“NEMESIS” (1987) Review

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“NEMESIS” (1987) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

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“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

As a rule, I have never been an ardent fan of Charles Dickens’ novels. I suppose my aversion to his writing stemmed from being forced to read his 1838 tale, “Oliver Twist”, while in my early teens. That was the last time I had read a Dickens novel, but several film and television adaptations of his work awaited me for many years down the road. And I did not warm up to them. 

After years of avoiding Dickens’ novels or adaptations of his work, I finally decided to put my aversion of his writing aside and set my mind on watching “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, Sandy Welch’s 1998 adaptation of his last completed novel, published in 1864-65. Needless to say, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” proved to be a complicated tale. It featured at least three subplots – major and minor – and they all stemmed from the alleged death of the heir to a fortune created by his father, a former collector from London’s rubbish.

“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” began with a solicitor named Mortimer Lightwood, who narrates the circumstances on the death of his late client and the details of the latter’s will to his aunt and a group of listeners at a London society party. According to Lightwood, Mr. Harmon made his fortune from London’s rubbish. The terms of his will stipulated that his fortune should go to his estranged son John, who is returning to Britain after years spent abroad. John can inherit his father’s money on the condition that he marry a woman he has never met, Miss Bella Wilfer. However, Lightwood receives news that John Harmon’s body has been found in the Thames River. He and his close friend Eugene Wrayburn head toward the river to identify the body. And it was this sequence that led to the following subplots:

*Mr. Harmon’s employees, Nicodemus and Henrietta Boffin inherit the Harmon fortune and take Bella Wilfer as a ward to compensate for her loss, following John Harmon’s “death”.

*John Harmon fakes his death and assumes the identity of John Rokesmith, the Boffins’ social secretary, in order to ascertain Bella Wilfer’s character.

*The man who found Harmon’s “body” is a waterman and scavenger named Gaffer Hexam. He is later accused of murdering “Harmon”.

*While accompanying his friend, Mortimer Lightwood, to identify Harmon’s body, Eugene Wrayburn meets and falls in love with Hexam’s daughter, Lizzie.

*Charley Hexam, Lizzie’s younger brother, has a headmaster named Bradley Headstone, who becomes romantically and violently obsessed with Lizzie.

*A ballad-seller with a wooden leg named Silas Wegg is hired by the Boffins to read for them. When he finds Harmon’s will in the dust, he schemes with a taxidermist named Mr. Venus to blackmail the newly rich couple.

*Mr. and Mrs. Lammle are a society couple who married each other for money and discovered that neither had any. They eventually set their sights on the Boffins to swindle.

I have seen many movies and read many novels in which disparate subplots eventually form into one main narrative. A major example of this is the 2002 novel and its 2008 adaptation, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”. But I cannot recall any form of fiction in which a particular narrative divides into a series of subplots in which one barely have anything in common with another. And I must say that I found this narrative device not only original, but rather disconcerting.

The problem I mainly have with “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” is that I only enjoyed one major subplot – which dealt with Eugene Wrayburn, Lizzie Hexam and Bradley Headstone. I cannot deny that I found it very interesting and very tense, despite David Morrissey’s occasional moments of histronics, when expressing Headstone’s feelings for both Wrayburn and Lizzie; and actress Keeley Hawes’ inability to express Lizzie’s true feelings for Wrayburn until the last episode. And I suspect that director Julian Farino may have been at fault, instead of Hawes. Paul McGann’s portrayal of the ambiguous Wrayburn struck me as the best performance not only in this particular subplot, but also in the entire miniseries.

Inheriting John Harmon’s fortune attracted a good deal of greedy fortune hunters to the Boffins. Unfortunately, Silas Wegg’s attempts to blackmail them ended on a whimper. It did not help that he spent at least two to three episodes (out of four) complaining about his lot in life and plotting with Mr. Venus. I was even less impressed with the poor and newly married Mr. and Mrs. Lammle’s attempts to swindle money from the Boffins. In fact, I am still in the dark over how their attempt failed.

The subplot featuring John Harmon/Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer could have amounted to something. I found Harmon’s gradual love for Bella very interesting to watch, thanks to Steven Mackintosh’s subtle performance. And Anna Friel did a great job in developing Bella Wilfur from a materialistic and ambitious young woman, to one for whom love and morality meant more to her than material wealth. But the problem I have with this subplot? Bella did not learn the truth about John until some time after their wedding. Even worse, he had to resort to deception to find out whether Bella was worthy of his hand. I realize that when they first met, she was not exactly a pleasant woman. But he conducted their courtship, while deceiving her. Even worse, Bella forgave John a bit too easily, once she learned the truth.

Aside from the excellent performances; including those from Peter Vaughn and Pam Ferris as the Boffins, Kenneth Cranham as Silas Wegg, Margaret Tyzack as the imperious Tippins, and Dominic Mafham as Mortimer Lightwood; “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”has two other virtues that I found impressive. The four-part miniseries’ visual style struck me as colorful and at the same time, epic. And I believe one has to thank David Odd for his excellent. And Mike O’Neil’s Victorian costumes truly blew me away. Not only did I find them beautiful, but a near accurate reflection of Britain in the 1860s.

One might believe that I dislike “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”. Trust me, I liked it. But I did not love it. I suspect that Sandy Welch and director Julian Farino did the best they could in translating Dickens’ tale to the screen. Perhaps they more than did their best and that was the trouble. The 1864-65 novel is not considered among the novelist’ best. “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” has yet to improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a novelist. Perhaps a second viewing might do the job.