“THREE ACT TRAGEDY” (2010) Review

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“THREE ACT TRAGEDY” (2010) Review

When I was in my early teens, I had shifted my attention from Nancy Drew mysteries to those novels written by Agatha Christie. And I have not stopped since. I confess that this shift in reading material was the result of seeing the 1978 movie, “DEATH ON THE NILE”, for the first time. Properly hooked on Christie’s works, I focused my attention on her 1934 novel, “Murder in Three Acts”, also known as “Three Act Tragedy”.

I have seen two adaptations of Christie’s 1934 novel. The first was television adaptation in the mid 1980s, titled “MURDER IN THREE ACTS”, which starred Christie veteran Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot. Although I enjoyed it, I had hoped to see an adaptation of the novel in its original 1930s setting. I had to wait many years before the ITV series, “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” granted my wish with an adaptation that not only retained the original setting, but also the original title, “THREE ACT TRAGEDY”.

The story begins on the coast of Cornwall, where Hercule Poirot attends a dinner party at the home of famed stage actor, Sir Charles Cartwright. The latter’s guests also include:

*Dr. Sir Bartholomew Strange – Sir Charles’ old childhood friend and a nerve specialist
*Lady Mary Lytton-Gore – a Cornish neighbor of Sir Charles, who is from an impoverished old family
*Hermione “Egg” Lytton-Gore – Lady Mary’s young daughter, with whom Sir Charles is in love
*Muriel Wills – a successful playwright also known as Anthony Astor
*Captain Freddie Dacres – a former Army officer and gentleman gambler
*Cynthia Dacres – Captain Dacres’ wife and a successful dressmaker
*Reverend Stephen Babbington – the local curate and Sir Charles’ Cornish neighbor
*Mrs. Babbington – Reverend Babbington’s wife near Sir Charles’s home in Cornwall.
*Oliver Manders – a young Cornish neighbor of Sir Charles’, who is interested in Egg
*Miss Milray – Sir Charles’ secretary

The guests gather in Sir Charles’ drawing-room for a round of pre-dinner cocktails. The party is marred when one of the guests, Reverend Babbington, collapses and dies after drinking his cocktail. An inquest rules his death as a result from natural causes. However, Sir Charles believes that Reverend Babbington may have been murdered, but Poirot is not convinced. About a month or so later, Poirot is vacationing in Monte Carlo, when he encounters Sir Charles. The latter reveals via a newspaper article that Dr. Strange had died from similar circumstances, while hosting a dinner party at his home in Yorkshire. Most of the guests who had attended Sir Charles’ party had also been there, with the exception of Mrs. Babbington and Miss Milray. Unlike Reverend Babbington, Sir Bartholomew’s death has been ruled as a homicide. Both Poirot and Sir Charles return to Britain to investigate the two deaths.

Although “Three Act Tragedy” was one of the first Christie novels I had read, it has never been a favorite of mine. I liked it, but I did not love it. Screenwriter Nick Dear made some changes to the story that I either found appropriate or did not bother me. Dear removed characters like society hound like Mr. Satterthwaite and stage actress Angela Sutcliffe (and one of Sir Charles’ former lovers). I did not miss them. One change really improved the story for me. One aspect of the novel that I found particularly frustrating was the minimized presence of Poirot. The lack of Poirot almost dragged the novel into a halt. Thankfully, Dear avoided this major flaw by allowing Poirot’s presence to be a lot more prominent. He achieved this change by making Poirot a friend of Sir Charles and removing the Mr. Satterthwaite. Dear also made one other major change in Christie’s story, but I will get to it later.

Visually, “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” is a gorgeous movie to watch. Peter Greenhalgh, who had passed away last year, provided the production with a colorful photography that I found particularly beautiful. My only complaint about Greenhalgh’s photography is that it struck me as a little fuzzy at times to indicate the story’s presence in the past. Another dazzling aspect of “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” were the production designs created by Jeff Tessler, who more orless served as the production designer for “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” between 2005 and the series’ end in 2013. Judging by the admirable way he managed to re-create not only the movie’s 1930s setting, but also various locations, only tells me that he had been doing something write. I certainly had no complaints about the costumes designed by Sheena Napier. Like Tessler, she worked for “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” for a long period of time . . . even longer than Tessler. Although I am no expert on early 20th century fashion, I thought Napier excellent job in creating costumes for the production’s setting and the different characters.

The performances featured in “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” were first-rate. I did not find anything exceptional about David Suchet’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot, but I thought he gave his usual more-than-competent performance. Martin Shaw gave a very solid performance as the charming, yet intelligent Sir Charles Cartwright, who was the first to sense something wrong about the first murder. I was also impressed by how the actor conveyed his character’s insecurity over a romance with a much younger woman. Kimberly Nixon seemed like a ball of fire, thanks to her portrayal of the vibrant and charming Egg Lytton-Gore, who found herself torn between two men. I also enjoyed Art Malik’s portrayal of the extroverted Dr. Sir Bartholomew Strange. Although there were times when his performance struck me as a touch too jovial. Ronan Vibert gave a rather insidious, yet oddly charming performance as “gentleman” gambler Captain Freddie Dacres. The one performance that really impressed me came Kate Ashfield who gave a very interesting performance as playwright Anthony Astor aka Miss Muriel Wills. Ashfield did an excellent job in recapturing Miss Wills’ secretive, yet uber observant personality. The production also featured solid performances from Anastasia Hille, Tom Wisdom, Anna Carteret, Suzanne Bertish, and Tony Maudsley.

I do have a complaint about “THREE ACT TRAGEDY”. I really wish that Nick Dear had not changed the murderer’s main motive for the killings. I have heard rumors that there are two different versions of the story’s resolution. My literary version of “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” questioned the murderer’s sanity, making the murders a lot more interesting to me. Unfortunately, Nick Dear used the other resolution, one that struck me as a lot more mundane and not very interesting. Too bad.

Aside from changing the killer’s motive for the murders, I rather enjoyed “THREE ACT TRAGEDY”. I am thankful that screenwriter Nick Dear had made Hercule Poirot’s presence in the story more prominent than it was in the novel. After all, he is the story’s main investigator. But despite excellent acting and solid direction by Ashley Pearce, I would never regard it as one of my favorite productions from “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. It was simply a pretty good adaptation of a solid Christie novel. There is nothing else for me to say.

“CRANFORD” (2007) Review

“CRANFORD” (2007) Review

Four years ago, the BBC aired a five-part miniseries adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s series of stories about a small town in North West England. After viewing the 2004 miniseries, ”NORTH AND SOUTH”, my curiosity regarding the 2007 miniseries became piqued and I turned my attention toward it. 

Created by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, directed by Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, and adapted by Heidi Thomas;”CRANFORD” is based upon three of Gaskell’s novellas published between 1849 and 1858 – ”Cranford””My Lady Ludlow”, and”Mr Harrison’s Confessions”. Birtwistle, Conklin and Thomas took aspects of Gaskell’s stories, re-shuffled them and added some of their own plotlines to create the five-episode miniseries. ”CRANFORD” mainly focused upon the small English village between 1842-1843, during the early years of the Victorian Age. On the surface, Cranford seemed like an idyllic community in which time remained stuck in the late Georgian Age. However, progress – both technological and social – began its intrusion upon the community for better or worse. The arrival of a young doctor named Frank Harrison with modern new ideas about medical practices, and a railway construction crew on the town’s outskirts that meant the arrival of the railway, change and possibly unwelcomed citizens; seemed to be the prime symbols of the encroaching Industrial Age.

Many humorous and tragic incidents shown as minor plotlines are scattered throughout ”CRANFORD”. But the main stories seemed to focus upon the following characters:

*Miss Matilda “Matty” Jenkyns – the younger of two elderly sisters who had to endure a series of travails that included the death of a loved one, the reunion with an old love and the loss of her income.

*Dr. Frank Harrison – Cranford’s new young doctor who has to struggle to win the trust of Cranford’s citizens and the love of the vicar’s oldest daughter, Sophy Hutton.

*Lady Ludlow – the Lady of Hanbury Court who struggles to maintain funds for her spendthrift son and heir living in Italy.

*Mr. Edmund Carter – Lady Ludlow’s land agent, who views Lady Ludlow’s attempts to raise funds for her dissolute son with a leery eye and clashes with his employer over the fate of the young son of a poacher.

*Harry Gregson – the very son of the poacher, whom Mr. Carter views as promising and whom Lady Ludlow views as someone who should remain in his station.

*Octavia Pole – a spinster and Cranford’s town gossip who proves to be the subject of a series of hilarious events.

I realize that ”CRANFORD” is a highly acclaimed program. And I also understand why it became so popular. The production team for “CRANFORD” did an excellent job in conveying television viewers back in time to the early Victorian Age. The miniseries possessed some very whimsical moments that I found particularly funny. These moments included Miss Deborah Jenkyns’ assistance in helping Miss Jessie Brown and Major Gordon stay in beat during their rendition of ”Loch Lomond” with a spoon and a teacup; Miss Pole’s hysteria over a thief in Cranford; Caroline Tomkinson’ infatuation with Dr. Harrison; and especially the incident regarding the cat that swallowed Mrs. Forrester’s valuable lace.

Yet, ”CRANFORD” had its poignant moments. Dr. Harrison’s futile efforts to save young Walter Hutton from the croup, along with Miss Deborah Jenkyns’ death allowed Episode 2 to end on a sober note. And the doctor’s more successful efforts to save Sophy Hutton from typhoid gave the last episode a great deal of drama and angst. I found it almost difficult to watch Miss Matty endure one crisis after another – until she finally prevailed with the establishment of her own tea shop, with the help of the ladies of Cranford and her reunion with her long lost brother. My heartstrings also tugged when the conflict between Mr. Carter and Lady Ludlow over Harry Gregson ended on a tragic, yet poignant note. But the one scene that left me in tears turned out to be the series’ final shot of Cranford’s citizens bidding good-bye to the recently married Dr. Harrison and Sophy. The miniseries closed on what seemed to be a real sense of community.

And that is what the theme of ”CRANFORD” seemed to be about – at least to me. Community. However, this theme and the Gaskell novellas that the miniseries were based upon have led me to a conclusion. There seemed to be a lack of balance or blending between the series’ format and the material. If ”CRANFORD” had been based upon one novel or a series of novels that served as a continuing saga, I would never have any problems with its tight structure of a five-episode miniseries. But”CRANFORD” was based upon three novellas written over a period of time that were certainly not part of a continuing saga. And if I must be frank, I personally feel that the miniseries could have served its source of material a lot better as a one or two-season television series.

I realize that producing a television series that was also a period drama would have been more expensive than a miniseries or a series set in the present. But Heidi Thomas’ script seemed vague for the miniseries format. With the exception one particular storyline, ”CRANFORD” seemed to be filled with minor stories that were usually resolved within one to three episodes. For example, the Valentine card storyline that left Dr. Harrison in trouble with the ladies of Cranford stretched across three episodes. Even the railway construction storyline only appeared in three episodes and not in any particular order. Miss Matty’s financial situation only stretched into two episodes. And plots featuring the lace-swallowing cat, Miss Matty’s relationship with Mr. Thomas Holbrook, and Jem Hearne’s broken arm only appeared in one episode. The only storyline that consistently appeared in all five episodes turned out to be the conflict between Lady Ludlow and Mr. Carter over Harry Gregson’s future.

But one cannot deny that ”CRANFORD” was blessed with a first-rate cast. The cream of this cast consisted of a sterling group of veteran British actresses, whose characters dominated the series. However, only a handful of performances really caught my attention. Two of them belonged to Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins as the Jenkyns sisters – the mild-mannered Matty and the domineering Deborah. Judging from their outstanding performances, I can easily understand how one of them earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress and the other won both an Emmy and a BAFTA for Outstanding Lead Actress. Another outstanding performance from a veteran actress came from Francesca Annis, who portrayed the intensely conservative Lady Ludlow. Annis did a wonderful job in conveying her character’s rigid opposition to education for the lower classes and struggle to overcome these feelings in the face of her kindness and compassion. Philip Glenister, who made a name for himself in the 1995 miniseries ”VANITY FAIR” and in the award winning series ”LIFE ON MARS” and its sequel, ”ASHES TO ASHES”; certainly proved his talents as an actor and strong screen presence in his portrayal of the intense, yet very practical Mr. Edmund Carter. I especially enjoyed Glenister’s scenes with Annis, while their characters clashed over the fate of young Harry Gregson. Providing the bulk of comic relief were actresses Imelda Staunton (from 1995’s ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” and ”HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX”) and Julia McKenzie (the new Miss Jane Marple for ITV). They portrayed two of Cranford’s biggest gossips, Miss Octavia Pole and Mrs. Forrester. Staunton seemed truly hilarious, while portraying Miss Pole’s terror and anxiety over becoming the victim of a thief. And not only was McKenzie funny as the finicky Mrs. Forrester, she gave a poignant soliloquy in which her character recalled a past act of kindness from Miss Matty.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed ”CRANFORD”. Thanks to directors Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, along with production designer Donal Woods, screenwriter Heidi Thomas and costume designer Jenny Beavan; the miniseries gave television audiences a warm, humorous and poignant look into village life in early Victorian England. But despite the production team and the cast, I believe the miniseries has a major flaw. Its source material – three novellas written by Elizabeth Gaskell – did not mesh very well with the miniseries format. I believe that ”CRANFORD” would have been better off as a television series. Such a format could have served its stories a lot better.