Agatha Christie’s Marple: Series 5 (Blu-ray)
The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side/The Secret of Chimneys/The Blue Geranium/The Pale Horse
Directed by Tom Shankland, John Strickland, David Moore, Andy Hay
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 351 minutes
Audio: PCM 2.0 stereo English
Region: no designation
MSRP: $ 69.99
Release Date: June 21, 2011
Review Date: June 23, 2011
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 short stories. 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, so as has been the case in the previous series of Marple features which starred Geraldine McEwan, only one of these four films in this set is based on an actual Marple novel. Of the other three, two insert Miss Marple into a thriller in which she didn’t originally appear, and, at long last, one of the Miss Marple short stories has been chosen to be dramatized. These four Miss Maple adventures are the first introduction of the character in high definition, and the fourth volume in this set, The Pale Horse, was not released on DVD previously as the other three volumes in this set were.
Stage veteran Julia McKenzie once again has been tapped to perform the role of the doggedly determined Jane Marple, and she seems ever so much more secure in these four outings than she did in her prior attempts at capturing the character. She’s still no match for Joan Hickson who, to my mind, was the perfect embodiment of the no-nonsense dedicated bloodhound of the Christie novels and who managed to film all twelve of the Marple mystery novels before her death in 1998. Still, McKenzie is aging into the part nicely and is already leagues ahead of Ms. McEwan’s interpretation of the role.
The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side is on its third go-round as a movie. The 1980 feature film starred Angela Lansbury as Marple and boasted an all-star cast in a camped-up version of the story that wasn’t wildly popular. Joan Hickson’s 1992 TV version was more faithful to the book and, like this new version, stressed the very melancholy story and bittersweet ending which left the final death as something of a question mark. Still, all three versions based on Christie’s novel kept the central framework intact: a Hollywood star (Lindsay Duncan), who has taken the legendary country home Gossington Hall in Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead, hosts a village fete where a talkative villager (Caroline Quentin) is poisoned for seemingly no reason. Once the police begin to suspect that the star was the real target of the murderer and not the innocent villager, the list of suspects who despise her self-involved ways and oblivious treatment of others is quite lengthy, and the unfolding mystery results in one of the best of Agatha Christie’s late period.
As most no doubt know (though Christie never admitted it), the background for the mournful story of Marina Gregg was based on the tragic true story of Hollywood star Gene Tierney who gave birth to a child born deaf, nearly blind, and mentally handicapped. With a few name changes and the time period moved backwards a decade or so from the original novel, Kevin Elyot’s script does a very nice job of establishing a lengthy list of suspects and plants some excellent red herrings to throw sleuthing viewers off the track. Joanna Lumley gets to reprise Marple’s best friend Dolly Bantry from her first appearance six years ago, and Nigel Harmen makes a touching Jason Rudd, younger husband of the bedeviled star. This is the best of the four films offered in this set.
Miss Marple was not a part of the original 1925 novel The Secret of Chimneys, but that hasn’t stopped the producers from inserting her into this TV adaptation. Actually, it’s not much of an adaptation but rather a reimagining of the original material. The setting of Chimneys, a splendid Gothic manse of centuries gone by, has been retained, and some of the characters from the novel have been used in screenwriter Paul Rutman’s fashioning a new murder mystery plot around the book which was actually more light thriller than mystery. A German count (Anthony Higgins) is found murdered in a secret passageway of the house, and suspicion falls on Anthony Cade (Jonas Armstrong), one of three men romancing Virginia Revel (Charlotte Salt), daughter of Chimney’s owner (Edward Fox). Inspector Finch (Stephen Dillane) is surprised to find the infamous Miss Marple as a weekend house guest and is determined not to let the elderly sleuth get the best of him (in vain, of course. The camaraderie that Dillane and McKenzie evince as they investigate the crime is terrific and easily the best thing about this production). Part of the mansion’s mystery also revolves around a jewel robbery and the disappearance of the suspected thief some twenty-three years previous. Miss Marple sorts everything out by the end of the program.
The first of the Marple short stories to be dramatized is The Blue Geranium, and the producers couldn’t have selected a more intricate puzzle to inaugurate dipping into that treasure trove of writing for further Miss Marple films. Of course, in the story, Miss Marple never leaves her chair to explain the solution of the baffling mystery to her Tuesday Murder Club group, but Stewart Harcourt’s screenplay plops her right into the midst of the action as wealthy hypochondriac Mary Pritchard (Sharon Small) is found dead in her bed, seemingly having been frightened to death. Her husband (Toby Stephens) has confessed to the crime (along with two other murders which happened in the village of Little Ambrose), and it’s only through Miss Marple’s keen observation of her own gardener mixing wasp poison that she arrives at the answer. The story has been fleshed out, naturally, from its few pages of text for an 89-minute drama, but all of the essentials from the story are there with very few changes; only new characters and subplots have been added for that extra bit of attention deflection. Toby Stephens makes for a very believable ladies’ man, and Kevin McNally gets to be the latest in a long line of inspectors once again shown up by the elderly detective.
The Pale Horse has already been dramatized once before by ITV, but that 1996 version was truer to Christie’s original novel than this new adaptation. Miss Marple was not a part of the original plot (Christie’s self-caricature Ariadne Oliver was), but she’s front and center here investigating a series of deaths which seem to revolve around a list of names given Miss Marple’s old friend Father Gorman before he died. Though Inspector Lujeune (Neil Pearson) insists that Miss Maple withdraw from the inquiry, nothing will stop the dogged village snoop from the case, not even intimations of witchcraft wafting from a village inn called The Pale Horse where Miss Marple billets herself. Those who have read Christie’s original novel or seen the earlier television incarnation can watch this movie with no preconceived notions. Though the murder method is the same in all three and some character names are retained from one version to the next with some shuffling of loyalties and affections, the identity of the murderer is completely different from the 1996 version and just as much a surprise.
The films have all been framed at the widescreen television aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and are presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. The Mirror Crack’d and The Secret of Chimneys are the sharpest of the four transfers, but all of the transfers are leagues ahead of their DVD counterparts in detail and lack of edge enhancement (there is a tiny bit to be seen in The Blue Geranium). Color is very rich and deeply saturated, and flesh tones are spot on throughout. Black levels are good but not great. Each film has been divided into 11 chapters.
The PCM 2.0 stereo audio tracks (1.5 Mbps) are aggressively stereophonic. Dominik Scherrer’s music never overpowers the well recorded dialogue in the center channel, but it does overtake the sparsely sprinkled ambient sounds threaded through the available left and right fronts. There is some impressive deep bass used on occasion, too, especially in The Pale Horse.
All bonus material is presented in 480i. Disc One contains the following special features:
“Agatha Christie’s Garden” is a 60-minute biographical program on the life of Agatha Christie told through a tour of her favorite home on the coast of Devon – Greenway House. Featuring comments from her grandson Mathew Prichard, biographer Janet Morgan, mystery novelist P.D. James, and historian Laura Thompson, this fascinating look inside the house and around the grounds of this impressive estate is hosted by Pam Ferris.
“Remembering Agatha” offers 3 ¼ minutes with Mathew Prichard and Janet Morgan telling personal stories of their experiences with the shy, reticent lady.
“Greenway Garden History” has 3 minutes about the extensive grounds of the estate, some of which will now be open for public viewing and a look at some sections which will still be closed to the public.
“Agatha’s Writing” is 3 minutes with P.D. James taking some veiled potshots at Mrs. Christie’s writing style (this isn’t her first interview in which she downgrades Mrs. Christie somewhat as a writer though she has tempered her criticism some as she’s gotten older) and Janet Morgan praising her appeal to every strata of society.
Disc Four offers the original 1996 adaptation of The Pale Horse directed by Charles Beeson and running for 101 ½ minutes and featuring PCM 2.0 stereo sound. While not completely faithful to the original novel, it's an entertaining mystery film with a very attractive cast.
(Incidentally, the text pages of interviews and background information contained on the previously released DVD set of the first three movies here have not been ported over to this new Blu-ray edition.)
4/5 (not an average)
Four more entertaining mystery adventures featuring the endearing sleuth Miss Marple come to us in Agatha Christie’s Marple: Series 5. With the four programs and the bonus features giving some superb information about one of Agatha’s beloved homes in Britain as well as the original version of The Pale Horse at no extra charge, this package comes with a definite recommendation!