“THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” (1984) Review

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“THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” (1984) Review

As far as I know, there have been two adaptations of Agatha Christie’s 1942 novel, “The Body in the Library”. I have already seen the latter version that aired on ITV in 2004. Recently, I saw the earlier version that aired twenty years earlier. And I must say that I was taken by surprise by the differences in the two versions.

I now realize that I should not have been taken by surprised. The screenwriter for the 2004 made numerous changes to Christie’s novel. However, screenwriter T.R. Bowen was a lot more faithful to the novel in the adaptation that aired in the 1980s. Most people would see this as a sign that 1984’s “THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” was the superior version. Well . . . they would be entitled to that opinion. But it is not one that I would share.

“THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” beings when the dead body of a young blonde woman is found inside the library of Gossington Hall, the home of Colonel Arthur and Dolly Bantry of St. Mary Mead. While Mrs. Bantry enlists the aid of their friend and neighbor Miss Jane Marple to investigate the crime; Detective Inspector Slack first suspects Colonel Bantry and later, another local named Basil Blake as the murderer. However, the police is finally able to identify the body as Ruby Keene, a local dancer at a resort hotel called the Majestic, in the nearby seaside resort of Danemouth. Her cousin, another dancer named Josie Turner, had identified the body. And according to Josie, Ruby had been missing for some time. Worried over the investigation’s impact upon her husband, Mrs. Bantry suggests that she and Miss Marple spend a few days at the Majestic Hotel. There, they learned about Ruby’s connection to a wealthy invalid (and old friend of the Bantrys) named Conway Jefferson, who was planning to leave a considerable amount of money to Ruby.

During the first three years of “MISS MARPLE”, the episodes usually aired over two or three nights. In the case of “THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY”, it aired over three nights, resulting in a running time of 156 minutes. And that is a hell of a long time for a story like “THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY”. It was simply too long. And it felt like it, thanks to the slow pacing. One, the story’s setup – namely the discovery of the body, Miss Marple’s recruitment into the case, the introduction of the police – seemed to drag forever. I found myself wondering when Miss Marple and Mrs. Bantry would finally make it to the Majestic Hotel. And it seemed as if T.R. Bowen and director Silvio Narizzano were determined to include every detail to Christie’s novel. I might as well say it. I am not one of those who demand that a television or movie adaptation of a novel be completely faithful to its source. It depends on whether or not being faithful served the production in the end. I do not feel that this faithful adaptation did great service to a novel that was never a particular favorite of mine in the first place. I really had to struggle to maintain my interest in this television movie.

I have one other major complaint. I noticed that Christie’s novel, along with this movie, tried to include as many suspects as possible in the murder of Ruby Keene. But once the story shifted to the Majestic Hotel and Conway Jefferson’s family, the number of real suspects seemed to whittle down to two – Jefferson’s son-in-law and daughter-in-law, Mark Gaskell and Adelaide Jefferson. Even worse, Bowen failed to create a balanced portrayal of the pair. One ended up receiving more attention and screen time over the other.

I had no problems with most of the movie’s production. I thought it did a serviceable job in re-creating St. Mary’s Mead and a seaside resort circa 1955, thanks to the work of production designer Austin Ruddy. John Walker’s photography struck me as serviceable. But like most productions that featured Joan Hickson as Miss Marple, it is obvious that the movie was shot on inferior film that managed to fade over the years. I enjoyed Jan Wright’s costume designs. But they did not blow my mind. I do not know who did the actresses’ hairstyles. But whoever worked on Sally Jane Jackson’s hairstyle did a very questionable job – as seen in the images below:

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What in the hell happened?

At least the performances for “THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” were up to snuff. The television movie marked Joan Hickson’s debut as Jane Marple. And she did an excellent job in setting up the numerous first-class work that eventually did for the next seven to eight years. The movie also marked the debut of David Horovitch as Inspector Slack, the police detective featured in most of Hickson’s Miss Marple productions. I found his performance rather interesting, considering Slack’s hostile attitude toward the elderly sleuth in compare to later movies. Three other performances also caught my attention. Moray Watson (from 1980’s “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”) did a very competent job in portraying Colonel Arthur Bantry’s growing sense of isolation from his neighbors’ suspicions that he may have been involved in Ruby Keene’s death. Anthony Smee gave a very entertaining performance as St. Mary Mead’s new resident, the colorful Basil Blake. And I was very impressed by Trudie Styler’s portrayal of the victim’s pragmatic, yet reserved cousin Josie Turner. The movie also featured competent support from Andrew Cruickshank, Ciaran Madden, Gwen Watford, Ian Brimble, Raymond Francis and Jess Conrad.

I am not saying that “THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” is a terrible movie. I thought that director Silvio Narizzano and screenwriter T.R. Bowen did a solid job in adapting Christie’s novel. And the movie featured excellent and solid performances from a cast led by Joan Hickson. But . . . two hours and thirty-six minutes struck me as too damn long for an adaptation of a novel that has never struck me as extraordinary. And quite frankly, the long running time and the slow pacing nearly put me to sleep.

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“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (1980) Review

 

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (1980) Review

As many fans of Jane Austen must know, there have been several screen and television adaptations of the author’s most celebrated novel, “Pride and Prejudice”, published in 1813. I usually come across at least five of those versions – including the six-part BBC adaptation that aired in the U.S. in 1980. The miniseries was adapted by Fay Weldon and directed by Cyril Coke. 

Only someone unfamiliar with Austen’s story would not know that “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” told the story of Elizabeth Bennet, the second-born daughter of an English gentleman and landowner in Regency England. The story focused on the efforts of her volatile mother to find eligible husbands for Elizabeth and her four sisters. It is also a love story about Elizabeth’s tumultuous relationship with a wealthy and haughty gentleman named Fitzwilliam Darcy. Through six episodes, the miniseries explored Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s emotions, as their relationship went from mild hostility, misunderstandings and prejudice, to love, respect and marriage. Many Austen fans consider Weldon’s adaptation to be the most faithful to the 1813 novel. After my recent viewing of the miniseries, I realized that I could never agree with that opinion.

I am not saying that ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” strongly differed from Austen’s novel. But I can honestly say that it was no more faithful than the 1995 version. Only screenwriter Fay Weldon’s variations differ from Andrew Davies’. In fact, most these differences were especially obvious in the segment that featured Elizabeth’s visit to Hunsford, the Collins’ home in Kent. But these differences did not lessen my enjoyment of the production. However, there were some aspects of the miniseries that did.

One aspect of ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” that annoyed me was its occasionally slow pacing. There were moments when I found myself wondering if I was watching a filmed play. Most fans would dismiss this complaint on the grounds that many BBC miniseries productions had been shot in this static style. True, but I have seen a few of these old productions that managed to maintain a brisk pacing. Another aspect of the miniseries that annoyed me was the internal monologues that expressed Elizabeth’s thoughts. This was especially apparent in scenes that reflected Elizabeth’s opinion of the letter she had received from Mr. Darcy following his disastrous marriage proposal; and in the sequences that featured her thoughts on her sister Lydia’s elopement with George Wickham and her parents’ marriage. Frankly, I found the use of this film device simply a cheap way to reflect Elizabeth’s opinions on the subjects. And these monologues nearly bogged the series’ pacing to a standstill.

But the real disappointment proved to be the miniseries’ portrayal of the Netherfield Ball. The ball given by Mr. Darcy’s close friend, Charles Bingley, was one of the novel’s centerpieces in nearly every adaptation of ”Pride and Prejudice”. The ball was replaced with a garden fête in the 1940 version. But it still turned out to be one of the movie’s centerpieces. So, why did Fay Weldon dropped the ball with this particular sequence? In this version, the Netherfield Ball segment lasted a little over six minutes. Elizabeth expressed her displeasure over Mr. Wickham’s non-appearance and the prospect of dancing with Mr. Darcy. She danced with both Mr. Darcy and her cousin, William Collins. She traded barbs with Caroline Bingley. And Elizabeth also witnessed her mother’s embarrassing boasts about elder sister Jane’s romance with Mr. Bingley. By deleting Mr. Collins brief discussion with Mr. Darcy and the embarrassing behavior of the other members of the Bennet family, Weldon’s screenplay seemed to have rendered the sequence half done. Worse, Cyril Coke shot the sequence at an incredibly fast pace. Between Weldon’s deletions and Coke’s pacing, the Netherfield Ball sequence seemed like such a disappointing affair.

When I first saw “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, I became immediately enamored of the miniseries. As an adolescent, I thought it was one of the best things to come from British television. After my last viewing of the series, my opinion of it has somewhat diminished. But I still consider it to be very entertaining. Austen’s wit remained intact. Well . . . somewhat. Some of the jokes – like Elizabeth’s comment about Darcy’s and her penchant for “amazing” statements – failed to make any impact, due to Elizabeth Garvie’s delivery of the line. And many of Mr. Bennet’s witticisms seemed angry, instead of funny. But plenty of humor remained in the miniseries. Elizabeth’s first meeting with Lady Catherine de Bourgh and a reunion with Mr. Darcy struck me as one of the miniseries’ funniest scenes. Just about every scene with Mrs. Bennet or Mr. Collins provided plenty of laughs. The romances featured in ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” remained strong as ever, especially between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.

I would not consider Paul Wheeler’s photography for “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” to be that colorful. In fact, it looked slightly faded. One could attribute this to the fact that the miniseries has been aging for the past thirty years. Yet, I have seen other television productions made around the same time or earlier that looked more colorful. But I must admit that I enjoyed Joan Ellacott’s costume designs. They were certainly colorful and properly reflected the characters’ social status.

Any adaptation of ”Pride and Prejudice” would be nothing without strong leads to portray the two main characters, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. The 1980 miniseries certainly benefitted from strong performances provided by Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul. Garvie proved to be a very soft-spoken Elizabeth Bennet, reminding me of Greer Garson’s performance in the same role in the 1940 adaptation. Yet, beneath the soft tones, Garvie provided plenty of wit and steel. I found her performance very enjoyable. And David Rintoul definitely projected Mr. Darcy’s haughty demeanor. Some consider his performance to be the epitome portrayal of Austen’s famous character. Perhaps. Perhaps not. There were moments when Rintoul’s Mr. Darcy seemed a bit too haughty – especially when the character was supposed to be falling in love with Elizabeth. But I believe he still gave a first-rate performance. And he provided one of the miniseries’ funniest moments in a scene featuring Elizabeth and the Collins’ first visit to Rosings Park.

The rest of the cast seemed solid. But I can only think of a few exceptional performances. One came from Priscilla Morgan, whose portrayal of Mrs. Bennet managed to be extremely irritating without her resorting to caricature. I was also impressed by Marsha Fitzalan, who proved that Caroline Bingley could be both subtle and spiteful at the same time. Tessa Peake-Jones gave an entertaining performance as the bookish and pompous Mary Bennet. Her portrayal seemed more subtle than other actresses who have portrayed the character. Peter Settlelen also gave a solid performance as George Wickham, but he came off as too hale and hearty for me to consider him as an effective villain. And Peter Howell was certainly hilarious as the boorish and obsequious Mr. William Collins, Elizabeth’s cousin and Mr. Bennet’s heir. However, there were moments when he seemed a bit over-the-top.

And then there were the performances that I found questionable. I must admit that I was not impressed by Natalie Ogle’s portrayal of the childish Lydia Bennet. I found her acting skills somewhat amateurish. The actress who portrayed Kitty Bennet seemed a little too old for the role. And there were times when her Kitty seemed more mature (in a negative way) than the other four sisters. And Kitty is supposed to be the second youngest sibling in the family. Actor Moray Watson gave a sharp and entertaining performance as the Bennets’ patriarch. But I found his wit a bit too harsh and angry at times.

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” has its share of flaws, which I have pointed out in this review. But its virtues outweighed the flaws – the biggest ones being the first-rate performances of the two leads, Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul. Screenwriter Fay Weldon and director Cyril Coke did an above-average job in adapting Jane Austen’s most famous novel.