Agatha Christie Marple: Series 4
Directed by Charles Palmer et al
Studio: Acorn Media
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 372 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo English
MSRP: $ 59.99
Release Date: August 4, 2009
Review Date: July 26, 2009
Agatha Christie introduced her elderly spinster sleuth Miss Jane Marple in a series of six 1928 short stories, but it wasn’t until 1930 in the cozy village mystery Murder at the Vicarage that she achieved more international exposure. Though the character is today wildly popular, Christie trotted her out only occasionally between those first efforts and her last appearance in a novel in 1976’s Sleeping Murder. There were only twelve full length Jane Marple mysteries ever written (plus a handful of other short stories which have never been dramatized to my knowledge). Despite this paucity of viable material, Miss Marple has been appearing in theatrical films and made-for-television movies for almost five decades, often in adaptations of the Marple books but occasionally in either original plots or efforts where the character has been inserted into one of Mrs. Christie’s mysteries that originally didn’t feature Jane Marple at all. At this stage of her cinematic career, all of Miss Marple’s novel-length adventures have been filmed at least once, and all four of the movies in this collection represent the second or third go-round for the stories featuring, of course, a new star in these latest editions.
Stage veteran Julia McKenzie has replaced the retired Geraldine McEwan in the role of the doggedly determined Jane Marple, and let’s say right off the bat that I prefer McKenzie to her immediate predecessor. Though she’s actually younger than the Jane Marple as written by Christie, she’s been given a matronly appearance than puts at least ten years on her actual age. True, she’s no match for Joan Hickson who, to my mind, was the perfect embodiment of the no-nonsense bloodhound of the Christie novels and who managed to film all twelve of the Marple mysteries before her death in 1998, but McKenzie seems less interested in making Miss Marple a twinkly old dear than Geraldine McEwan was in her characterization of Miss Marple. Neither lady has the steely stillness and the calm, unflustered delivery of Joan Hickson, but McKenzie’s initial four efforts as the legendary character are reasonably strong and fit snugly into the more highly budgeted outings that make up this new package.
A Pocket Full of Rye is one of Agatha Christie’s “nursery rhyme” murders, a plot constructed at least partially around the words of a nursery rhyme, in this case “Sing a Song of Sixpence.” Aging financier Rex Fortescue (Kenneth Cranham), his decades-younger wife Adele (Anna Madeley), and parlor maid Gladys (Rose Heiney) all succumb to the machinations of a diabolical killer before Miss Marple, who trained Gladys for domestic service, can sort out the varying motives and secret dalliances before arriving at the answer. Though the plot is not one of Christie’s most baffling conundrums, the film actually emerges as the best of this quartet of crime thrillers, the puzzle just complicated enough to run circles around most who attempt to arrive at the solution before the intrepid Miss Marple does. Aiding immeasurably in the entertainment quotient of the film are Matthew Macfadyen as Inspector Neele, Helen Baxendale as domestic manager Mary Dove, and Kenneth Cranham, Rupert Graves, and Lucy Cohu, all of whom seem to gain from the death of the elderly head of the household.
The title of the second entry in the set, Murder Is Easy, seems eerily appropriate as no less than six murders occur before the villain is revealed in the first of the set’s stories which has inserted Miss Marple into the plot where she originally didn’t belong. In the original, ex-policeman Luke Fitzwilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch) investigates the death of the aging Lavinia Pinkerton (Sylvia Syms) who seemed to have some ideas about two recent murders she wanted to share with Scotland Yard but who dies before she can reach the station. Miss Marple’s insertion into the story means that she and Luke share investigative duties though, truth to tell, Jane, in her quietly methodical way, makes the greatest inroads to the solution through simple sitting and listening, revealing an incredibly tragic, mournful story of secrets and lies that has festered for decades. Paramount among the suspects and victims in this sad tale of village life are Shirley Henderson as lonely Honoria Waynflete, Margo Stilley as the inquisitive Bridget Conway, David Haig and Anna Chancellor as a couple excited about the possibility of his appointment to an important government post, Jemma Redgrave as the wife of one of the murder victims, and Russell Tovey as a good natured police constable trying to sort through the worrisome number of deaths that are occurring.
They Do It With Mirrors gets its third TV-movie incarnation with this production, the previous two having starred Helen Hayes and Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. Though for me it’s the weakest of the Marple novels, the film versions have all benefited from either stunt casting (Bette Davis in the Hayes version; Joan Collins in this new rendition) or solid storytelling which, in all three cases, make this the easiest of the mysteries to solve before Miss Marple arrives at the answer. Afraid for the life of her gullible sister Carrie Louise Serrocold (Penelope Wilton) who is running a home for troubled boys with her third husband (Brian Cox), sophisticated Ruth Van Rydock (Joan Collins) asks old school friend Jane Marple to go to visit Carrie Louise to see if there is anything to her feelings of dread. As it turns out, her feelings of unease are justified as two murders in quick succession occur while Jane hurriedly begins to sniff out clues before her beloved old friend becomes the next victim. Brian Cox makes a wonderfully caring husband for Carrie Louise while other suspects include the moody student Edgar Lawson (Tom Payne), Nigel Terry as suspicious accountant Christian Gulbrandsen, and a love triangle involving Elliot Cowan as American Wally Hudd, Emma Griffiths Malin as his wife Gina, and Liam Garrigan as interloper Stephen Restarick.
Miss Marple has been inserted once again into the originally non-Marple mystery Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, and as in Murder Is Easy, the story isn’t harmed by Miss Marple’s participation in it (though it doesn’t actually improve this initially light-hearted turned deathly serious murder puzzler either. More harmful are the numbers of changes applied to the original book for this version.) After hearing the dying words of a seemingly murdered man (David Buchanan), playboy Bobby Attfield (Sean Biggerstaff) and his gal pal Frankie Derwent (Georgia Moffett) start investigating his murder at Castle Savage, ancestral home of the troubled and unhappy Savage family. Yes, it’s another of Agatha Christie’s family mysteries, and this one has not only a desperately unhappy matriarch (Samantha Bond), but two quirky children (Freddie Fox, Hannah Murray), the children’s charismatic piano teacher (Rafe Spall), a suspicious psychiatrist (Rik Mayall) and his wife (Natalie Dormer), loyal family servant Wilson (Richard Briers), and family friend Claud Evans (Mark Williams). Blundering around casting a suspicious eye at all of the unofficial snooping going on is Commander Peters (Warren Clarke), but as usual, it’s Miss Marple who discerns the guilty parties in a mystery movie that actually is the weakest of the four in this set with an awkwardly staged denouement and a riddle that hasn’t played as fairly with the audience as the previous three have done.
A Pocket Full of Rye - 3/5
All other films - 4/5
These made-for-TV films are framed at 1.78:1 and were originally presented in 1080i on PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery! series. These downconverted 480p transfers in this set feature (with one exception) solid visual sharpness and color accuracy. There is an occasional moiré pattern or a random soft shot, but for the most part they look very pleasing. A Pocket Full of Rye for some reason has a lesser quality transfer: softer focus throughout with slightly higher levels of grain, contrast that seems off throughout, and sometimes smeared color, especially in long shots. Each film has been divided into 11 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix is decoded by Dolby Prologic IIx so that the music and some ambient effects get spread thoroughly around the soundfield. Of course, since all of these mysteries involve a great deal of talking, it’s important that the dialogue is sent to the center channel faithfully and expeditiously, and it certainly is in this encode.
A Pocket Full of Rye contains text biographies of Agatha Christie and star Julia McKenzie.
Each of the four discs in the set contains an animated photo gallery of color portraits taken during the filming of each film and set to the soundtrack music from the series.
Each disc also contains filmographies of Julia McKenzie and three other selected actors appearing in the film (not always the stars of the film).
3.5/5 (not an average)
This set of four Miss Marple mysteries has been well produced and features a new star in the leading role giving a delightful if not definitive performance. Though not the equivalent of the other BBC-produced versions of these stories which have appeared in the past, all four are good-to-excellent entertainment for mystery lovers and come definitely recommended.