“SLEEPING MURDER” (2006) Review

 

“SLEEPING MURDER” (2006) Review

I might as well say it. The 1976 novel, “Sleeping Murder” is one of my favorites written by mystery writer, Agatha Christie. In fact, it is such a big favorite of mine that when I learned about the recent 2006 adaptation that aired on Britain’s ITV network, I made a great effort to find it on DVD.

Although the 1976 novel proved to be the last Christie novel featuring elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, the author wrote it during the early years of World War II. In fact, she did the same for the 1975 Hercule Poirot novel, “Curtain”. Christie wrote both novels and placed them in a bank vault, in case she failed to survive the Blitz. During the early 1970s, the author authorized the publication of “Curtain” for 1975 and “Sleeping Murder” for 1976. I never warmed up to the 1975 novel, but I became a fan of the latter one. The novel produced two television adaptations and a radio version. Just recently, I watched a DVD copy of the 2006 television movie that featured Geraldine McEwan as Miss Jane Marple.

“SLEEPING MURDER” begins in 1933 India, where British diplomat Kelvin Halliday receives news that his wife Claire had just been killed in a traffic accident. The widower returns home to England with his three year-old daughter Gwenda and meets one Helen Marsden, a singer with a troupe of music performers known as “The Funnybones”. Nineteen years later, a recently engaged Gwenda Halliday returns to England in order to find a home where she and her future husband Giles, who is a wealthy businessman living in India, can live. Accompanied by Giles’ assistant, Hugh Hornbeam, Gwenda finds a house in Dillmouth, a town on the south coast of England. While workmen set about repairing the house, Gwenda realizes that it seems familiar to her. Hugh suggests she speak to an old acquaintance of his, Miss Jane Marple of St. Mary Mead. Gwenda and Hugh meet with Miss Marple at a local theater showing the John Webster play, “The Duchess of Malfi”. During one of the play’s climatic scenes, Gwenda screams in terror , as she remembers witnessing a pair of hands strangling a woman. Along with Miss Marple and Hugh, Gwenda realizes she may have witnessed a murder when she was a child living in Dillmouth. All three also discover that the murdered woman may have been Gwenda’s stepmother, Helen Marsden Halliday.

I . . . did not dislike “SLEEPING MURDER”. I thought this adaptation featured fine performances from a cast led by the always superb Geraldine McEwan. The television movie also featured memorable performances from Sophia Myles and Aidan McArdle as Gwenda Halliday and Hugh Hornbeam. I was also impressed by Julian Wadham as Kelvin Halliday; Martin Kemp, Dawn French and Paul McGann as three of Helen’s Funnybones colleagues; and Phil Davis as Dr. James Kennedy, Kelvin’s original brother-in-law. It was nice to see Harriet Walter give a cameo as an actress portraying the lead role in “The Duchess of Malfi” production. The rest of the cast gave solid performances, aside from two struck me as slightly problematic. Sarah Parish’s portrayal of Funnybones wallflower-turned successful singer Evie Ballatine seemed to be an exercise in character extremism . . . and a bit over-the-top. I could say the same about Geraldine Chapln’s portrayal of the gloomy Mrs. Fane, mother of Walter Fane, a mild-mannered lawyer who knew Gwenda’s mother.

“SLEEPING MURDER” also benefited from colorful and sharp photography, thanks to Alan Almond’s cinematography. I also found Frances Tempest’s costume designs for the early 1950s sequences rather gorgeous to look at. However, her designs for the 1930s scenes seemed to be something of a mixed bag. Overall, I had no complaints about the movie’s production designs and the performances. But I did not love this movie. In fact, I barely liked it.

The problem – at least for me – is that the positive aspects of “SLEEPING MURDER” failed to hide or compensate what proved to be the movie’s real problem . . . namely the screenplay written by Stephen Churchett. I do not completely blame him. The producers of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” and director Edward Hall were willing to use it. I have no problems with a screenwriter changing certain aspects of a source novel or play for a screen adaptation. Especially if said change manages to improve the story or make it more effective for a screen adaptation. But the changes Churchett made to Christie’s story did not improve it in the end or made it effective for the television screen. Personally, I found Churchett’s changes more convoluted than a novel written by James Ellroy.

First of all, Churchett, Hall or both allowed the Gwenda Reed character from the novel to become the unmarried Gwenda Halliday, engaged to be married. The Giles Reed character was reduced to Gwenda’s unseen and wealthy fiancé, who turned out to be a jerk. Churchett and Hall decided to create a new love interest for Gwenda, the quiet and faithful Hugh Hornbam, who works for her fiancé. Why did Hall and Churchett give Gwenda a new love interest? What was wrong with using the original Giles Reed character from the novel? Was it really that important to inject a new romance, which seemed to be the hallmark of many “MARPLE” productions? Also, a musical troupe known as the Funnybones was introduced to this story. Three of the original suspects – Richard “Dickie” and Janet Erskine, and Jackie Afflick – became members of the Funnybones, along with Helen. The addition of the Funnybones also produced another suspect for the story – a singer named Evie Ballatine. Why did Churchett create the Funnybones in the first place? Perhaps he and Hall thought the musical troupe would make Helen’s character more “colorful”. On the other hand, I found the addition of the musical troupe UNNECESSARY . . . like other changes and additions to this story.

The above changes seemed nothing to me compared to the changes made to the Helen Halliday character. It is bad enough that Churchett transformed her from a nice, young woman who became a stepmother and wife to a professional singer. Go figure. Worse . . . Helen Marsden Halliday was eventually revealed to be Kelvin Halliday’s first wife, Claire. In other words, Gwenda’s mother and stepmother proved to be one and the same. How did this happen? Well, when Claire Kennedy went to India to get married, she changed her mind and became a thief. She met Kelvin Halliday, married him and gave birth to their only child Gwenda. However, when the police in British India became suspicious of her, Claire and Kelvin plotted her fake death, she returned to England and joined the Funnybones, and “married” Kelvin as Helen Marsden, following his and Gwenda’s return to India. Confused? I was when Miss Marple revealed all of this to Gwenda, Hugh and the suspects. When this whole scenario regarding Claire/Helen’s background was revealed, I could only shake my head in disbelief. What on earth was Churchett thinking when he created this confusing background for her? What were the producers and Hall thinking for accepting it? In fact, all of the changes made for this adaptation proved to be unnecessary, but also transformed “SLEEPING MURDER” into one convoluted mess.

What else can I say about “SLEEPING MURDER”? It featured some pretty good performances from a cast led by Geraldine McEwan. I liked its production values very much, especially Alan Almond’s photography and Frances Tempest’s costume designs for the 1950s sequences. But . . . I feel that screenwriter Stephen Churchett made a lot of unnecessary changes to Christie’s original story that left the movie into a big, narrative mess. And I cannot help but wonder what director Edward Hall and the producers were thinking to allow these changes to happen.

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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.

“THE THREE MUSKETEERS” (1993) Review

“THE THREE MUSKETEERS” (1993) Review

Alexandre Dumas’ classic 1844 novel, “The Three Musketeers” must have been one of the most adapted stories in film and television history. I do not know exactly how many adaptations have been filmed. But I have seen at least four of them – including Disney Studios’ version, released in 1993.

Directed by Stephen Herek, “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” is not a faithful adaptation of Dumas’ novel. David Loughery’s script utilized some elements of the novel, including most of the characters and d’Artagnan’s first meeting with his three friends and fellow musketeers. But in the end, he created his own story. In “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”, a young Gascon named d’Artagnan hopes to follow in the footsteps of his late father and join the King of France’s Musketeers in 1625 France. Unfortunately for d’Artagnan, several factors stand in his way. One, he makes an enemy out of a local aristocrat named Gerard and his brothers, who believe he has defiled the honor of their sister, and is pursued by them all the way to Paris. Two, upon his arrival in Paris, he discovers that the Musketeers have been disbanded by King Louis XIII’s chief minister, the power-hungry Cardinal Richelieu. And three, his encounters with Musketeers Athos, Aramis and Porthos results in him accepting a duel from each man.

Fortunately, d’Artagnan’s hostility toward the trio is short-lived and he ends up helping them battle Richelieu’s guards, who arrive to arrest Athos, Aramis and Porthos. But after they leave him, d’Artagnan is arrested by more guards and Richelieu’s lackey, Captain Rochefort. While in prison, he meets the Cardinal and overhears a conversation between the latter and spy Milady de Winter. She is ordered to deliver a signed treaty to France’s primary enemy, the Duke of Buckingham of England. Cardinal Richelieu plans to undermine the King’s authority, before assassinating him, taking the throne and Queen Anne as consort. When Athos, Aramis and Porthos rescue d’Artagnan from execution, the four men set out to expose Richelieu as a traitor of France and save King Louis XIII from death.

Fans of Dumas’ novel will probably be unhappy with this adaptation, considering that it failed to be a faithful one. I must admit that when I first saw “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”, I was surprised and a little disappointed myself. And there were a few aspects of the movie that I disliked. The addition of Gerard and his brothers into the story really annoyed me in the end. Mind you, I found the aristocrat’s determination to confront d’Artagnan at the beginning of the movie tolerable. But once d’Artagnan reached Paris, with Gerard still in hot pursuit, the subplot became an annoying running joke that refused to die. And it did not. I like Paul McGann as an actor . . . but not that much.

Even worse, McGann’s Gerard seemed to have more screen time than any of the major female characters. Although I never viewed Queen Anne as a “major character”, I felt otherwise about Milady de Winter and d’Artagnan’s lady love, Constance Bonacieux. I did not mind when Loughery’s script transformed Julie Delpy’s Constance from the Queen’s dressmaker to maid/companion. But I did mind that her role was reduced to a few cameo appearances. The same almost happened to Rebecca De Mornay’s portrayal of Milady de Winter. I personally found the reduction of the latter role rathercriminal. Milady has always been one of the best villains in literary history. And nearly every actress who has portrayed her, did justice to the role. I can say the same about De Mornay, who was excellent as Milady. Unfortunately, Loughery’s script gave her very few opportunities to strut her stuff.

Despite the change in Dumas’ story and the reduction in the females’ roles, I cannot deny that “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” proved to be a first-rate and entertaining movie. It had romance – well, a little of it. The best romance in the film proved to be the long simmering one between Athos and Milady, whose marriage had earlier ended in failure. And I found the one between d’Artagnan and Constance rather charming, if brief. The movie featured some great action, including a marvelous chase scene in which the Musketeers are being pursued by Rochefort and the Cardinal’s men; d’Artagnan’s first sword fight, in which he allied himself with the Musketeers; Milady de Winter’s capture at Calais; and especially the final fight sequence in which the Musketeers prevent Richelieu’s plans for the King’s assassination.

Tim Curry made an entertaining, yet splashy Cardinal Richelieu. He came close to being all over the map, yet he still managed to keep his performance controlled. And Michael Wincott’s sinister portrayal of Captain Rochefort was superb. Rebecca De Mornay was superb as Milady de Winter, despite the role being reduced. And her Milady has always struck me as the most complex in all of the adaptations. Julie Delpy and Gabrielle Anwar were charming as Constance and Queen Anne. I wish I could say the same about Hugh O’Connor as King Louis XIII, but I must admit that I was not that impressed. He was eighteen years old at the time and probably a little too young and stiff to be portraying the 24 year-old monarch.

But the highlight of “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” proved to be the four actors who portrayed d’Artagnan and his three friends – Athos, Aramis, and Porthos. They were perfect. Chris O’Donnell captured every aspect of d’Artagnan’s youthful personality – the earnestness, cockiness, and immaturity. Watching the movie made me realize that he has come a long way in the past nineteen years. And he had great chemistry with the three actors who portrayed the Musketeers. Kiefer Sutherland was perfect as the commanding, yet cynical and disillusioned Athos, who regretted ending his marriage to Milady. The producers of this film certainly picked the right man to portray the smooth-talking ladies’ man, Aramis. And whatever one might say about Charlie Sheen, he did a superb job in the role. Oliver Platt was a delight as the brash and extroverted Porthos. Quite frankly, he made a better figure for comic relief than McGann’s Gerard. However, the best thing about the four actors’ performances was that they all perfectly clicked as a screen team. All for one and one for all.

Yes, “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” was not perfect. What movie is? And it is certainly not the best adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel. But I cannot deny that it was entertaining. And I have no regrets in purchasing a DVD copy of this film. If one can keep an open mind over the fact that it was not a close adaptation of the 1844 novel, I think it is possible to find it very enjoyable.

Top Ten Favorite AGATHA CHRISTIE Movies

About two years ago, I had posted my ten favorite movies based upon some of Agatha Christie’s novel. Two years later, my tastes have changed a bit. Here is my new list: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE AGATHA CHRISTIE MOVIES

1. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his debut as Hercule Poirot in this intriguing mystery about the detective’s investigation into the death of a wealthy Anglo-American bride on her honeymoon, during a cruise down the Nile River. Directed by John Guillerman, David Niven co-starred.

2. “Evil Under the Sun” – Peter Ustinov portrays Hercule Poirot for the second time in this witty and entertaining mystery about the detective’s investigation into the murder of a famous stage actress. Guy Hamilton directed.

3. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – Poirot investigates the 15 year-old murder of a famous, philandering artist in order to clear the name of his widow, who had been hanged for killing him. David Suchet and Rachael Stirling starred.

4. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this classic, all-star mystery about Hercule Poirot’s investigation of the death of a mysterious wealthy American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

5. “A Murder Is Announced” (1986) – Joan Hickson stars as Jane Marple in this superb adaptation of Christie’s story about an unusual newspaper announcement that leads curious village inhabitants to a supper party and a murder. John Castle co-starred.

6. “After the Funeral” (2006) – When a man disinherits his sole beneficiary and bequeaths his wealth to others just prior to his death, Poirot is called in to investigate. David Suchet and Geraldine James stars.

7. “Towards Zero” (2007) – Geraldine McEwan starred as Jane Marple in this excellent adaptation of Christie’s 1944 novel about the investigation of the murder of a wealthy, elderly woman.

8. “Sad Cypress” (2003) – Poirot races against time in this haunting tale to prove whether or not a young woman was responsible for the murder of her aunt and the latter’s companion.

9. “Cards on the Table” (2005) – In this fascinating mystery, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a mysterious dinner host named Mr. Shaitana, in which four of the suspects may have committed a previous murder. David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker starred.

10. “The Mirror Crack’d” (1980) – Four years before she stepped into the role of television sleuth Jessica Fletcher, Angela Landsbury portrayed Jane Marple in this entertaining mystery about a visiting Hollywood star filming a movie in St. Mary’s Mead. Guy Hamilton directed.

“SAD CYPRESS” (2003) Review

“SAD CYPRESS” (2003) Review

Adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1940 novel, ”SAD CYPRESS” is a story about Hercule Poirot’s efforts to discover the truth behind the case of a young woman facing conviction for the murder of her ailing wealthy aunt and a lodge keeper’s daughter who has become her aunt’s companion. Directed by David Moore, this 90-minute movie starred David Suchet as the Belgian detective. 

The story began with a doctor from a small town named Peter Lord who hires Hercule Poirot to clear the name of a young woman Elinor Carlisle. Elinor is facing trial for the murder of a young woman named Mary Gerard, the beautiful companion of her late aunt, Mrs. Laura Welman. Through interviews and flashbacks, Poirot learns that Elinor was engaged to Mrs. Welman’s nephew by marriage, Roddy Welman. Unfortunately for Elinor, Roderick (or Roddy) falls in love with Mary. Realizing that marriage to Roddy would be useless, Elinor ends the engagement, freeing him to pursue Mary. But her resentment toward her aunt’s companion fails to fade. And when Mary dies from poisoning during an afternoon tea, suspicion falls upon Elinor and she is arrested for murder. When Poirot and the authorities discover that Mrs. Welman had died of poisoning and was the real mother of Mary Gerard, Elinor is charged with the murder of her aunt.

I have one complaint about ”SAD CYPRESS”. The revelation of the murderer produced a contrived ending to an otherwise first-rate murder mystery. I am not joking. The method in which the two crimes were committed and how Poirot came to the truth seemed rather unbelievable.

With that out of the way, I did find the rest of ”SAD CYPRESS” to be very satisfying. Hell, it was more than satisfying. One, Poirot found himself with a case that seemed nearly hopeless for Elinor Carlisle. Two, it was a case that featured two murders committed in the distant past. I have a soft spot for murder stories that come close to resembling historical mysteries. Three, not only did Poirot play a major role in this story – much stronger than he did in ”THE HOLLOW”, but so did the Elinor Carlisle character. One would think that the Mary Gerard character had a major impact upon the story. And she . . . plot wise. But for me, Elinor Carlisle had a stronger impact. On the surface, she seemed like a pleasant and well-bred young woman who kept her emotion in check. But that was simply a façade. Despite her reserved nature, Elinor’s raging emotions seemed to be felt or sensed by those around her. The impact of her personality gave the story an emotional punch that I found rewarding.

The producers of ”SAD CYPRESS” certainly selected the right actress to portray Elinor Carlisle. Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh was the right woman to project an air of English gentility that masked the personality of a passionate woman who loved just a little too heavily. Especially in scenes that required little or no dialogue, Dermot-Walsh did a superb job in displaying great pathos. Also superb was David Suchet as Poirot. I must admit that ”SAD CYPRESS” featured what I believe to be one of Suchet’s better performances in the role. In this particular movie, his Poirot projected a large array of emotions – frustration, patience, perplexity and cunning – that I have rarely seen in many other Poirot movies.

The rest of the cast struck me as pretty solid. Rupert Penry-Jones proved once again what a chameleon he could be in his dead-on portrayal of Elinor’s fiancé, the supercilious, yet proud and shallow Roderick Welman. Phyllis Logan gave a complex performance as one of the nurses, Nurse Hopkins. Paul McGann was vibrant as the passionate Dr. Peter Lord, the local doctor who was in love with Elinor Carlisle. Kelly Reilly portrayed the story’s catalyst, Mary Gerard. But the character struck me as so bland that I felt Reilly could hardly do anything with the role.

Production designer Michael Pickwoad did a solid job of supporting the movie’s setting of 1937-38 rural England. And Sheena Napier’s costume designs seemed historically accurate and colorful without being too theatrical. Thanks to a first-rate cast led by David Suchet and Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh , along with Dave Moore’s adaptation of Christie’s emotional tale of jealousy and greed, ”SAD CYPRESS” turned out to be one of the better versions of a Christie murder mystery I have seen in the past decade.