“THE CLOCKS” (2009) Review

“THE CLOCKS” (2009) Review

While perusing the list of novels written by Agatha Christie between 1957 and 1973, I noticed that only five of them featured Belgian detective Hercule Poirot as the main detective. Five out of sixteen novels during this period. Considering how the author used to churn out Poirot novels and short stories like nobody’s business in the previous decades, I could not help but wonder if the author’s interest in the Belgian detective was on the wane. 

This certainly seemed to be the case for her 1963 novel, “The Clocks”. Although Poirot was the investigator who solved the mystery, he barely played a role in this investigation. Major supporting characters like Colin Lamb and Inspector Richard Hardcastle visited the crime scenes and questioned the suspects and other witnesses. They fed the information to Poirot, who exercised his “little grey cells” and solved the case. This is one reason why the 1963 novel was not a particular favorite of mine. Thankfully, the 2009 adaptation of “The Clocks” proved to be a different kettle of fish. Unlike his literary version for this tale, actor David Suchet’s Poirot was, without a doubt, the mystery’s main character.

Although the 2009 television movie, “THE CLOCKS”, provided some minor changes to Christie’s novel, it also featured two major changes. I have already commented on how Poirot had a bigger role (as he should) in this television adaptation. The setting for “THE CLOCKS” also underwent a major change. Instead of being set during the heyday of the Cold War, the 2010 television movie was set near the end of the 1930s, with Europe (and eventually the rest of the world) on the cusp of World War II. And the narrative’s B-plot reflected this. In “THE CLOCKS”, the character of Colin Lamb has been changed to Colin Race, conveying the idea that he is the son of of an old friend of Poirot’s. And instead of being an MI-5 (Special Branch) agent investigating a pro-Communist spy ring, Colin is a Royal Navy officer working for MI-6 and investigating a possible pro-Nazi spy ring in Dover. Also, the character of Richard “Dick” Hardcastle has become a slightly xenophobic police officer, who resented Poirot’s presence in the investigation. Despite these changes, the core of Christie’s narrative managed to survive for this adaptation.

“THE CLOCKS” began as a spy story in which MI-6 operative Colin Race finds himself investigating the theft of classified documents from a naval base at Dover Castle. Apparently, Colin’s girlfriend had spotted the thief/German spy, but was killed by a speeding car before she could apprehend the thief. Colin’s girlfriend left a clue, leading Colin to a neighborhood in Dover. Upon reaching one house on a street shaped like a crescent, a young woman named Sheila Webb races out of it, screaming that she had found a murdered man inside, along with a collection of clocks. Colin seeks Poirot’s help to solve the murder mystery, in case the murder proves to be connected with the spy ring he had been investigating and his girlfriend’s death.

As I had earlier stated, I am not a big fan of Christie’s 1963 novel. While some might find the idea of Poirot being reduced to a minor character who solves the mystery in an armchair rather amusing, I did not. I could not, especially if this was supposed to be a “Poirot” mystery. And as I had earlier pointed out, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt director Charlie Palmer ensured that Poirot would be the main character in this adaptation. I also enjoyed how the narrative allowed Poirot and Colin’s search for the spy ring and missing document overshadow their efforts to find the killer responsible for the mystery man’s death, along with the deaths of two other characters – Edna Brent, a typist and colleague of Sheila Webb’s; and Merlina Riva, a former stage actress who claimed to be the widow of the dead man discovered by Colin and Sheila. Throughout the story, those viewers unfamiliar with Christie’s novel might find themselves wondering if Sheila was responsible for the deaths, if the deaths had anything to do with the German spy ring, or if the three victims had been killed for another reason. Overall, I believe “THE CLOCKS” is a solid adaptation of Christie’s novel, but also an improvement.

However, there is one aspect of Harcourt and Palmer’s adaptation that I do not regard as an improvement. I refer to the character of Colin Race. One, this secondary lead character came off as less than intelligent than his literary counterpart. Colin was able to solve the mystery of the spy ring without Poirot’s help. And two, in the television movie, he struck me as a slightly shallow man who was able to transfer his affections from one woman to another within a few days. I found this rather tacky. I believe Harcourt’s screenplay made the mistake of having Colin involved with the doomed Fiona Hanbury, whose activities led him to another clue regarding the spy ring, at the beginning of the story. Worse, it did not take Colin very long to develop romantic feelings for Sheila Webb after meeting her. And he met Sheila in less than a week after Fiona’s death. Even when he was still mourning Fiona’s death, he was falling in love with Sheila. Really? This is just tackiness beyond belief. Colin’s romantic relationships in this movie made him look like a shallow idiot who seemed to have this need for romance in his life 24/7.

The television movie’s production values struck me as very impressive. I thought Jeff Tessler’s production designs did a great job in recreating Dover circa 1939. His work was ably supported by Miranda Cull’s art direction and Sheena Napier’s costume designs. I have mixed feelings about Peter Greenhalgh’s cinematography. On one hand, I found movie’s photography very colorful and beautiful. In fact, I thought it did justice to the production’s locations in London and Kent. But I did not care for the hazy veneer that I felt almost spoiled the photography. I found it an unnecessary device for indicating that this story was set in the past. And it reminded me of numerous period dramas in the 1970s that also used this camera device . . . unnecessarily.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s cast. David Suchet, as always, gave a sharp and elegant portrayal of Hercule Poirot. In fact, his performance reinforced my relief that the screenwriter and director had given Poirot a bigger presence in this adaptation than in Christie’s novel. Despite my irritation with the Colin Race character, I cannot deny that Tom Burke gave an exceptionally skillful performance. He almost made me believe in the plausibility of Colin falling in love with one woman, while still grieving for another. I was very impressed by Jaime Winstone’s portrayal of the ambiguous Sheila Webb. I thought she did an excellent job in conveying both the character’s desperate need for everyone to believe in her innocence and her occasional lapses in morality. Phil Daniels was excellent as the slightly aggressive and xenophobic Inspector Richard “Dick” Hardcastle. Lesley Sharp gave a very subtle performance as Sheila’s no-nonsense boss Miss Martindale. And I was very impressed with Anna Massey’s performance as Miss Pebmarsh, the blind owner of the house that contained the dead man and the actress’s final role before her death. Like Winstone, Massey did an excellent job of portraying a very complicated and ambiguous character, who was haunted by the deaths of her sons during World War I. The television movie also featured excellent performances from Geoffrey Palmer (father of the director), Tessa Peake-Jones, Jason Watkins, Beatie Edney, Abigail Thaw, Guy Henry, Stephen Boxer, and Frances Barber.

In the end, I believe that “THE CLOCKS” was a solid adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1963 novel, thanks to a first-rate script by Stewart Harcourt and first-rate direction by Charlie Palmer. My only true complaint was their handling of the Colin Race character. The television movie also featured excellent performances by a talented cast that included David Suchet, Anna Massey and Jaime Winstone.

“RETURN TO CRANFORD” (2009) Review

return to cranford for christmas

 

“RETURN TO CRANFORD” (2009) Review

Due to the success of the 2007 miniseries, “CRANFORD”, the BBC aired a two-part sequel called “RETURN TO CRANFORD” (also known as the “CRANFORD CHRISTMAS SPECIAL”), some two years later. Like the original miniseries, it was adapted by Heidi Thomas and directed by Simon Curtis. 

“RETURN TO CRANFORD” was based on material from Elizabeth Gaskell’s two novellas and a short story – “Cranford”,“The Mooreland Cottage”, and “The Cage at Cranford”, were all published between 1849 and 1863. Also, themes from “My Lady Ludlow”“Mr. Harrison’s Confessions”, and “The Last Generation in England” were included to provide continuity with the first miniseries. The new miniseries took place between August and December 1844. The citizens of Cranford find themselves facing major changes in their society, as the railroad continues to be constructed near the edge of town. In fact, I was surprised to learn that a great deal of the story surrounding the new railroad was not in any of Gaskell’s novellas and short story. Only the storylines featuring about Mrs. Jameson’s (Barbara Flynn) cousin, Lady Glenmire (Celia Imrie) and Captain Brown (Jim Carter), Miss Pole’s (Imelda Staunton) Parisian “cage” for her pet cockatoo, and a magician named Signor Brunoni (Tim Curry) putting on a show came from Gaskell’s works.

I have to be frank. It did not bother me that most of the material featured in the miniseries did not come from any of Gaskell’s novellas and short stories. Thanks to some decent writing by Heidi Thomas, I believe that it all worked out fine. Unlike the 2007 miniseries, ”CRANFORD”, the screenplay for ”RETURN TO CRANFORD” seemed tighter and more focused. In fact, I noticed that the majority of major storylines featured in the miniseries have ties to the main story about the railroad’s construction. Because of this, ”RETURN TO CRANFORD” avoided the episodic style of storytelling that I believe marred ”CRANFORD”. My favorite storyline featured the budding romance between two newcomers to the town of Cranford – William Buxton (Tom Hiddleston), the Eton-educated son of a salt baron (Jonathan Pryce) and Peggy Bell (Jodie Whittaker), the daughter of a less-affluent widow (Lesley Sharp). Mr. Buxton wants William to marry his ward, the Brussels-educated Erminia (Michelle Dockery). But neither are interested in each other. And Peggy has to deal with her ambitious and greedy brother, Edward (Matthew McNulty), who dislikes William. What I liked best about ”RETURN TO CRANFORD” was that most of the storylines were tied to the new rail line being constructed near Cranford – even the William/Peggy romance.

As much as I hate to admit it, ”RETURN TO CRANFORD” had its problems. Another storyline featured the problematic pregnancy suffered by Miss Matty’s maid, Martha Hearne (Claudie Blakley). The problem arose, due to the lack of doctors in Cranford. And I found this confusing. The 2007 miniseries ended with two doctors residing in the town – the recently married Dr. Frank Harrison and longtime resident Dr. Morgan. A year later, both no longer resided in Cranford and Heidi Thomas’ script never revealed their whereabouts or fate. Thomas’ real misstep featured the death of Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) and the arrival of her ne’er-do-well son, Septimus (Rory Kinnear). The latter’s attempt to cheat young Harry Gregson (Alex Etel) out of the money he had inherited from the late Mr. Carter was a poorly conceived and written storyline. And despite the built-up, it failed to have any real impact upon the Harry Gregson character, due to its vague ending. As much as I found Signor Brunoni’s Christmas show rather charming, I thought it also reeked of a sentimentality that made my teeth hurt. Especially when Miss Matty’s reunion with Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan) and his daughter entered the picture.

The production design for ”RETURN TO CRANFORD” was top notch as ever. And Alison Beard’s supervision of the costumes proved to be just as first-rate as Jenny Beavan’s work in the 2007 miniseries. The cast continued its first-rate work from the previous miniseries – especially Judi Dench as Miss Matty Jenkyns, Imelda Staunton as town gossip Octavia Poole, Francesca Annis as the aristocratic Lady Ludlow, Emma Fielding as her assistant Laurentia Galindo, Alex Etel as Harry Gregson, Julia McKenzie as Mrs. Forrester, Jim Carter as Mr. Brown, and Barbara Flynn as the pretentious Mrs. Jamieson. But the newcomers that impressed were Tom Huddleston as William Buxton, Jonathan Pryce as the tyrannical Mr. Buxton, Jodie Whittaker as Peggy Bell, Celia Imrie as the earthy Lady Glemire and Tim Curry as the warm-hearted magician Signor Brunoni.

For a while, I had been reluctant to watch ”RETURN TO CRANFORD”. Because it was a sequel to the 2007 miniseries, I figured that it could never be as good as ”CRANFORD”. I was wrong. I do not know if I would consider it better than the first miniseries. But the latter is certainly not better than the sequel. And ”RETURN TO CRANFORD” does have one major advantage . . . namely Heidi Thomas’ screenplay turned out to be more tightly written, due to her decision not to use much of Elizabeth Gaskell’s material. Personally, I find that rather ironic.