“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.

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“MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD” (2008) Review

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“MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD” (2008) Review

Since it first aired on television, I must admit that I have paid scant attention to “MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD”, ITV’s 2008 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1952 novel. I find this amazing, since the novel has always been a favorite of mine. I am not claiming that the 2008 movie is terrible. I was simply distracted by other matters during my last two viewings. This third viewing proved to be the charmed and I finally was able to ascertain the movie’s quality. 

Unlike its literary source, “MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD” was not set in the early 1950s. Because the television adaptation was an episode of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”, screenwriter Nick Dear transform the setting to the 1930s. There is some unwritten rule for the series’ producers that all “POIROT” adaptations had to be set during that decade. Why . . . I do not know or understand to this day. However, changing the story’s setting to another decade did not harm it, unlike “THIRD GIRL” or“TAKEN AT THE FLOOD”. Dear also remove a few characters – including two from a newspaper article that is featured in the plot. And the literary characters of Maude Williams and Dierde Henderson are merged into one – Maude Williams. Fortunately, these changes had no negative impact upon the story.

In “MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD”, the lodger of a dead charwoman is convicted of her murder and sentenced to be executive. Superintendent Spence, the case’s investigating officer, suspects that James Bentley is innocent of Mrs. McGinty’s murder and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate the case for him. Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny and discovers that Mrs. McGinty had often worked as a cleaner at the houses of people in the village. He also discovers among her possessions a newspaper published a few days before her death and that a particular article had been cut out, which he later discovers was about four women connected with famous murder cases. Mrs. McGinty had also purchased a bottle of ink from a local shop. Poirot concludes that Mrs. McGinty had recognized one of the four women and had written to the newspaper for more information. One of Mrs. McGinty’s cleaning learned of her discovery and killed her before she could talk.

After my recent viewing of “MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD”, I realized that I did this movie a disservice by paying scant attention to it during my earlier viewings. The movie proved to be very entertaining and a worthy adaptation of a novel that has long been a favorite of mine. First of all, Christie created an intriguing, yet entertaining mystery that kept me guessing, until the last pages. And both Dear and director Ashley Pierce did an excellent job in translating Christie’s story to the screen, maintaining its drama with links to the mysterious past and humor. Speaking of the latter, “MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD” proved to be one of the funniest Poirot mysteries I have ever come across. Since this story is a “village mystery”, a rarity for a Poirot story, audiences get to witness the Belgian-born sleuth struggle as a guest at an untidy country manor-turned-guesthouse. The movie also dealt with Ariadne Oliver’s frustrating collaboration with a playwright, who wants to adapt (meaning change) one of her Sven Hjerson novels. And the movie provides plenty of laughs from both story arcs. I do have one major regret regarding Dear and Pierce’s adaptation of Christie’s novel – they never included that fabulous scene in which Poirot revealed the murderer by giving the latter a major scare with the murder weapon. It was such a memorable scene that I felt some regret that it had not been included in the movie.

The production values for “MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD” seemed top notch. Production designer Jeff Tessler and his team did an excellent job in re-creating the English countryside of the 1930s. His work was solidly supported by Miranda Cull and Paul Spriggs’ art direction and especially Sheena Napier’s costume designs. I was especially impressed by the fact that Napier did not go over-the-top with her costumes, considering the movie’s village setting. I wish I could be just as complimentary about Alan Almond’s photography. Mind you, I found his photography beautiful and rich in color. But there were scenes I wish had been filmed with more light. And I could have done without the soft-focus photography.

David Suchet gave one of his funniest performances as Poirot in this movie. Mind you, he perfectly conveyed Poirot’s pragmatic nature, intelligence and detective skills. But Suchet was hilarious as the long-suffering Poirot forced to deal with the incompetent housekeeping skills of his hosts, the Summerhayes. Zoë Wanamaker gave an equally hilarious as mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver, forced to endure playwright Robin Upward’s changes in the stage adaptation of one of her novels. And both Suchet and Wanamaker once again created magic whenever they appeared together on the screen.

“MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD” also featured some first-rate supporting performances. After his first appearance in 2006’s “TAKEN AT THE FLOOD”, Richard Hope returned as Superintendent Harold Spence, the police investigator whose dissatisfaction with James Bentley’s conviction, drew Poirot into the McGinty case. He gave a solid performance, just as he did in the 2006 movie. However, both his performance and the character did not knock my socks off. And Amanda Root’s portrayal of the doctor’s wife, Mrs. Rendell, seemed a bit over-the-top. But I did enjoy Raquel Cassidy, Mary Stockley, Sarah Smart and Paul Rhys’s performances. The latter was especially funny as the pretentious playwright, Robin Upward, who drove Mrs. Oliver crazy. But the two performances that really impressed me came from Joe Absolom, who was interesting as the wrongly convicted and anemic lodger James Bentley; and Siân Phillips, who portrayed the enigmatic and secretive Mrs. Upward with great skill and mystery.

In the end, “MRS. McGINTY” proved to be a first-rate adaptation of the 1952 novel. In fact, it was a lot better than I remembered from my first (and second) viewing. I thought it was well written by Nick Dear and directed with skill by Adrian Pearce. Most of all, it featured hilarious performances by both David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker, who re-ignited their screen chemistry with great ease. I really enjoyed this film.

“PERSUASION” (2007) Review

“PERSUASION” (2007) Review

When it comes to adaptations of Jane Austen novels, I tend to stick with a trio of titles – ”Pride and Prejudice”,”Emma” and ”Sense and Sensibility”. Before this year, I have never seen a screen adaptation of any remaining Austen novels. Until I saw the 2007 adaptation of her last completed novel published in 1818, ”Persuasion”

Directed by Adrian Shergold, ”PERSUASION” told the story of Anne Elliot, the sensible middle daughter of a vain and spendthrift baronet named Sir Walter Elliot. At the age of 19, Anne had fallen in love with a young naval officer named Frederick Wentworth. But due to his lack of fortune and family connections, Sir Walter and Anne’s friends expressed displeasure at the idea of her becoming Mrs. Wentworth. But it was a family friend named Lady Russell who persuaded Anne into breaking off her engagement to Frederick. Eight years later, the Elliot family found themselves in financial straits due to the careless spending of Sir Walter and his oldest daughter, Elizabeth. They ended up leasing their house and estate – Kellylynch Hall in Somersetshire – to an Admiral Croft and his wife. The latter turned out to be the older sister of the now Captain Wentworth.

While Elizabeth and Sir Walter set off for their new residence in Bath, Anne remained behind to take care of further business in Somersetshire; including taking care of her hypochondriac sister Mary Musgrove, who is married to Charles Musgrove and living in a nearby estate. During one of his visits to his sister, Frederick re-entered Anne’s life. He had risen to the rank of Captain and has become rich from prize money awarded for capturing enemy vessels during the Napoleonic Wars. Frederick also became viewed as a catch by every eligible young woman – including her brother-in-law’s two sisters, Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove. But Anne suspected that Frederick had not forgiven her for rejecting his offer of marriage so many years ago. And both end up learning how to overcome their personal demons in order to let go of the past and find a new future together.

Hands down, ”PERSUASION” has to be the most emotional Jane Austen tale I have ever come across. In fact, I would go as far to say that this tale literally had me squirming on my living room sofa in sheer discomfort during many scenes that featured Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth. Or . . . I found myself heaving with frustration – especially during the movie’s last ten to fifteen minutes, as Frederick made an effort to emotionally reconnect with Anne, while the latter’s family continued to put obstacles in her way. However, it eventually struck me that the main barrier between Anne and Frederick’s reconciliation came from the two lovers. I would probably go as far to say that the couple’s personal demons over the past broken engagement perpetrated the entire story. And I truly enjoyed this – in a slightly perverse way.

Thanks to screenwriter Simon Burke’s writing and Sally Hawkins’ performance, I came away with a feeling that Anne had existed in a fog of resignation ever since her rejection of Frederick’s proposal, eight years ago. Aside from struggling to keep her family out of financial straits – despite Sir Walter and Elizabeth’s spending – I wondered if she had spent all of those years flagellating herself for allowing Lady Russell to persuade her into giving up Frederick. Her self-flagellation seemed to have continued during moments when Frederick either snubbed her or when their past connections came up in conversation. Frederick’s attitude did not help matters, considering that he spent most of the movie coldly rebuffing Anne or wallowing in resentment. This especially seemed to be the case after he learned that Anne had rejected another suitor after Lady Russell (again) persuaded her that he would be an unsuitable match for her. Frederick’s anger and resentment assumed a righteous tone following that revelation. His attitude ended up blinding him from the fact that his friendliness toward the Musgrove sisters – especially Louisa – had led many to assume he was seriously interested in her. At that moment, Frederick realized two things – his inability to forgive Anne had nearly led him to a marriage he did not desire; and that he still loved her. In other words, ”PERSUASION” had the type of romance that really appealed to me. I found it complex, difficult and slightly perverse.

In the movie’s third act, Anne joined Sir Walter and Elizabeth in Bath. She became acquainted with an old friend named Mrs. Smith. She also acquired a new suitor – her cousin, the widowed and now wealthy Mr. William Elliot. Unfortunately, the William Elliot character proved to be the story’s weakest link. Many fans of Austen’s novel have complained that Simon Burke’s screenplay failed to adhere closely to the author’s portrayal of the character. I have read a few reviews of the 1995 adaptation and came across similar complaints. In the Austen novel, William Elliot happened to be heir to Sir Walter’s baronetcy and the Kellylynch estate upon the older man’s death due to a lack of sons. Fearing that Sir Walter might marry Elizabeth’s companion, Mrs. Clay, and produce a son; William set out to ensure his inheritance by re-establishing ties with Sir Walter and marry one of the latter’s remaining single daughters . . . namely Anne.

I can see why many have criticized the movie’s portrayal of William Elliot. But I find it interesting that many have not considered the possibility that the fault originated with Austen’s novel. Think about it. Why did William went through so much trouble to court Anne? Could he not tell that she had little interest in him? Why not court the daughter who did express interest – namely Elizabeth? And why did William believe that a marriage to Anne or any of Sir Walter’s daughters would secure his inheritance of the Elliot baronetcy and Kellylynch? How would such a marriage prevent Sir Walter from marrying a younger woman capable of giving him a son? After all, the man remained a vital and attractive man at the age of 54. And even if William had prevented Mrs. Clay from marrying Sir Walter, there would be other eligible young women (preferably wealthy) that would not mind marrying Sir Walter in order to become Lady Elliot and mistress of Kellylynch. Personally, I feel that the William Elliot storyline in the novel was a contrived and flawed attempt to provide a romantic complication for Anne and Frederick. And instead of re-writing Austen’s portrayal of William or getting rid of him altogether, Burke and director Adrian Shergold decided to vaguely adhere to the literary version.

Another problem I had with ”PERSUASION” turned out to be the supporting cast. Well . . . some of the supporting cast. Poor Tobias Menzies could barely do anything but project a bit of smugness and false warmth with the poorly written William Elliot character. And if I must be frank, I could not remember the faces of characters like Mary Elliot Musgroves’ husband and sisters-in-law, the Crofts, and Mrs. Smith. Mind you, it was nice to see television and movie veteran Nicholas Farrell in the role of the older Mr. Musgrove. Fortunately, I cannot say the same about those who portrayed Anne’s immediate family, Captain Harville and Lady Russell. The always competent Anthony Stewart Head gave a spot-on performance as the vain and arrogant Sir Walter Elliot. One can only assume that Anne had inherited her personality from her mother. Both Julia Davis and Amanda Hale were memorably amusing as Anne’s sisters – the equally vain and arrogant Elizabeth Elliot and the self-involved hypochondriac Mary Elliot Musgrove. Mary Stockley gave a subtle performance as Elizabeth’s obsequious companion, Mrs. Penelope Clay. I also enjoyed Joseph Mawle’s portrayal of Captain Harville, one of Wentworth’s closest friend. I found his performance quiet and subtle in a very satisfying way. And Alice Kriege’s portrayal of the well-meaning, yet snobbish Lady Russell struck me as very complex and very subtle. Her performance made Lady Russell seem like a kind woman with a surprising lack of tolerance that ended up wrecking havoc on Anne’s life for eight years.

For my money, ”PERSUASION” truly belonged to Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones as Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth. I believe that both did beautiful jobs in breathing life into the two lead characters. Someone had once complained in another article that in ”PERSUASION”, the two leads exchanged very little dialogue with each other and other characters. This person also added that it almost felt like watching a silent movie. This only confirmed my belief that both Hawkins and Penry-Jones are more than competent screen actors. Through their expressions and very little dialogue, they managed to convey their characters’ emotions, demons and development.

Not only did Hawkins express Anne Elliot’s resignation to a life as Sir Walter’s unmarried and overlooked daughter; she also revealed Anne’s despair and discomfort over dealing with Frederick Wentworth’s silent anger and contempt. And in the movie’s last half hour, the actress made it a joy to watch Anne bloom again under the attentions of her morally questionable Cousin William Elliot and Frederick’s renewed interest. One would think that Penry-Jones’ had an easier job in his portrayal of Captain Wentworth. Well . . . he had less screen time. Though his character did strike me to be just as complex as Anne’s. Penry-Jones took Frederick’s character through an emotional journey during the entire film; via anger, contempt, indifference, mild cheerfulness, longing, jealousy, desperation and joy. Some of his best moments featured Frederick’s struggles to keep his emotions in check. More importantly, both Hawkins and Penry-Jones had such a strong screen chemistry that most of their scenes that featured them staring longingly at each other had me muttering ”get a room” under my breath.

I just realized that I have not mentioned a word about Anne Elliot’s infamous run through the streets of Bath. Many fans have complained that no decent young English lady of the early 19th century would ever do such a thing. Others have viewed it as simply a ludicrous scene that made Anne look ridiculous. I must admit that a part of me found the sequence rather ridiculous-looking. But I have managed to consider some positive aspects to this scene. One, it represented Anne’s desperate attempt to connect with Frederick before it was too late. And two, the scene provided colorful views of the very distinctive-looking Bath.

Many fans have complained about the movie’s 93-minute running time. They claimed that ”PERSUASION” should have been a lot longer. Perhaps they had a point. After all, the 1971 adaptation had a running time of 210 minutes. And the 1960-61 version aired as a series of four episodes. On the other hand, some fans of the movie claimed that Austen’s novel was not as long as some of her previous ones. Also, the much admired 1995 version had a running time of only 107 minutes.

The 93 minute running time for ”PERSUASION” did not bother me one bit. I really enjoyed this latest version of Austen’s novel very much. Granted, it had its flaws – namely the handling of the William Elliot character. But I believe that this flaw can be traced to Austen’s novel. Flaws or not, I enjoyed ”PERSUASION” so much that I immediately purchased a DVD copy of it after seeing the movie on television. In my opinion, director Adrian Shergold’s BAFTA nomination was very well-deserved.