Judge Jennifer Malkowski needed something a little stronger than a cup to tea to get through 15 hours of this spinster sleuth's case cracking...that's why she invented the Miss Marple drinking game!
Our reviews of Agatha Christie's Marple: Series 4 (published July 22nd, 2009), Agatha Christie's Marple: Series 5 (published August 19th, 2010), Agatha Christie's Marple: The Pale Horse (published June 1st, 2011), and Great Detectives Anthology (published January 6th, 2011) are also available.
"She's a little old lady who knits and wears lace. She also has a mind like a bacon slicer. It's a very good disguise."
Agatha Christie's Miss Marple: Classic Mysteries Collection offers a huge helping of the charming spinster sleuth. Watch as she rubs elbows with England's rich and famous—and then exposes them as liars, cheaters, thieves, and murderers.
Facts of the Case
This five-disc set contains nine of the 12 Miss Marple mysteries produced for the BBC in the '80s and '90s:
• A Caribbean Mystery, 1989
• The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, 1992
• Sleeping Murder, 1987
• 4:50 from Paddington, 1987
• The Moving Finger, 1985
• At Bertram's Hotel, 1987
• Murder at the Vicarage, 1986
• Nemesis, 1987
• They Do It With Mirrors, 1991
Like the Agatha Christie novels on which they are based, these mysteries rely on well-established character types and conventions. They're not quite predictable, but they're all shaped by the same basic narrative mold. To explain said mold, I've penned my very own drinking game to accompany this set. The "take a sip" events happen often, the "take a gulp" events are unusual, and the "chug" events are extremely rare. So get your DVDs ready, mix a good bit of rum in with your favorite tea, and play…
Judge Jennifer Malkowski's Miss Marple Drinking Game
Take a sip
• If someone compares Miss Marple's mind to a sharp cutting
Take a gulp
• If someone actually did commit suicide
• If Miss Marple drinks coffee
Now that we're good and liquored up, let's talk about this collection. The first note I should make is that the ordering of the individual films does not seem to follow any logic that resembles our earth logic. They are not presented chronologically, neither according to the publication order of the books or the production dates of the films. In fact, watching them in disc order was not a great experience. Not much carries over from film to film, but there are some reoccurring characters—like Chief Inspector Slack or even Miss Marple herself—who seem to have at least a minimal character arc that makes sense to watch from the beginning. It certainly made no sense to me to see A Caribbean Mystery first; it's the fish-out-of-water Marple story and is nowhere near as enjoyable to someone who hasn't already gotten to know her character in the other earlier films.
In terms of the characters and casting, Joan Hickson's Marple carries the series almost single-handedly. Christie's personal choice for the role, Hickson quietly layers Miss Marple with the many qualities that make her a good detective and a good person—keen reasoning skills, a willingness to really look and listen, patience, perseverance, and, of course, an ear for gossip. However, 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." The best supporting character is the aforementioned Chief Inspector Slack, who is a great foil for Miss Marple throughout the series and occasionally provides some comic relief to boot. His methods are completely different from Miss Marple's—more by-the-book, impatient, and forceful. The tenacious old armchair detective describes him as "rather like one of these diesel engines that are appearing all over our railways. Most unappealing, but I'm told efficient." One can never tire of the shock and disdain on his face every time he realizes that Miss Marple has arrived on the scene long before he has and will solve the crime through methods he can never grasp. The rest of the cast is filled in by a slew of guest stars; far too many, in fact. There are so many characters bustling around each episode that I found it near impossible to keep them all straight, though I suppose that the more characters one has, the more potential corpses and killers there are to work with.
Miss Marple's character is so well-written and well-acted in this collection that one wishes there were more of her. Her screen time is often diluted by the many single-film characters who assist her with her investigations. Her subtle character development is a bit of a tease, popping up here and there and always leaving one wanting more. Some of her best moments exhibit her morally sophisticated compassion for desperate murderers who take their own lives or hints of world-weariness and caution in the midst of the excitement of detection. Perhaps her best characterization occurs in Sleeping Murder when she advises the young couple to leave the past buried. When they unearth disturbing truths about Gwenda's family and cause the original killer to murder another innocent girl, Marple still sympathizes with them, admitting, "However dangerous the journey, you can't turn back." The final scenes of this film evoke one of overlooked, sad truths about Miss Marple's experiences as an investigator: a certain loss of faith in humanity. She tells Gwenda, "It's very dangerous to believe people. I haven't for years."
From a technical standpoint, this "remastered" transfer leaves a lot to be desired. It looks about like I'd expect something produced for television two decades ago to look, which is not good. The deep blacks are washed out and grainy and the picture generally appears rather lifeless and flat. During The Moving Finger, the picture seems to undulate as if the film stock were waving in a light breeze and I noticed at least two other brief instances of lines on the screen that reminded me of VCR-related glitches. The sound fares a little better, though the combination of accents, mumbling, and less-than-perfect audio made me wish there were subtitles. The extras are similarly lackluster. Each one is just a couple of screens of writing, all containing information that could be found online in under five minutes. The set does look quite classy with five slim cases in colors that would fit right in with the books in any stuffy old British library.
More Marple and fewer subplots with single-film characters could liven up these 15 hours of case cracking. But what we do get of dear old "Aunt Jane" and the predictable fun of her investigations makes this set worth a look.
Judge Jennifer Malkowski rules in favor of the spinster sleuth, despite her poor transfer, shoddy extras, and occasional tediousness. She also challenges any member of the jury to listen to Miss Marple's cheery orchestral theme song nine times without getting it stuck in their heads.
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