“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

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“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1931 novel, “The Sittaford Mystery”. And I have read a lot of her novels. But since the novel did not feature Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, or Tommy and Tuppence Beresford; I never took the trouble to read it. Well, that is not fair. I can think of at least two or three Christie novels that did not feature any of these sleuths that I have read. But I have never read “The Sittaford Mystery”.

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the ITV channel had aired an adaptation of the novel in which Geraldine McEwan appeared as Jane Marple. Okay. This is not the first time this has happened, considering that Christie did not write that many Miss Marple novels. “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” revolved around the murder of a politician who is viewed as a potential Prime Minister in the 1950s. The story begins in the 1920s Egypt, where Clive Trevelyan and a few companions stumble across an important archaeological discovery. Then the story jumps nearly thirty years later when Trevelyan, now a politician, returns to his home Sittaford House in Dartmoor with his aide John Enderby, while Parliament decides on whether he will become Britain’s new Prime Minister, following the retirement of Sir Winston Churchill. Due to his friendship with the novelist Raymond West, Trevelyan finds himself forced to accept the latter’s elderly aunt, Miss Jane Marple, as a house guest.

Much to Miss Marple and Enderby’s surprise, Treveylan decides to chance the snowy weather outside and stay at a local hotel six miles away. The hotel include guests who seemed to be very familiar with Treveylan or familiar with an escapee from the local Dartmoore prison. One of the guests conduct a séance using a Ouiji board, which predicts Treveylan’s death. Hours later, the politician is found stabbed to death in his room. With Miss Marple stuck at Sittaford House (temporarily); Enderby; a young journalist named Charles Burnaby; and Emily Trefusis, the fiancee of Treveylan’s wastrel ward James Pearson; set out to find the murderer. However, it is not long before the trio find themselves seeking Miss Marple’s help.

“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” strikes me as a rather confusing tale. I have a deep suspicion that in his effort to somewhat change the plot from Christie’s original novel, screenwriter Stephen Churchett ended up creating a very convoluted story . . . right up to the last reel. I have seen this movie twice and for the likes of me, I still have no real idea of what was going on . . . aside from the first fifteen minutes and the movie’s denouement. I was aware that the hotel featured guests that had connections with or knew Treveylan, including a former lover, her wallflower daughter, a middle-aged woman who seemed to be a fan of Treveylan, and an American businessman and his aide.

Churchett created a script filled with so many red herrings – unnecessary, as far as I am concerned – that I simply gave up in trying to guess the murderer’s identity and waited for Miss Marple to expose him or her. Upon my first viewing. Upon my second viewing, I tried to examine the plot for any hints or clues that would lead to the killer’s identity. Unfortunately, that did not happen until at least fifteen minutes before Miss Marple revealed the killer. I was also disappointed with how the movie resolved the romantic entanglements of Emily Trefusis, Charles Burnaby, James Pearson and a fourth character. I found it so contrived, for it came out of left field with no set up or hint whatsoever. What I found even more unconvincing was the last shot of the murderer staring at the camera with an evil grin. This struck me as an idiotic attempt by director Paul Unwin to channel or copy Alfred Hitchcock’s last shot of Anthony Perkins in the 1960 movie, “PYSCHO”. I found that moment so ridiculous.

I will give kudos to Rob Harris, the movie’s production designer. I thought he did a competent job in creating the movie’s setting – a snowbound English community in the early-to-mid 1950s. But do to the majority of the film being limited to either Treveylan’s home and the hotel, Harris really did not have much to work with. Frances Tempest certainly did with her costume designs. I found nothing outstanding about them. But I must admit that I found them rather attractive, especially the costumes that actress Zoe Telford wore. On the other hand, I found Nicholas D. Knowland’s cinematography rather odd . . . and not in a positive way. I did not like his photography, if I must be brutally honest. His unnecessary close-ups and odd angles struck me as an amateurish attempt by him and Unwin to transform “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” into an independent film or Hammer-style horror flick.

The performances in “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” proved to be a mixed bag. I have usually been a fan of Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of Miss Jane Marple. But I feel that she took the whole “verbose elderly lady” act a bit too far . . . especially in her scenes with Timothy Dalton during the first fifteen to twenty minutes. If I must be honest, most of the performances in the film seemed to be either over-the-top or close to being over-the-top. This was especially the case for Michael Brandon, Zoe Telford, Laurence Fox and Patricia Hodge. James Murray managed to refrain himself during most of the film. But even he managed to get into the act during the movie’s last fifteen minutes or so. Carey Mulligan’s performance seemed competent. She did not blow my mind, but at least she did not annoy me. Robert Hardy made a cameo appearance as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This marked the eighth or ninth time the actor portrayed the politician and honestly, I could see this appearance was nothing more than a walk in the park for him. There were only four performances I truly enjoyed. One came from Mel Smith, who gave a very competent performance as Treveylan’s right-hand man, John Enderby. I could say the same about Rita Tushingham, who gave a nuanced performance as a mysterious woman with knowledge of an ugly part in Treveylan’s past. The role proved to be his last, for he passed away not long after the film’s production. James Wilby was satisfyingly subtle as the town’s local hotel owner, who had a secret to maintain. For me, the best performance came from Timothy Dalton, who was dazzling at the story’s main victim, Clive Trevelyan. Considering that he was portraying a somewhat theatrical character, it is amazing that he managed to keep his performance under control, and struck a tight balance between theatricality and subtlety.

It is obvious to anyone reading this review that I did not like “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY”. I could complain about the changes made to Agatha Christie’s novel. But I have never read it, so I saw no point in making any comparisons. But I still cared very little for the movie. I found the direction and photography rather amateurish. And aside from a few first-rate performances, I was not that impressed by the majority of the cast’s acting – including, unfortunately, Geraldine McEwan’s.

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“DEATH ON THE NILE” (2004) Review

“DEATH ON THE NILE” (2004) Review

This 2004 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel, ”Death on the Nile”, was the second to be adapted for the screen. In the case of this movie, it aired as a 90-minute presentation on the long-running television series, ”Agatha Christie’s POIROT”

Like the novel and the 1978 movie, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” centered around Hercule Poirot’s investigation of the murder of an Anglo-American heiress named Linnet Ridgeway. Linnet had stolen the affections of her best friend’s fiancé and married him. When the newly married couple vacationed in Egypt, the best friend – one Jacqueline de Bellefort – stalked and harassed them during their honeymoon. Yet, when Linnet and her new husband, Simon Doyle, boarded the S.S. Karnak for a steamboat cruise down the Nile River, the heiress discovered she had other enemies that included the offspring of a man whom her father had financially ruined, her embezzling attorney who required her signature on a paper or her death to hide his crimes, a kleptomaniac American socialite and a professional thief who was after her pearls. Unfortunately for the killer, a vacationing Hercule Poirot and his friend, Colonel Race, are on hand to solve Linnet’s murder.

There were aspects of this adaptation of ”DEATH ON THE NILE” that I found admirable. The movie’s set designs for the S.S. Karnak seemed bigger and slightly more luxuriant that what was shown in the 1978 movie. Production designer Michael Pickwoad did a first-rate job in creating the luxurious atmosphere for the 1930s upper class. Actor J.J. Feild gave a solid performance as Simon Doyle, the man who came between Linnet Ridgeway and Jacqueline de Bellefort. However, I do not think he managed to capture the literary Simon Doyle’s boyish simplicity and lack of intelligence. I also enjoyed Frances La Tour’s portrayal of the alcoholic novelist, Salome Otterbourne. She gave her performance a slight twist in which her character seemed to be a little hot under the collar as she makes sexual advances toward Poirot in a subtle, yet comic manner. And the movie’s one true bright spot was, of course, David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. As usual, he gave an exceptional performance. However, I noticed that he was never able to form any real chemistry with James Fox’s Colonel Race or Emma Griffiths Malin, who portrayed Jacqueline de Bellefort; as Peter Ustinov had done with David Niven and Mia Farrow, respectively.

I wish I could harbor a high opinion of ”DEATH ON THE NILE”. But I cannot. There were too many aspects of this production that rubbed me the wrong way. I noticed that this version adhered very closely to Christie’s novel. Unfortunately, the screenplay’s close adaptation did not help the movie very much. It still failed to be superior or just as good as the 1978 version. So much for the argument that a movie has to closely follow its literary source in order for it to be any good. A closer adaptation of Christie’s novel meant that characters missing from the 1978 version – Cornelia Robson, Marie Van Schuyler’s clumsy young cousin; society jewel thief Tim Allerton; the ladylike Mrs. Allerton and the Allertons’ cousin, Joanna Southwood – appeared in this movie. Only the Italian archeologist, Mr. Richetti and Jim Fanthorp, the British attorney were missing. And honestly, the presence of the Allertons, Cornelia Robson and Joanna Southwood added nothing to the story as far as I am concerned. Aside from a few members of the cast, the acting in this movie struck me as very unexceptional and a little hammy at times. You know . . . the kind of hamminess that makes one wince, instead of chuckle with amusement.

But the movie’s real atrocities came from the hairstyles and makeup created for the younger actresses in the cast. Most of the hairstyles seemed like sloppy re-creations of those from the mid-1930s, the worst offenders being the cheap-looking blond wig worn by Emily Blunt (Linnet Ridgeway Doyle), the butch hairstyle worn by actress Zoe Telford (Rosalie Otterbourne); and the gaudy makeup worn by all of the younger actresses. Only Daisy Donovan, who portrayed Cornelia Robson was spared from resembling a kewpie doll. Instead, she wore a sloppy bun that served as a metaphor for her insecure personality – a theatrical maneuver that I found unnecessary.

I hate to say this but despite David Suchet’s performance as Poirot and Michael Pokewoad’s production designs, I came away feeling less than impressed by this version of ”DEATH ON THE NILE”. Not only did I find it inferior to the 1978 version, but also to many other adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories.