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Still Struggling with Style, Season 4 Offers a More Conventional Marple.
, July 30, 2009
This review is from: Agatha Christie's Marple, Series 4 (DVD)
Series 4 of the controversial "Marple" series from Granada/ITV brings us a new Miss Marple, reconceived from the previous seasons, now played by Julia McKenzie. McKenzie's Marple is not as frilly as the classic Joan Hickson or as bohemian as Geraldine McEwan's portrayal. This is a more intellectual, no-nonsense Marple. She wears 3 suits, unadorned and straightforward. And I only saw her knit once. Miss Marple seems less a little old lady and more someone's all-knowing aunt or governess, always ready with whatever is needed and possessed of a strong sense of justice. These episodes avoid the stylization that some previous seasons embraced. Like the new Miss Marple, Series 4 is forthright and conventional in its scripts and production design.
"Marple" has had no qualms about departing from Agatha Christie's books: rewriting action, characters, even the motives and identity of the culprits, and appropriating other of Christie's novels for the spinster detective. Continuing in that tradition, "Murder is Easy" and "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?", both non-Marple books, have inspired episodes this season. Sometimes rewrites seem only to make the films more salacious, and, although there was never a premium on plausibility or coherence in Christie's novels, the rewrites have tended not to improve matters, often creating solutions that are quite ridiculous. Marple purists will not like that. But I have noticed that the character writing gains more depth the further it gets from its source.
Ultimately, it's difficult to say how Miss Marple should be adapted for a modern audience. Purists may prefer Joan Hickson's more faithful portrayal from the 1980s. Others, like myself, find Hickson's Marple dreadfully dull but lament this series' tendency to careen full throttle into burlesque. And, if the writers are going to rewrite Christie's stories, could they not improve upon the solutions instead of making them more ridiculous? Unlike Poirot, Marple does not have the distinct visual characteristics of the detective or the interwar milieu to latch onto. It has an elderly lady in gloves and a hat. In the past, this led the producers to toss sexuality into the mix at every turn and experiment with heavy stylization, usually with poor results ("The Moving Finger" being an exception).
Christie wrote her Marple novels and stories 1927-1971, but the creators of this television series wisely chose to set it in the 1950s, giving it a distinct look and grounding Miss Marple in a particular time. The filmmakers have seemingly tried every trick they could think of to make "Marple" interesting and relevant to a contemporary audience. Often those efforts have been laid on rather too thick. My own suggestion would be to capitalize on the post-War prosperity, conformity, and hypocrisy of the 1950s. That decade shares much in common with the 1990s and 2000s. Miss Marple is a woman who has seen the Jazz Age, two global depressions, and two world wars. She's not easily fooled by a bright, respectable façade. Create a subtext along those lines that would comment on our own time without being obviously anachronistic or straying far from the original plots.
After watching "Marple" struggle to find its focus for four seasons, those are my 2 cents on the subject. I really don't know how to rate the series. I give it 4 stars, because Julia McKenzie's Miss Marple is personable, sharp, and fun to watch. Some viewers find that she doesn't have enough character, serving more as a device than a detective. But wasn't Geraldine McEwan's Marple irritating and vaguely sinister? If it's not one thing, it's another. The series lacks a cogent vision. Oddly, the first episode this season is adorned with completely superfluous location subtitles. It's one of those things. These are the episodes in Series 4:
"A Pocket Full of Rye"'s killer takes inspiration from the nursery rhyme. Rex Fortescue, president of Consolidation Investments, dies at his office, apparently of poison. In the pocket of his suit, the police find a handful of rye. Inspector Neele (Matthew Macfadyen) interviews the family at their country home, Yewtree Lodge: the deceased's wayward wife Adele (Anna Madeley), eldest son Percyval (Ben Miles), who believed his father's mental health threatened the business, estranged son Lancelot (Rupert Graves), just back from Africa, neurotic daughter-in-law (Liz White), daughter Elaine (Hattie Morahan), who cannot contain her delight at Rex's passing, and Gladys (Rose Heiney), the simple chambermaid previously employed by Miss Marple. Gladys is having trouble getting on in the world.
"Murder Is Easy" is adapted from a non-Marple novel and heavily rewritten. Miss Marple meets Lavinia Pinkerton (Sylvia Syms) on a London-bound train. Pinkerton is headed for Scotland Yard to report two murders in her home village of Wychwood. "Murder is easy," she says, "so long as no one thinks it's murder." She promptly meets her death in Victoria Station. Miss Marple travels to Wychwood and makes the acquaintance of Luke Fitzwilliam (Benedict Cumberhatch), formerly a police detective in Malaya. Together Miss Marple and Fitzwilliam make the rounds of the town's close-knit population in their investigation, as more of the population meets its end. Perhaps it is the rewrite, but the characters seem more authentic, emotions real, and with more dimension than usual.
Miss Marple's glamorous old friend Ruth (Joan Collins) asks the detective to look in on her sister Carrie Louise after a fire struck her home in "They Do It With Mirrors". Carrie Louise is a committed philanthropist who runs a reform facility for criminals on her Stoneygates estate with her third husband Lewis Serrocold (Brian Cox) and daughters Gina (Emma Griffiths Malin) and Mildred (Sarah Smart) from her first marriage. With a staff that seems a bit daft, two stepsons with questionable intentions, a group of convicts on their doorstep, and an amateur theatrical in rehearsal, there is a lot of misdirection to be overcome when the antics turn to murder. In contrast with previous episodes, the police detective Inspector Curry (Alex Jennings) seems pretty sharp.
"Why Didn't They Ask Evans?", inspired by the non-Marple novel, has Miss Marple helping the young detectives along and keeping them out of trouble. Bobby Attfield (Sean Biggerstaff) finds a dying man on a cliff who says as he expires, "Why didn't' they ask Evans?" When Bobby is called testify at an inquest that doesn't exist, an adventurous friend, Miss Frankie Derwent (Georgia Moffett), proposes that they investigate the murder themselves. But Miss Marple, who is visiting Bobby's mother, has her eye on the young duo. When Frankie proves too gutsy for her own good, Miss Marple follows her to Castle Savage, home of a quarrelling and rather sinister family whom the dead man recently visited. The plot is exotic and implausible. It suffers further from a cast of annoying characters.
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