Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski hopes Miss Marple can solve the mystery of who ate her double-chocolate donut.
Our reviews of Agatha Christie's Marple: Series 5 (published August 19th, 2010), Agatha Christie's Marple: The Pale Horse (published June 1st, 2011), Agatha Christie's Miss Marple: Classic Mysteries Collection (published April 7th, 2006), and Great Detectives Anthology (published January 6th, 2011) are also available.
"People do tend to confide in old ladies—don't you find?"—Miss Marple
Like James Bond or Batman, Agatha Christie's spinster sleuth Miss Marple has become a kind of immortal screen character, portrayed by an ever-growing list of talented thespians. But instead of a dashing tux or a sleek cape and cowl, Miss Marples don a smart tweed jacket and old-lady hat. Accessories don't include pistols or batarangs, but rather a pair of knitting needles—used for actual knitting rather than inventive violence. Miss Marple makes up for her lack of flash with a razor-sharp mind keen on solving mysteries.
Christie's stories themselves are well-worn territory by now, so with new adaptations, the focus tends to be on how the current actress fares in playing Miss Marple. In Agatha Christie's Marple: Series 4, produced to run on Britain's ITV in 2008 and 2009, stage actress Julia McKenzie takes up the title character's knitting needles and handles the role with considerable charm and unexpected gravity.
Facts of the Case
Miss Marple, who never married or had children, lives in the quiet little village of St. Mary Mead, but hardly leads a quiet life herself. Just about every time she sits down for a nice cup of tea, it seems that someone she knows gets murdered or involved in a murder case, giving her plenty of opportunities to flex her investigating muscles. In Marple: Series 4, she takes on four cases, each represented in a feature-length TV movie and housed on its own disc in the following order:
• "A Pocket Full of Rye"
• "Murder is Easy"
• "They Do It with Mirrors"
• "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?"
Upon taking over this series' title role from her immediate predecessor Geraldine McEwan, Julia McKenzie acknowledged: "Just about everybody in the world knows about Miss Marple and has an opinion of what she should be like, so I'm under no illusions about the size of the task ahead. And I suppose I'll have to remind myself how to knit!"
McKenzie manages to knit on screen convincingly, but, luckily for Marple fans, she brings a lot more to the role than nimble fingers. Of the two other Marple actresses I'm most familiar with, she's less kooky than Margaret Rutherford and more vulnerable than Joan Hickson's. Warm and sympathetic, McKenzie sacrifices a bit of Miss Marple's untouchable propriety to wring more humanity out of the character. Though the effect is mostly welcome, something is lost in that acting choice—perhaps the appeal of encountering an unflappable old bird with such steely resolve. I still think Hickson did the best job of delicately balancing Miss Marple's personality traits. Here's what I said of Hickson in my review of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple: Classic Mysteries Collection:
"What really makes Hickson's performance so memorable is the subtle solemnity she mixes in with the excitement of investigation. Despite her eagerness to gather clues and the thrill of finally catching the killers, Miss Marple never loses sight of the 'people dead who shouldn't be.'"
McKenzie cranks the solemnity dial past the point where Hickson stopped, making Miss Marple perhaps a touch too mournful. While that attitude produced great results with the stories in which she knows the victims, it snuffs out some of the pleasure of the rest of her cases. Still, McKenzie acquits herself admirably in the role and does produce some chuckles as well. In "A Pocket Full of Rye," for example, she makes a humorously polite exit from the bedroom of a raving drunk; when a suspicious young man tells her she "doesn't look batty" in "Murder is Easy," she responds simply, "Thank you Mr. Fitzwilliam"; and, in one of my favorite moments of the set, she manages to solve one of the mysteries through her knowledge of cake recipes and color coordination.
The rest of the cast gets swapped out between each of the four films, which, combined with the overpopulated scripts, makes it hard for any of the actors to really develop their characters. We do get a broad sampling of British acting talent, though, with predictable overlap with the current Harry Potter film series: Arthur Weasley! Moaning Myrtle! Oliver Wood!
Matthew Macfayden has a nice turn as the most memorable of the "other" investigators that show up in each film, playing a politely frustrated police detective in "A Pocket Full of Rye." Miss Marple cutely tries to gain his trust by telling him he looks like a young Errol Flynn. Shirley Henderson and Helen Baxendale also perform well as women with something to hide—probably the most popular character type in Miss Marple stories, with "men with something to hide" coming in a close second.
Other than the acting, there are a several other distinct pleasures offered by Agatha Christie's Marple: Series 4. If you haven't yet found out whodunnit from previous adaptations of these stories, the mysteries themselves can of course be lots of fun to puzzle out alongside Miss Marple, though you won't get as many dramatic scenes exposing the killer here as you'd expect, somehow. Poirot certainly has more flair for such theatrics than Miss Marple, but I seem to remember a few more big reveals in the Hickson and Rutherford films. Christie purists may balk to see Miss Marple inserted into stories she didn't originally appear in, and the integration did feel a bit forced in "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?"
What really shines here is the inventive treatment given to "A Pocket Full of Rye" and "Murder is Easy" by directors Charles Palmer and Hettie MacDonald, respectively. While the directors of the other two films refrain from any bold moves, Palmer and MacDonald really infuse these familiar stories with new life through their cameras. Palmer's greatest accomplishment is his thrilling combination of humor and pathos in "Rye," with much more of each than in your average Miss Marple film. Trusting that his audience is fairly well seasoned in the conventions of Christie mysteries, he moves the sinister plot along at a refreshingly brisk pace with clever editing. For example, when the first victim is found, his secretary worriedly questions, "He'll be alright won't he?" Palmer immediately cuts to an alarming close-up of a man at the coroner's office pronouncing "He's dead." He pushes his actors toward more campy deliveries for the first part of the film, making the British upper crust enjoyably, almost cartoonishly, suspicious. Impressively, Palmer is able to transition smoothly from these lighter moments to scenes in which we really grieve along with Miss Marple for her former charge, poor Gladys. In a wonderful moment, Miss Marple returns to her own home after unmasking Gladys' killer and finds a misdirected letter from Gladys arrived there. She tears up as she reads the kind words of now-dead Gladys, and I did, as well. I didn't expect to find such stirring emotion in these films, but Palmer and McKenzie managed to evoke it beautifully.
MacDonald's "Murder is Easy" is equally enjoyable, for different reasons. She and her cinematographer take full advantage of their setting in a sleepy little English village, with gorgeous shots of the trees, flowers, and brooks they find there. Playing ably with focus, lighting, and angles, they make the just-average story of "Murder is Easy" into a visual feast, turning the simplest moments into memorable ones: a couple's emotional embrace is initially shown through their shifting shoes rather than their faces, or a distraught woman retreating to a quiet hallway graces the screen from an artful low and off-center angle with a shallow depth of field.
"They Do It with Mirrors" and "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?" are less stellar. The former is serviceable without being particularly great, while the latter builds up to a murderer-revealed scene that strains disbelief in the way it plays out. Both suffer by paying too much attention to bland romances among the young people.
Lastly, it can be decadent fun just to sit back and soak in the atmosphere of the wealthier segments of postwar Britain. Stately manor houses, immaculately groomed grounds, beautiful landscapes and, of course, lovely tea sets abound.
In terms of the DVD release itself, Acorn Media provides a fairly solid technical presentation but lazy extras. Picture quality seemed rather uneven among these four films, but was generally pretty good. The most visually appealing of the four, "Murder is Easy," maintains vibrant colors and good black levels, while "A Pocket Full of Rye" has scenes that look washed-out or pixilated. The variously spry or somber score is well rendered by the set's audio presentation, though the content of the stories doesn't provide too many opportunities for notable sound work—the immersive noises of the forest in "Murder is Easy" are the only ones that really stand out in my memory of the non-music audio. Extras include a photo gallery for each of the four films, filmographies of a few actors from each, and on-screen text biographies of Christie and McKenzie. Each disc comes in its own slim keep case, with an outer cardboard shell.
A sympathetic new Miss Marple and some surprisingly inventive filmmaking make Agatha Christie's Marple: Series 4 well worth watching, though renters may not miss much if they stop after the first two installments in the set.
As a closing note: the Miss Marple Drinking Game I created when I reviewed Agatha Christie's Miss Marple: Classic Mysteries Collection still works pretty well with this set!
Not guilty—unlike most of Miss Marple's murderous acquaintances.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
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