“THE MOVING FINGER” (1985) Review

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“THE MOVING FINGER” (1985) Review

I might as well put my cards on the table. I am not a fan of Agatha Christie’s 1942 novel, “The Moving Finger”. I do not regard it as one of the author’s more remarkable works. In fact, I have difficulty in viewing it as mediocre. When I first learned about the 1985 adaptation of the film, I did not bother to get my hands on a video or DVD copy.

In the end, I found myself viewing the 1985 television movie, due to it being part of a box set of Jane Marple movies. Before I express my opinion of it, I might as well reveal its plot. “THE MOVING FINGER” is basically a murder mystery set in a small English town. A brother and sister from London named Gerry and Joanna Burton purchase a house in the small, quiet town of Lymstock; in order for Jerry to fully recover from injuries received in a plane crash. After settling in and meeting their neighbors, the two siblings become the latest victims of a series of anonymous poison pen letters. Unbeknownst to the Bartons and other citizens of Lymstock, the vicar’s wife, Mrs. Maude Calthrop, summons her old friend, Miss Jane Marple, to help the police find the letters’ writer. However, not long after Miss Marple’s arrival at Lymstock, the poison pen letters take a murderous twist. Mrs. Angela Symmington, the wife of local solicitor Edward Symmington, is found dead after receiving a letter. The coroner rules her death as suicidal. Only Miss Marple believes Mrs. Symmington had been murdered. And it took a second death – the obvious murder of the Symmingtons’ maid – for the officials to realize she had been right about the first murder.

One of the aspects about Christie’s 1942 novel that I found so unremarkable was the actual murder that took place. It had been very easy for me to figure out the murderer’s identity, while reading the novel. In fact, I managed to do so before I was halfway finished with the novel. I wish I could say that Julia Jones’ adaptation made it a little more difficult for anyone to guess the murderer’s identity before the movie’s final denouement. But I cannot. Jones and director Roy Boulter made it easy for anyone to identify the killer, thanks to some very awkward camera directions. To make matters worse, both Jones and Boulter made the mistake of closely adapting Christie’s novel. Which meant both followed the novel’s narrative in which one of the characters openly approached the killer before Jane Marple could expose the latter’s identity to the police. Actually, Miss Marple used one of the characters to entrap the killer. And I hate it when this form of narrative is used in a murder mystery in which the audience is supposed to be unaware of the killer’s identity.

Another complaint I have regarding “THE MOVING FINGER” has to do with the romance between the dashing former pilot Gerry Burton and the victim’s oldest child, twenty year-old Megan Hunter. Actually, I have mixed feeling about the portrayal of this particular romance. On one hand, I liked the fact that Megan occasionally challenged Jerry’s patronizing attitude toward her. And the two actors portraying Jerry and Megan actually clicked on screen. On the other hand, I DID find his attitude patronizing. The Jerry-Megan romance almost seemed like a second-rate version of the Henry Higgins-Eliza Doolittle pairing in “PYGMALION”/“MY FAIR LADY” tale. Matters were made worse when Jerry dragged Megan to London for a day of shopping, dining and dancing. I realize that Christie and later, Jones were trying to make this sequence romantic. I found it tedious, patronizing and an unoriginal take on both “MY FAIR LADY” and “Cinderella”.

Thankfully, there was another major romance featured in “THE MOVING FINGER” that struck me as a lot more mature and satisfying. I am referring to the romance between Jerry’s sister, Joanna Burton and the local doctor, Welsh-born Dr. Owen Griffith. Unlike the Jerry-Megan romance, I did not have to deal with some immature take on “PYGMALION”. The worst Joanna and Owen had to deal with was the latter’s sister Eryl, who not only seemed slightly disapproving of Joanna, but who was also infatuated with widow of the murdered woman, Edward Symmington. In fact, the romances featured in this story seemed to offer an hint on what made “THE MOVING FINGER” enjoyable for me – the portrayal of village life in Lymstock. The movie also featured interesting characters that included the solicitor Edward Symmington and his high-maintenance wife Angela, their attractive nanny Elsie Holland, local gossip and art collector Mr. Pye, and the Reverend Guy Calthrop and his wife Maud – both friends of Miss Marple. Forget the murder mystery and enjoy the story’s strong characterizations and romances. It made “THE MOVING FINGER” a lot more bearable for me.

Paul Allen’s production designs struck me as solid. I thought he and his team did a pretty good job in re-creating an English village in the early-to-mid 1950s. I found Ian Hilton’s photography very attractive and colorful . . . even after 29 years. Christian Dyall created some very attractive costumes for the cast – especially for Sabina Franklyn, who portrayed the sophisticated Joanna Barton. If I have one complaint, it is the hairstyle worn by
Deborah Appleby, who portrayed Megan Hunter. Quite frankly, I found her mid-1980s hairstyle in the middle of a production set in the 1950s rather startling. And I am not being complimentary.

“THE MOVING FINGER” featured some excellent performances from the cast. Joan Hickson gave her usual above-average performance as the modest elderly sleuth, Jane Marple. However, due to the amount of romance and village intrigue, her appearance seemed a bit toned down. Michael Culver gave an excellent performance as the grieving widower, Edward Symmington. I found his performance very realistic and complex. Sandra Payne was another who gave a first-rate performance as the equally complex Eryl Griffith. Sabina Franklyn gave a very attractive performance as the sophisticated Joanna Barton. Not only did she click well with Martin Fisk, who portrayed the mature and subtle Dr. Griffith, but also with Andrew Bicknell, who gave a very charismatic portrayal of the attractive Jerry Burton. Bicknell also created a very nice screen chemistry with Deborah Appleby, who portrayed the gawkish Megan Hunter. I wish I could be just as complimentary about Appleby’s performance. There were times when her performance seemed solid. Unfortunately, there were times when she came off as wooden. And Richard Pearson was a delight as the gossiping Mr. Pye.

I could have easily dismissed “THE MOVING FINGER” as a loss. Thanks to Christie’s original novel, it does not possess a scintillating murder mystery. In fact, I was able to solve the mystery halfway into the story, when I first read the book. In the end, the story’s excellent portrayal of village life in the early 1950s and a pair of entertaining romances made “THE MOVING FINGER”enjoyable to watch in the end. The movie also benefited from some excellent performances from a cast led by Joan Hickson.

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