Acorn Media // 2010 // 267 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // August 19th, 2010
"A good dose of sleuthing always brings the color to your
-- Miss Marple's doctor
If sleuthing is Miss Marple's health regimen, she'll probably live forever. Agatha Christie's "spinster sleuth" character never seems to lack for mysteries, as a dead body always turns up somewhere in her little English town of St. Mary Mead, or in the manors of her many nieces, nephews, cousins, etc. who invite her around. One will happily suspend disbelief with these coincidences, though, since the cases are good fun and Marple is such an unusual and sympathetic detective.
While the leading lady shines in these British ITV productions, Series 5 has fewer memorable moments than Series 4 -- though no real clunkers, either.
Marple tackles three cases in this set (running 89 minutes each, in these uncut original versions):
* "The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side" (2010)
A nosy neighbor (Joanna Lumley, Absolutely Fabulous) of Miss Marple's in St. Mary Mead develops a gossip-y fixation on American movie star / fussy diva Marina Gregg, who's just moved into the estate the neighbor used to own. Marple herself is laid up with a twisted ankle, but she makes sure to get in on the gossip herself when the stakes are raised: a rather unremarkable woman from the village is poisoned at Gregg's party, presumably in lieu of the murderer's intended target.
* "The Blue Geranium" (2010)
A rich and widely loathed woman dies suspiciously in a little English town, leaving behind a wealth of suspects. To complicate the case further, her death comes on the heels of another corpse discovery: that of an unstable man who drifted into town by bus. Miss Marple, there visiting a friend, investigates and manages to step on the toes of the London inspector working the case.
* "The Secret of Chimneys" (2010)
Miss Marple's young relative, Virginia, drives her up to the family estate, Chimneys, in a sporty little roadster promising a grand time (and seeming very keen to pal around with an elderly woman as if it were girls' night out). The occasion is a country weekend hosted by Virginia's father, who has agreed to wine and dine an Austrian count for an associate who hopes to make a business deal with the Count. As usual, a dreadful murder spoils everyone's plans. Miss Marple must discover how it connects with an earlier murder that happened at Chimneys and a precious diamond that went missing there.
Where Christie's Hercule Poirot TV-movie series has held onto the incomparable David Suchet in the title role since its beginning in 1989, Miss Marple has been played by a wider cast on television. Joan Hickson -- for many fans the definitive Miss Marple -- banked 12 installments in the '80s and early '90s, Geraldine McEwan took over from 2004-2007, and Julia McKenzie took her first crack at the character in 2008. Because the Marple stories have been made and remade for decades now, the actress in the title role seems to draw the most attention for those evaluating the series. It's rather funny to see die-hard Christie fans react to McKenzie like some brash young upstart, considering the seasoned stage actress is 69 years old. But despite performing under the shadow of the late Joan Hickson, McKenzie really does a charming job. She dons Marple's trademark tweed with both grace and pluck, grounding each of the stories in the woman's reliable intuition and compassion, and keeping us from getting swept away by each one's stream of new characters. My previous review of Agatha Christie's Marple: Series 4 has more of my take on McKenzie's version of Marple, but for now let's dig in to those pesky murders she's always got to solve.
Only one of this trio is adapted from one of Christie's full-length Miss Marple novels: The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side. It was a surprise to me, then, that this was the film I least enjoyed. Though it was stylistically dynamic and rich -- with a jaunty pace and beautiful sets -- it felt disappointingly soulless for a Marple mystery. That problem is twofold. First, Marple twists her ankle and is laid up for much of the action, leaving her nosy neighbor to do the investigating and report back to her. Joanna Lumley is fun to watch in this role, but her team-up with Marple makes the latter seem a bit gossipy and unfeeling in a way that doesn't fit the character. Second, the poor woman who gets poisoned should have evoked a lot of sympathy from the audience: she's an unglamorous nobody who has been dreaming of attending this movie star's party and then out of the blue gets murdered. But this potential emotional resonance is doused by the writing and acting, which frame the character as brusque and irritating.
The Blue Geranium, expanded from a Miss Marple short story, performs a bit better, largely because of the carefully crafted atmosphere of a damp and beautiful English village (pictured below) where emotion hangs as thickly in the air as the mist. There's also a great moment when Miss Marple tries a judge's patience with an extended metaphor about knitting delivered from the witness box. Unfortunately, few of the characters are likeable and the interesting "how" of the murder fails to make up for the improbable and flat "who" that is eventually revealed. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the screenplay is the underlying theme of the challenges Miss Marple faces as an old woman with no official status as a detective who tries to solve crimes. When the story begins, she desperately needs to contact a male friend from Scotland Yard to stop a wrongful execution, but can't gain access to a gentlemen's club to reach him -- a literal scenario that evokes a metaphorical problem. Later, she says in a tone of envy and gentle accusation to the official inspector working the case, "You can learn so much if youÕre lucky enough to see the body." These small moments give us a rare perspective on Marple as a woman who doesn't always have full access to cases that serendipitously fall into her lap, but as someone who has to struggle a bit outside the system -- unlike her male counterpart in Christie books, Poirot.
Unexpectedly, the standout installment in this series is The Secret of Chimneys -- unexpected because Miss Marple has here been wedged into an early Christie mystery that didn't originally include her, and because that story is apparently drastically altered from its original form. Hence, this one won't likely be the favorite of avid Christie readers, but as a casual fan of hers who hasn't read that particular novel I was able to greatly enjoy it as a stand-alone film. Part of its success lies in its ability to insert Marple fully and smoothly, compared to the failure to do so in a similar scenario with the last set's Why Didn't They Ask Evans?. There, I felt like Marple was hardly even around and that I was forced instead to sit through the sleuthing exploits of a pair of bland teenagers whom she was helping out.
Aside from questions of adaptation, Chimneys worked for me on all levels: the title setting is gorgeous and feels appropriately full of mystery, it's shot and edited with real panache, the mystery is complex and interesting, and it manages to link in with characters' deep emotions rather than being built on petty schemes. Those characters are well-cast and offer both depth and variety, from the beautiful and sweet Virginia to her calculating and obsequious suitor, George. The latter delivers some great barbs about Miss Marple, too. When he hears that Virginia is bringing another woman along, he speculates, "Marple...some fresh-hatched little debutante." Faced with a mature hen rather than anyone "fresh-hatched," he dismissively labels Marple and a rather dour woman she's having tea with "Mrs. Mop and Mrs. Bucket." The script provides some great serious lines to accompany these humorous ones, such as Virginia's weary father, musing on his other daughter's fierce attachment to Chimneys, her childhood home that might soon be sold off: "The truth is, memories are no consolation. Even the good ones." One disappointment in Chimneys is the inclusion of a police inspector (Stephen Dillane, The Hours) who is for once totally competent and respectful of Marple's skills. I say "disappointment" because I was looking forward to an effective team-up between the two, but instead had to watch Marple hanging back sheepishly and being much too careful not to overstep her bounds. Though of course she solves the case herself in the end, her earlier displays of timidity and underconfidence are a bit off-putting.
In presenting Series 5, Acorn Media tops previous sets with a good transfer and some actual extras instead of the usual few pages of text features. As I mentioned above, visual style is very strong in the series, with lively cinematography and editing, and sets that really show off their high production values. All this is well rendered in the transfer, which maintains vibrant colors and solid black levels. The soundtrack stays active, too, with lots of energetic scoring and clear dialogue in a serviceable stereo mix. For extras, we get a separate fourth disc featuring Agatha Christie's Garden: Murder & Mystery in Devon, a 60-minute documentary. Though it purports to be about Christie's country house and its sprawling gardens, the program holds deeper interest because it supplements this focus with an introductory biography of Christie and plenty of interviews with her family member, her biographers, and the employees of Britain's National Trust who have taken over the house and are making it available for the public to visit. If you know little about the woman behind Miss Marple, you'll learn a lot of interesting tidbits, such as the fact that she based the character partly on her own grandmother, that the poisonings happening so frequently in her books draw on her study of medicine as a WWI nurse, and that she suffered a nervous breakdown after her first marriage ended and went missing for two weeks (leading to a huge and well-publicized search). The documentary is rounded out by a trio of additional segments: at three minutes each, they give more detail on the Greenway gardens' history, more memories of Christie from those that knew her, and more commentary on her writing from other authors. We also get the usual text features on the main discs, like some filmographies, an interview with Julia McKenzie, and some info on Knebworth House, where Chimneys and a whole bunch of famous movies were filmed.
The last Marple set included all four films from the fourth series. The fifth series also produced four films, but one -- The Pale Horse -- hasn't aired on PBS and doesn't appear in this set. It's unclear if/when it will air and if it will be included in the next Marple set, but fans outside of the UK may be rightly upset that it's missing here.
One of the many inspectors under pressure to solve murder cases whom Miss Marple encounters says to her in this set, "I envy you, the amateur sleuth. One has nothing to lose, somehow." Nothing professional, perhaps, but thankfully this gentleman fundamentally misunderstands Miss Marple's interest in sleuthing: while the mysteries might be fun to puzzle out, it's her emotional investment in the cases and the people whose lives they jeopardize, ruin, or end that keeps her -- and us -- coming back for more.
Review content copyright © 2010 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 267 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Text Features
* IMDb: The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side
* IMDb: The Secret of Chimneys
* IMDb: The Blue Geranium