations and won an award for Best Design (Chris Pemsel). Many fans and critics have also viewed it as the production responsible for one of Donald Pleasence’s best roles and the start of Alan Rickman’s fame as a skilled actor. When the miniseries first aired in the United States nearly two years later in October 1984, I tried very hard to enjoy it. I really did. Looking back, I realized that I was too young to really appreciate it and ended up getting bored. I never had any intention of ever watching again. But when I purchased a DVD set featuring ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” and two other miniseries productions based upon Anthony Trollope’s works, I figured that I might as well give it another shot. And I am glad that I did.

“THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” turned out to be a sharp and funny look at the Church of England during the 1850s. The miniseries was filled with characters that have become so memorable to me that I find it difficult to erase them from my mind. In fact, I can honestly say that the characters really made the miniseries for me – especially characters such as Mrs. Proudie, the Reverend Obadiah Slope, Signora Neroni and the wonderfully charming and sweet, Reverend Harding. But the characters alone did not impress me. I was also impressed by screenwriter Alan Plater’s adaptation of the two novels. In my review of the 2007 miniseries, “CRANFORD”, I had complained that it seemed disjointed to me and was more suited as an episodic television series, due to the fact that it was based upon three of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novellas. Although ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES”was based upon the first two of Trollope’s Barchester novels, it did not seem disjointed to me. Perhaps I felt this way, because the subject of the first two episode – namely Reverend Harding’s position as warden of Hiram House – also had a major impact on the plotlines of the last five episodes. I must admit that my knowledge of the hierarchy of the Church of England barely existed before I saw ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” for the second time. After viewing the miniseries, it is still rather vague. But the controversy over Hiram House and the backstabbing, the romances and the manipulations that occurred between the characters really made watching the miniseries rather fun. There were moments when the miniseries’ pacing threatened to drag. And I could have done without a full sermon from Reverend Slope in Episode Three. But these flaws did not hamper the miniseries in the end.

I found most of the performances in ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” top-notch. Mind you, there were some excursions into hammy acting – notably from Nigel Hawthorne as Archdeacon Grantly, Peter Blythe as the feckless Nigel Stanhope and yes, from Geraldine McEwan as Mrs. Proudie. Even Alan Rickman had a moment of hammy acting in his very last scene. But, the cast was generally first-rate. Despite their moments of hamminess, I must admit that I was very impressed by Hawthorne, McEwan and Rickman. Especially the latter, who gave a star turn as the slippery and obsequious Obadiah Slope. And Clive Swift gave a deliciously subtle performance as the weak-willed Bishop Proudie, who allowed himself to be bullied by his wife and manipulated by Mr. Slope. I was also impressed by Susan Hampshire’s performance as the manipulative and sexy Signora Neroni. The series did not go much into her character’s problems with her Italian husband, despite her negative comments on marriage. But watching her manipulate Rickman’s Reverend Slope really impressed and entertained me. And I also enjoyed Angela Pleasence’s portrayal of Archdeacon Grantly’s wife, Susan Harding Grantly. In many ways, she seemed like a more respectable version of the Signora Neroni – feminine, soft-spoken, a little manipulative and strong-willed. But the one performance that shone above the others for me was Donald Pleasence’s portrayal of the Reverend Septimus Harding. Characters like Reverend Harding usually tend to bore me. But Pleasence’s Reverend Harding was not only interesting, but also entertaining. I enjoyed how he managed to maintain his mild-mannered personality, while displaying a great deal of backbone against the aggressive maneuverings of Archdeacon Grantly and Mrs. Proudie, and his hostility over the slippery manipulations of Reverend Slope. My only quibble about Pleasence’s performance is that his scenes with Janet Maw, who portrayed Eleanor Harding Bold, left me feeling a bit uneasy. I realize that Reverend Harding and Eleanor had a close relationship, but there were moments – thanks to Pleasence and Maw’s performances – when their interactions seemed to hint a touch of incest. Very creepy.

Does ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” still hold up after twenty-eight years? Perhaps. The miniseries was obviously filmed on video tape. And the pictures are not as sharp as they could be. But I must admit that the photography was rich with color. And I just adored Juanita Waterson’s costume designs, which were shown with great effect in scenes that featured the Proudies’ soirée at the Bishop’s residence and the Thornes’ garden party. She effectively captured the styles of mid-Victorian England. Perhaps some of the performances were a little hammy at times. And there were moments when the miniseries’ pacing threatened to drag. But overall, ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” was a first-rate production that featured a well-written script by Alan Plater, an excellent cast led by Donald Pleasence and solid direction by David Giles. After twenty-eight years, it remains a sharp and entertaining miniseries for me.