“A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” (1989) Review

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“A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” (1989) Review

I have a confession to make. I am not a big fan of Agatha Christie novels written after 1960. In fact, I can only think of one . . . perhaps two of them that I consider big favorites of mine. One of those favorites happened to be her 1964 novel, “A Caribbean Mystery”.

There have been three television adaptations of Christie’s novel. I just recently viewed the second adaptation, a BBC-TV production that starred Joan Hickson as Miss Jane Marple. This version began with Miss Marple’s doctor revealing to one of her St. Mary Mead’s neighbors that following a recovery from pneumonia, she had been treated to a vacation to a beach resort in Barbados managed by a young couple named Tim and Molly Kendal, thanks to her nephew Raymond West. Miss Marple becomes acquainted with another resort guest named Major Palgrave, a retired Army officer who tends to bore not her but others with long-winded stories about his military past. But while Miss Marple struggled between shutting out the verbose major and pretending to pay attention to him, the latter shifts his repertoire to tales of murder. When Major Palgrave announces his intention to show her a photo of a murderer, he suddenly breaks off his conversation before he can retrieve his wallet. The following morning, Major Palgrave is found dead inside his bungalow. And Miss Marple begins to suspect that he has been murdered. Two more deaths occurred before she is proven right.

As I had earlier stated, the 1964 novel is one of my favorites written by Christie. And thankfully, this 1989 television movie proved to be a decent adaptation of the novel. Somewhat. Screenwriter T.R. Bowen made a few changes from the novel. Characters like the Prescotts and Señora de Caspearo were removed. I did not miss them. The story’s setting was shifted from the fictional island of St Honoré to Barbados . . . which did not bother me. The television movie also featured the creation of a new character – a Barbados woman named Aunty Johnson, who happened to be the aunt of one of the resort’s maids, Victoria Johnson. The latter made arrangements for Miss Marple to visit her aunt in a black neighborhood. Aunty Johnson replaced Miss Prescott as a source of information on Molly Kendal’s background. More importantly, the Aunty Johnson character allowed Bowen to effectively reveal Imperial British racism to television viewers by including a scene in which the Kendals quietly reprimanded Victoria for setting up Miss Marple’s visit to her aunt.

More importantly, I have always found “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” to be an entertaining and well-paced story – whether in print or on the television screen. Bowen did a excellent job in adapting Christie’s tale by revealing clues to the murderer’s identity . . . in a subtle manner. That is the important aspect of Bowen’s work . . . at least for me. The screenwriter and director Christopher Petit presented the clues to the television audience without prematurely giving away the killer. And considering that such a thing has occurred in other Christie adaptations – I am so grateful that it did not occurred in this production.

However, “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” does have its flaws. Fortunately, I was only able to spot a few. First of all, I had a problem with Ken Howard’s score. I realize that this production is one of many from the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” series. But “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” is set at a beach resort in the Caribbean. One of those problems proved to be Ken Howard’s score. Considering the movie’s setting at a Caribbean beach resort, I figured Howard would use the appropriate music of the region and the period (1950s) to emphasize the setting. He only did so in a few scenes. Most of the score proved to be the recycled music used in other “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” television movies – you know, music appropriate for scenes at a quaint English village or estate. Frankly, the score and the music’s setting failed to mesh.

I also had a problem with a brief scene near the movie’s ending. This scene featured a brief moment in which an evil (and in my opinion) cartoonish expression appeared on the killer’s face before attempting to commit a third murder. I found this moment obvious, unnecessary and rather infantile. But the movie’s score and this . . . “evil” moment was nothing in compare to the performances of two cast members. I have never seen Sue Lloyd in anything other than this movie. But I am familiar with Robert Swann, who had a major role in the 1981 miniseries, “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”. Both Lloyd and Swann portrayed a wealthy American couple from the South named Lucky and Greg Dyson. Overall, their performances were not bad. In fact, Lucky and Greg seemed more like complex human beings, instead of American caricatures in the movie’s second half. But their Southern accents sucked. Big time. It was horrible to hear. And quite frankly, their bad accents nearly marred their performances.

But I did not have a problem with the production’s other performances. Joan Hickson gave a marvelous performance as the elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. I especially enjoyed her scenes when her character struggled to stay alert during Major Palgrave’s endless collection of stories. She also had great chemistry with Donald Pleasence, who gave the most entertaining performance as the wealthy and irascible Jason Rafiel. What made the relationship between the pair most interesting is that Rafiel seemed the least likely to believe that Miss Marple is the right person to solve the resort’s murders. Both Michael Feast and Sheila Ruskin gave the two most interesting performances as the very complex Evelyn and Edward Hillingdon, the English couple who found themselves dragged into the messy history of the Dysons, thanks to Edward’s affair with Lucky. I found both Sophie Ward and Adrian Lukis charming as the resort’s owners, Molly and Tim Kendal. I was surprised that the pair had a rather strong screen chemistry and I found Ward particularly effective in conveying Molly Kendal’s emotional breakdown as the situation at the resort began to go wrong. “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” also benefited from strong performances given by Frank Middlemass, Barbara Barnes, Isabelle Lucas, Joseph Mydell, Stephen Bent and Valerie Buchanan.

There were a few aspects of “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” that rubbed me the wrong way. I felt that most of Ken Howard’s score did not mesh well with the movie’s setting. I also had a problem with a scene in the movie’s last half hour and the accents utilized by two members of the cast. Otherwise, I enjoyed the movie very much and thought that screenwriter T.R. Bowen, director Christopher Petit and a fine cast led by Joan Hickson did a more than solid job in adapting Agatha Christie’s 1964 novel.