Apr 8, 2011

DVD Review: Agatha Christie's Marple: The Geraldine McEwan Collection
Featuring one of Timothy Dalton's best TV roles!

Miss Marple is in the news right now thanks to a new project at Disney that apparently recasts the famous spinster detective as, well, Jennifer Garner. I’m not sure if the message to take from that is that 38 is actually Hollywood’s current idea of “old,” or that Disney is shelling out a huge amount of money to the Christie estate in order to buy a brand that younger audiences have zero awareness of and then alter it in such a significant way so as to completely alienate the older audiences who do know the character. The former is depressing and the latter seems just ludicrous, yet it’s still the more logical conclusion. Personally, I’m kind of curious. I’ve been a big fan of Garner since Alias and of screenwriter Mark Frost since his fantastic novel The List of 7 back in the 90s, so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and at least see where this goes, even if I’m scratching my head as to why they didn’t just set Garner up with a different female investigator more appropriate to her age and image. (Honey West, perhaps?) Anyway, in the face of a contemporary, thirty-something American version of the character, surely Christie purists must be reconsidering their outcry over the comparatively subtle changes enacted upon Miss Marple for the current ITV series!

ITV’s latest take on Agatha Christie’s evergreen sleuth might annoy such purists with the way it shakes things up a bit, but if you’ve always responded to Christie’s pulpier sensibilities, as I have, then you’ll probably enjoy it. Marple (as its simply called), starring Geraldine McEwan (in its 2004-2007 seasons anyway; she was later replaced by Julia McKenzie), takes Christie’s least pulpy detective, the aged Jane Marple, plays up the most lurid and sensational aspects of her cases and then (and here’s the genius bit) doesn’t have Miss Marple bat an eye at any of it. In any version, Miss Marple was always pretty unflappable when it came to the dead bodies that always seemed to pop up in her life (even when they were charred beyond recognition), so why should she raise an eyebrow at some of the more lurid liberties this series takes? The murderous pair of illicit lovers from one story, for example, are transformed from heterosexual adulterers into lusty lesbians. Would the Grand Dame of mystery fiction have written it that way? No (not at the time when she was writing, anyway), but that doesn’t mean that such a twist isn’t right at home within the plot of her novel!

Miss Marple herself remains the prim and proper picture of post-war British class and manners, yet she still gets her hands dirty by investigating murders–an act in itself a most inappropriate breach of accepted behavior. Likewise, Christie’s mid-century readership could satisfy their own literary bloodlust by tucking into the adventures of such a lady in pages written by a bona fide Dame! Yet all this lip service to decorum hid a thirst for the macabre and the sensational just as insatiable as that of American readers devouring the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, which didn’t bother to disguise their lurid, pulpy roots. Indeed, Christie’s books barely disguised them themselves. The covers may not share the spattered blood, drawn guns and heaving breasts of American pulp magazines, but they did share the fonts–and at least the hint of blood. Each episode of this 21st Century Marple series also shares those fonts. The 1950s typefaces (ripped straight off a paperback!) that open each feature-length mystery set the tone for the adaptations to follow. They may change the details and they may sex things up, but they’re true to one aspect of Christie: they appeal to their audience’s basest instincts.

As in any British mystery series, espionage elements are bound to pop up in the odd episode of Marple. But more of what makes this series of interest to spy fans will be the guest stars. Practically every episode is packed full of familiar faces from the worlds of James Bond, The Avengers, Spooks, The Saint and other series well known to readers of this site. The debut episode in Acorn’s box set, “Murder At the Vicarage,” offers both spy stars and spy plot elements. (Though with Christie, it’s always possible such elements could prove red herrings.) Herbert Lom, for example (certainly no stranger to Sixties spy fans; he even issues a very Drefuss-like wheeze at one point that you expect to be accompanied by an eye tick and the exclamation, “Clouseau!”) plays a character named Augustin Dufosse who was a French resistance fighter during WWII, as was his grandson. (Unlike the eternal pre-war setting of Poirot, Marple is situated to great effect in post-war Britain.) Furthermore, another character turns out to have been an SOE operative engaged to that grandson. The Colonel who gets killed (and that’s no spoiler; Colonels are always getting killed in this sort of thing) commanded a desk in London during the war and saw to it that a supply drop meant for them went instead to his confederate so they could split the proceeds after the war. That background provides Lom and his confederate with suitable motives to murder him, but of course the intrepid Miss Marple (more frequently referred to in this series as "Jane") soon discovers that practically everyone had a motive for murder, so that’s really not much help. I’m just illustrating some of the spy connections. Other spy celebrities in the cast include Lucifer Box creator Mark Gatiss as a suspect assistant vicar, Saint veteran Jane Asher, Hannay star Robert Powell as a doctor, Spooks’ Tim McInnerny as the head vicar and Diana Rigg’s daughter, Rachael Stirling, as his wife.

I like the way director Charles Palmer (Doctor Who) handles the reveal as Miss Marple pieces together what actually happened at the episode’s conclusion: a montage of pans against a great, swelling bit of score as all the right images whirl around in her head. This sequence sets the tone for the very stylish series to follow. Every aspect of the production, from the direction to the opulent set design to the sweeping score to the lush cinematography is flashy, which might at first seem inappropriate for Miss Marple, but which really livens things up for modern audiences while at the same time serving to accentuate her overriding ordinariness amidst all this flash. And, similar to George Smiley, it is this apparent ordinariness, this unassuming quality, that enables Jane Marple to quietly unravel the most tangled murder mysteries to everyone else’s amazement.

“The Body in the Library” introduces former Avenger Joanna Lumley as Dolly Bantry, Miss Marple’s Watsonish sidekick. She returns to the series much later (after Julia McKenzie has inherited the role from McEwan), but her repartee with Jane is so good that I found myself wishing she were in all of them. As long as you’re shaking things up from the books this much, why not introduce a permanent television sidekick, like Captain Hastings in the early seasons of Poirot?

Here, Lumley is decidedly more Edina than Purdey, but she’s fantastic, and her New Avengers fans will enjoy her nonetheless. James Fox and Ian Richardson lend further gravitas to the formidable guest cast, and the tight Christie mystery plot (complete with her signature misdirection) remains intact even if the culprit or culprits themselves are slightly altered. McEwan’s Miss Marple is shown to be more knowingly worldly than the usual portrayal (wherein she at least pretends to be less so, for the sake of propriety), and things that might have shocked more classic incarnations of this sleuth roll right off of the Teflon-coated McEwan. (Um, but she’s still not a thirty-something American!)

There really isn’t a bad episode in the lot here, but far and away the highlight for spy fans has to be “The Sittaford Mystery.” (Despite the fact that Christie’s novel of that name didn’t even feature Miss Marple as a character, she’s been worked into the plot reasonably enough for the sake of television.) Personally, I was sold from the very beginning when we’re treated to a title reading “Egypt, 1927” over an image of Timothy Dalton in khakis and a pith helmet. And a mustache! In an Egyptian tomb! Even if you’re not a fan of Agatha Christie (in fact, possibly moreso if you’re not), if that’s the sort of thing that excites you, you need to track down this episode!

After some thoroughly satisfying archeological shenanigans, we cut to twenty-five years later, when Dalton’s character, Clive Trevelyan, is a successful politician meeting in consultation with none other than Winston Churchill (not a character in Christie’s novel, but played here by Robert Hardy… of course). We learn that Trevelyan is very likely his successor as Prime Minister… so long as nobody murders him, of course. Lots of newspaper headlines and newsreel footage stylishly fill us in on the character’s career in the interceding years as an Olympic skiier, adventurer, war hero and now politician.

As you might surmise from its sensational tomb-raiding beginning, “The Sittaford Mystery” plays up the pulpiness of the story more than any other. The direction goes overboard (in the best possible way) right from the start with canted angles galore. I honestly don’t think there’s a single level camera shot in the entire episode. It might get a little annoying, but at the same time it serves to appropriately sensationalize the proceedings and up the pulp ante that comes automatically with a story that begins with a mustachioed Timothy Dalton in an ancient tomb! The same gleefully over-the-top approach goes for the art direction and costumes and cinematography. We’re treated to great pulpy colors and purposefully studio-bound sets, like a taxi that Dalton and McEwan share in a snowstorm which doesn’t actually move. Only the camera does (canted, of course), in a motion to suggest movement of the stationary, studio-bound cab as artificial snow whirls all around.

Even though it’s stylized in a BBC-style, digital sort of stylized, “The Sittaford Mystery” still resembles nothing so much as a Hammer Gothic. And if Hammer and Miss Marple previously didn’t go together and still don’t sit well with some fans, well I’m sorry; I never knew it, but apparently that’s exactly what I wanted to see! (Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll say the same thing about Jennifer Garner playing Miss Marple.) Director Paul Unwin plays up the Gothic side of the story further by having Dalton brood alone in his study in his castle (Oh yes! Dalton lives in a castle. A snowbound castle, no less! How cool!), haunted very literally by the ghosts of his past, presented in the flesh (so to speak) in stark white video effects. The implication is certainly there, even, that these ghosts are literal, but Christie purists can easily choose to view them as figments of Trevelyan’s imagination, too. Besides living in a castle and talking to ghosts, Dalton goes for walks “out on the moor” to think (even Christie’s novel, which also features an escaped convict, owed a debt to The Hound of the Baskervilles—a connection the filmmakers waste no opportunity to drive home) and keeps a falcon.

If you’re thinking al this (plus a golden scorpion purloined from that Egyptian tomb said to carry a curse) surely foretells a bad death in a mystery of this ilk, then you’re right… but the good news for Dalton fans is that it doesn’t come until more than halfway through the story, and even then Trevelyan is still very much a presence via flashbacks. Despite a reliable ensemble (including a pre-Education Carey Mulligan), this is truly Dalton’s show here, and he makes the most of it!

If “The Sittaford Mystery” has a downside, it’s just that Miss Marple herself doesn’t really have that much to do in it—certainly not until the second half, at least. Instead, beautiful potential couple Charles Burnaby (Chaos' James Murray) and Emily Trefusis (Sherlock’s Zoe Telford, who is excellent) lead the on-site investigation, belying this story’s origin as a non-Marple novel. (The couple are the only detectives in the book.) But what it lacks in Marple herself, it makes up for in trains, castles, snowstorms, Lagondas, deaths foretold on Ouija Boards, Evil Dead-style zoom-ins on creepy cuckoo clocks at canted angles and Winston Churchill to boot! It’s all more Hammer than Christie (driven home by the controversial final shot), which might drive the great Dame’s fans a bit nuts, but is frankly fine with me. (And maybe after contemplating Jennifer Garner as their heroine, it will seem fine to them in retrospect, too.) I’ve seen and read enough Christie in my time to appreciate a slightly atypical take on the material, and for Timothy Dalton fans like myself, “The Sittaford Mystery” really can’t be beat.

While nobody can beat T-Dalt, there are still more spy stars to turn up in Marple. Other episodes include Live and Let Die’s Jane Seymour (in a meaty role), Keeley Hawes, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Richard Armitage. All in all, there’s a lot to like in Marple: The Complete Geraldine McEwan Collection, and it certainly proves that you don’t have to be entirely faithful to the text to make good entertainment. With that in mind, I think I’ll remain cautiously optimistic about the next incarnation of the character to feature a TV spy—Ms. Garner.

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