“THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” (2004) Review

“THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” (2004) Review

I have another of my many confessions to make . . . I have never been a big fan of Agatha Christie’s 1930 novel, “The Murder at the Vicarage”. Never mind that it featured the first appearance of elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, in a feature-length novel. I am just not a big fan.

One could assume that the novel’s setting – in the small village of St. Mary Mead – could be the reason why this particular tale has never rocked my boat. Not particularly. I can think of numerous Christie tales set in a small village – including St. Mary Mead – that really impressed me. The problem with “The Murder in the Vicarage” is that I never found it to be a particularly thought provoking tale. Nor did it include any special circumstances that made it unique. And my borderline apathy toward the 1930 novel even extended to the television movie adaptation that aired in 1986. Some eighteen years later, another adaptation of the novel aired on television. This particular version starred Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple. And its running time was at least eight minutes shorter.

In “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE”, the citizens of St. Mary Mead are rocked by the murder of Colonel Protheroe, the local churchwarden and magistrate, whose body was found inside the study of the vicar, Reverend Len Clement. The man was disliked by many; including the vicar, the vicarage’s curate, Protheroe’s second wife Anne, her lover Lawrence Redding, Protheroe’s daughter from his first marriage Lettice, the vicar’s wife Grieselda Clement, and a mysterious new resident named Mrs. Lester who seemed to have produced a strange reaction from Protheroe. Not long after the vicar discovers the body, Lawrence Redding, who is a painter, confesses to the murder. Although he has been clashing with Colonel Protheroe over his painting of Lettice, it turns out that he has been Anne Protheroe’s lover for quite some time. Upon learning about his confession, Anne confesses as well. Miss Marple eventually points out to Inspector Slack that it was impossible for either to commit the murder and suggests that the latter search for the killer among other St. Mary’s Mead citizens.

As I had pointed earlier, I am not a big fan of Christie’s novel or its 1986 adaptation. But for some reason, I enjoyed this adaptation. For example, it is a bit more colorful than the previous version. I am aware that all of the Miss Marple television adaptations of the 1980s and early 1990s tend to look rather faded. But there are more reasons why I find this 2004 version more colorful. I realize that many tend to demand that a movie or television adaptation is faithful to its source novel. But I thought the changes made by Stephen Churchett made the production somewhat more lively for me. One, Churchett changed two characters (one of them an archeologist) by giving them a World War II connection to Protheroe and a reason to want him dead. And two, Churchett included World War I flashbacks of a brief love affair between Miss Marple and a married Army officer. At first glance, these flashback seemed irrelevant to the main story. In the end, they served as a tool in which Miss Marple managed to ascertain the murderer’s identity. But the best thing I can say about “THE MURDER IN THE VICARAGE” is its pacing. This is a well-paced film, thanks to Charlie Palmer’s direction. For me, this is an important element for a low-key mystery like “THE MURDER IN THE VICARAGE”.

But there are other aspects of the movie that I enjoyed. I was really impressed by Nigel Walters’ cinematography. It was sharp, colorful and perfect for the movie’s setting. The photography also enhanced Jeff Tessler’s production designs, which struck me as a perfect reflection of an English village in 1951. He also had the task of re-creating a London railway station circa 1915-1917. And he did a pretty good job. But I really enjoyed Phoebe De Gaye’s costume designs. I found them colorful and very spot-on for each particular character, based upon age, class, personality, etc. By the way, Ms. De Gaye had also served one of the two costume designers for the BBC’s “THE MUSKETEERS” and the 2002-2003 miniseries, “THE FORSYTE SAGA”.

The performances were first-class. I tried to think of one that seemed somewhat off. But . . . I thought they were all well-done. “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” marked Geraldine McEwan’s second time at the bat as Miss Jane Marple. I feel this particular performance might be one of her better ones. I found her performance intelligent, sharp and particularly poignant. Other performances that impressed me came from Janet McTeer and Jason Flemyng, the adulterous couple, who found themselves at the center of village gossip and police inquiries following Protheroe’s murder. On paper, television viewers should have been outraged at their infidelity. But both McTeer and Flemyng gave such poignant and passionate performances that they managed to allow viewers to care about their fate.

Rachael Stirling gave an exuberant performance as the vicar’s outgoing wife, Grisielda Clements. At first glance, it seemed as if Derek Jacobi’s portrayal of the victim, Colonel Protheroe, would come off as a one-note blustering idiot. Thankfully, there were moments when Jacobi infused a good deal of humanity into his performance – especially in scenes involving the mysterious Mrs. Lester. Mark Gatiss’ portrayal of the vicarage’s curate Ronald Hawes, who seemed torn over his past actions involving the embezzling of funds at his previous assignment struck me as rather emotional and a bit sad. I also have to commend Stephen Tompkinson for his complex performance as the irascible Detective Inspector Slack. I enjoyed how he slowly allowed Slack’s character to develop an admiration for Miss Marple’s detective skills. The television movie also featured solid performances from Tim McInnerny, Herbert Lom, Christina Cole, Jane Asher, Robert Powell, Angela Pleasance, Miriam Margolyes and especially, Julie Cox and Marc Warren, who gave affecting performances as the younger Jane Marple and her World War I lover.

I may not be a fan of Agatha Christie’s 1930 novel. But I cannot deny that I rather enjoyed its 2004 television adaptation. Thanks to director Charlie Palmer and screenwriter Stephen Churchett, “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” proved to be a colorful, yet emotional tale about love, passion and ghosts from the past. The production was also enhanced by some eye-catching behind-the-scenes artistry and excellent performances from a cast led by the incomparable Geraldine McEwan.

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“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

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“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1931 novel, “The Sittaford Mystery”. And I have read a lot of her novels. But since the novel did not feature Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, or Tommy and Tuppence Beresford; I never took the trouble to read it. Well, that is not fair. I can think of at least two or three Christie novels that did not feature any of these sleuths that I have read. But I have never read “The Sittaford Mystery”.

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the ITV channel had aired an adaptation of the novel in which Geraldine McEwan appeared as Jane Marple. Okay. This is not the first time this has happened, considering that Christie did not write that many Miss Marple novels. “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” revolved around the murder of a politician who is viewed as a potential Prime Minister in the 1950s. The story begins in the 1920s Egypt, where Clive Trevelyan and a few companions stumble across an important archaeological discovery. Then the story jumps nearly thirty years later when Trevelyan, now a politician, returns to his home Sittaford House in Dartmoor with his aide John Enderby, while Parliament decides on whether he will become Britain’s new Prime Minister, following the retirement of Sir Winston Churchill. Due to his friendship with the novelist Raymond West, Trevelyan finds himself forced to accept the latter’s elderly aunt, Miss Jane Marple, as a house guest.

Much to Miss Marple and Enderby’s surprise, Treveylan decides to chance the snowy weather outside and stay at a local hotel six miles away. The hotel include guests who seemed to be very familiar with Treveylan or familiar with an escapee from the local Dartmoore prison. One of the guests conduct a séance using a Ouiji board, which predicts Treveylan’s death. Hours later, the politician is found stabbed to death in his room. With Miss Marple stuck at Sittaford House (temporarily); Enderby; a young journalist named Charles Burnaby; and Emily Trefusis, the fiancee of Treveylan’s wastrel ward James Pearson; set out to find the murderer. However, it is not long before the trio find themselves seeking Miss Marple’s help.

“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” strikes me as a rather confusing tale. I have a deep suspicion that in his effort to somewhat change the plot from Christie’s original novel, screenwriter Stephen Churchett ended up creating a very convoluted story . . . right up to the last reel. I have seen this movie twice and for the likes of me, I still have no real idea of what was going on . . . aside from the first fifteen minutes and the movie’s denouement. I was aware that the hotel featured guests that had connections with or knew Treveylan, including a former lover, her wallflower daughter, a middle-aged woman who seemed to be a fan of Treveylan, and an American businessman and his aide.

Churchett created a script filled with so many red herrings – unnecessary, as far as I am concerned – that I simply gave up in trying to guess the murderer’s identity and waited for Miss Marple to expose him or her. Upon my first viewing. Upon my second viewing, I tried to examine the plot for any hints or clues that would lead to the killer’s identity. Unfortunately, that did not happen until at least fifteen minutes before Miss Marple revealed the killer. I was also disappointed with how the movie resolved the romantic entanglements of Emily Trefusis, Charles Burnaby, James Pearson and a fourth character. I found it so contrived, for it came out of left field with no set up or hint whatsoever. What I found even more unconvincing was the last shot of the murderer staring at the camera with an evil grin. This struck me as an idiotic attempt by director Paul Unwin to channel or copy Alfred Hitchcock’s last shot of Anthony Perkins in the 1960 movie, “PYSCHO”. I found that moment so ridiculous.

I will give kudos to Rob Harris, the movie’s production designer. I thought he did a competent job in creating the movie’s setting – a snowbound English community in the early-to-mid 1950s. But do to the majority of the film being limited to either Treveylan’s home and the hotel, Harris really did not have much to work with. Frances Tempest certainly did with her costume designs. I found nothing outstanding about them. But I must admit that I found them rather attractive, especially the costumes that actress Zoe Telford wore. On the other hand, I found Nicholas D. Knowland’s cinematography rather odd . . . and not in a positive way. I did not like his photography, if I must be brutally honest. His unnecessary close-ups and odd angles struck me as an amateurish attempt by him and Unwin to transform “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” into an independent film or Hammer-style horror flick.

The performances in “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” proved to be a mixed bag. I have usually been a fan of Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of Miss Jane Marple. But I feel that she took the whole “verbose elderly lady” act a bit too far . . . especially in her scenes with Timothy Dalton during the first fifteen to twenty minutes. If I must be honest, most of the performances in the film seemed to be either over-the-top or close to being over-the-top. This was especially the case for Michael Brandon, Zoe Telford, Laurence Fox and Patricia Hodge. James Murray managed to refrain himself during most of the film. But even he managed to get into the act during the movie’s last fifteen minutes or so. Carey Mulligan’s performance seemed competent. She did not blow my mind, but at least she did not annoy me. Robert Hardy made a cameo appearance as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This marked the eighth or ninth time the actor portrayed the politician and honestly, I could see this appearance was nothing more than a walk in the park for him. There were only four performances I truly enjoyed. One came from Mel Smith, who gave a very competent performance as Treveylan’s right-hand man, John Enderby. I could say the same about Rita Tushingham, who gave a nuanced performance as a mysterious woman with knowledge of an ugly part in Treveylan’s past. The role proved to be his last, for he passed away not long after the film’s production. James Wilby was satisfyingly subtle as the town’s local hotel owner, who had a secret to maintain. For me, the best performance came from Timothy Dalton, who was dazzling at the story’s main victim, Clive Trevelyan. Considering that he was portraying a somewhat theatrical character, it is amazing that he managed to keep his performance under control, and struck a tight balance between theatricality and subtlety.

It is obvious to anyone reading this review that I did not like “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY”. I could complain about the changes made to Agatha Christie’s novel. But I have never read it, so I saw no point in making any comparisons. But I still cared very little for the movie. I found the direction and photography rather amateurish. And aside from a few first-rate performances, I was not that impressed by the majority of the cast’s acting – including, unfortunately, Geraldine McEwan’s.

“4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (2004) Review

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“4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (2004) Review

I have been a major fan of Agatha Christie’s 1957 novel, “4.50 From Paddington”, ever since I was in my teens. In fact, I consider it one of my top ten favorite Christie novels of all time. So, it is not surprising that I would approach any movie or television adaptation of this story with great anticipation.

As far as I know, there have been at least two adaptations of Christie’s 1957 novel. Both were television movies that starred Joan Hickson as Jane Marple in 1987 and Geraldine McEwan in 2004. Just recently, I watched the McEwan version and all I can say is . . . hmmmmm. “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (also known as “WHAT MRS. McGILLICUDDY SAW”) begins with Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy leaving London by train, following a Christmas shopping trip. She is on her way to St. Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Miss Jane Marple in St. Mary Mead. Sometime during the journey, Mrs. McGillicuddy looks out of her window and spots a man with his back to her strangling a woman in a train traveling parallel to hers. Upon reaching St. Mary Mead, Mrs. McGillicuddy reports the murder to Miss Marple, before the pair reports it to an unbelieving railway official.

While Mrs. McGillicuddy travels on to visit relatives in Ceylon for the holidays, Miss Marple takes matters into her own hands. She comes to the conclusion that the murderer had dumped the body off the train before it could be discovered at an estate owned by the Crackenthorpe family called Rutherford Hall, near Brackhampton. Miss Marple recruits a professional housekeeper named Lucy Eylesbarrow to hire herself out to the Crackenthorpes with the pretense that she wants to be near her “aunt” – namely Miss Marple – and hunt for the missing body. Eventually, Lucy does find the body . . . and more mayhem ensues.

I was not particularly fond of the 1987 Joan Hickson adaptation. And if I must be brutally honest, I do not have a high opinion of this 2004 version. Both versions seemed to be marred by two major problems – too many changes and the love triangle involving the Lucy Eylesbarrow character. And if I must be honest, Lucy proved to be a problem all on her own. Stephen Churchett made changes that I found particularly unnecessary. The movie began with a World War II flashback that featured the death of the Crackenthorpe family matriarch, which seemed to have an impact on the family patriarch, Luther Crackenthorpe. Although poignant, this scene struck me as a complete waste of time that did not seem to have anything to do with the main narrative. And once again, this version ended with a resolution to the love triangle that surrounded Lucy Eylesbarrow. Apparently, no one seemed to care how Christie deliberately left the matter opened in regard to Lucy’s choice. I have always regarded the Lucy Eylesbarow character as something of a “Mary Sue”. The 1987 version of the character was transformed into a humorless prig. Although the 2004 version of the character managed to regain some wit, she also came off as an even bigger “Mary Sue” than the literary version. The television movie introduced Lucy singing with Noel Coward (of all people) to his guests at a dinner party. She was dressed to the nines . . . and still serving as a housekeeper. What the hell? When I saw this, I could not believe my eyes. And why on earth did Churchett and director Andy Wilson allowed Miss Marple to reveal the murderer to an audience . . . aboard a moving train? This struck me as incredibly contrived and rather uncomfortable.

The movie also featured some severe character changes. Harold Crackenthorpe was transformed into a serial rapist, who has targeted Lucy as his latest victim. Alfred Crackenthorpe remained a minor crook, who seemed to be constantly weeping over a former girlfriend who had dumped him. Instead of being the oldest living brother, Cedric Crackenthorpe became the youngest sibling in the family and a failed painter. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. And Churchett completely jettisoned him from the love triangle concerning Lucy Eylesbarrow. This version featured a love triangle between Lucy, Bryan Eastley (Luther’s son-in-law), and Inspector Tom Campbell, the investigating detective for the case. Yes, that is correct. Once again, the Dermot Craddock character (who was the investigating detective in the novel) was eliminated from another adaptation. In his place was another detective with close ties to Miss Marple. Which is ironic, considering that he had appeared in the 2004 version of “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”. Speaking of Bryan Eastley, he was transformed into an American war veteran. Only the Luther Crackenthorpe, Emma Crackenthorpe and Dr. Quimper characters remained intact.

However, “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” did have its share of virtues. I have to give kudos to Jeff Tessler for his excellent production designs. His work made it very easy for television audiences to find themselves transported back to 1951. Also adding to the movie’s setting were Pilar Foy’s art direction and Phoebe De Gaye’s costume designs. I also enjoyed the production’s cinematography, thanks to Martin Fuhrer’s sharp and colorful work. And Jeremy Gibbs’s editing greatly enhanced the sequence in which Elspeth McGillicuddy first witnessed the murder. Despite my dissatisfaction with the overall adaptation of Christie’s 1957 novel, I must admit that Andy Wilson did a solid job as director. This was evident in the movie’s pacing and performances.

Speaking of performances, I tried to think of one or two performance that seemed out of step to me. But if I must be honest, I could not find one. “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” provided some pretty good, solid performances. Geraldine McEwan was in fine form, as usual, as Miss Jane Marple. And she clicked very well with three particular cast members – Pam Ferris, who did an excellent job in portraying the pragmatic Elspeth McGillicuddy; John Hannah, who gave a nice performance as the rather quiet and intelligent Tom Campbell; and Amanda Holden, who seemed to be a bundle of charm as the talented and dependable Lucy Eylesbarrow. Jenny Agutter gave a very poignant performance in her brief appearance as the dying Agnes Crackenthorpe. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Niamh Cusack, Griff Rhys Jones, Charlie Creed-Miles, Kurtis O’Brien, Ciarán McMenamin, and Celia Imrie, who was rather funny as a Russian dancing mistress being interviewed by Tom Campbell and Miss Marple.

But there were four performances that proved to be my favorite. One came from Rose Keegan, who was even more funny as Lady Alice Crackenthorpe, Harold’s aristocratic wife. My second favorite performance came from David Warner was at times, poignant, rather funny and very sardonic (depending on the scene) as family patriarch Luther Crackenthorpe. Ben Daniels was equally funny and sardonic as the despairing Alfred Crackenthorpe, who seemed to have more regard for the woman who had dumped him, than his family. And perhaps I should be grateful that screenwriter Stephen Churchett transformed the Bryan Eastley character to an American. This gave American-born Michael Landes a chance to make the character more than bearable. Landes did something that Christie’s writing and actor David Beames failed to do in the 1987 version . . . make Bryan Eastley sexy and charismatic.

I will not deny that “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” had its virtues. The movie can boast fine performances from a cast led by Geraldine McEwan. I really had no problem with Andy Wilson’s direction. And the movie’s 1951 was beautiful to look at, thanks to the production staff. But I still had problems with the movie’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1957 novel. There were too many unnecessary changes to a story that had become one of my favorites penned by the author. Pity.

“AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” (2007) Review

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“AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” (2007) Review

Not long ago, I had written a review of an Agatha Christie television movie called “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL”. It was a 1987 adaptation of the writer’s 1965 novel. Twenty years later, ITV aired its own version that starred Geraldin McEwan as Miss Jane Marple.

But I am not interested in comparing the two adaptations. Instead, I want to discuss only one of them – the recent 2007 televised film. The movie began with a flashback to the early 1890s in which a young Jane Marple stayed at the fashionable London hotel, Bertram’s, with a relative. Sixty years later, the elderly resident of St. Mary Mead’s pay another visit to the hotel and discovers that its interior has not really changed over the years. Miss Marple is there She is there to meet an old friend named Lady Selina Hazy, who is visiting for the reading of a will of her millionaire second cousin, who had been declared dead after being missing for seven years and owned Bertram’s. Also there for the reading of the hotel owner’s will are his ex-wife Bess, Lady Sedgwick; and daughter Elvira Blake. Bertram’s Hotel also seemed to be used as a center to smuggle Nazi war criminals and their stolen treasure; and for jewel thieves.

Christie’s 1965 novel is not considered one of her stronger ones and I can see why. The story’s murder mystery is rather weak and easy to solve. They mystery behind the hotel proved to be more interesting. The 1987 television movie with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple closely followed the novel. Despite a sluggish pacing, it still proved to be entertaining. Screenwriter Tom McRae decided to “solve” the matter of Christie’s narration by “improving” it with major changes. And you know what? It sucked. Big time. Without a doubt, “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” – at least this 2007 version – is one of the worst Christie adaptations I have ever seen. Period.

One of the first sentences that Miss Marple observes when she arrives at Bertam’s after many years is that the hotel had not changed . . . even after sixty years. And yet that was NOT the impression I encountered. In Christie’s novel and the 1987 film, the elderly sleuth noticed that the hotel’s quiet and elegant atmosphere had remained intact after many years. I NEVER got that impression in this 2007 film . . . certainly not with the noisy bustling going on upon her arrival. To make matters worse, McRae’s script had Louis Armstrong and his band break out into a jam session in one of the hotel’s ballroom. He is joined by one of the writer’s fictional characters, an American-born black jazz singer Amelia Walker.WTF????? I cannot image Louis Armstrong staying at some quaint little London hotel like Bertram’s. The screenplay also had the Lady Sedgwick character receiving clumsily written death threats, Nazi war criminals and their hunters disguised as hotel guests. The screenplay even featured an extra murder victim – a hotel maid named Tilly Rice. It also made the actual murder of Bertram’s commissionaire a lot more complicated than necessary. And to make matters even more worse, McRae added another maid character named Jane Cooper, who becomes a younger version of Miss Marple – another talented amateur sleuth. And she acquired a love interest of her own – an Inspector Larry Byrd, a World War II veteran with post-traumatic stress. He also replaced the much older Chief Inspector Fred Davy character, as the story’s main police investigator. The screenplay allowed the young Miss Cooper to reveal most of the hotel’s mysteries before Miss Marple exposed the actual killer.

I do not mind if changes were made to Christie’s story. I can think of a good number of Christie adaptations in which changes were made to her original novels and ended up being well-made movies. But I feel that those changes needed to be well-written or be necessary as an improvement to the author’s original tale. “At Bertram’s Hotel” was not a perfect or near-perfect novel. But the changes made for this particular adaptation did not improve the story. On the contrary, the changes made for “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” transformed Christie’s rather eccentric tale into one big convoluted mess. The only positive change that emerged in this adaptation was a shorter running time of ninety-three (93) minutes. Thanks to this shorter running time, “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” managed to avoid the occasionally sluggish pacing of the 1987 movie.

The performances in “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” proved to be a mixed bag. I had nothing against Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of the quiet, yet intelligent Miss Jane Marple. She was her usual more than competent self. I enjoyed her performance so much that I wish that the screenplay had not seen fit to saddle her with the Jane Cooper character. Yes, I hated the idea of another amateur sleuth in this tale. But I must admit that Martine McCutcheon gave a very good performance as Jane. But the producers of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” want another amateur sleuth that badly, create another series for her . . . or him. Francesca Annis managed to rise above the material given to her and gave a very funny and entertaining performance as Miss Marple’s old friend, Lady Selina Hazy. However, why do most or all of Miss Marple friends tend to look more glamorous . . . and older than her? Stephen Mangan gave a solid and intense performance as Inspector Larry Byrd. More importantly, he managed to portray a post-traumatic stress victim without engaging in excessive acting. I was not particularly thrilled by McRae and director Dan Zeff’s changes to the Lady Sedgwick character. They replaced Christie’s vivacious and elegant socialite/adventuress into a hard-nosed and somewhat cold businesswoman. However, I cannot deny that actress Polly Walker gave a more than competent performance as Lady Sedgwick, despite the changes to the character.

Naturally, there were the performances that either failed to impress me, or I found troubling. I was not that impressed by Emily Beecham’s portrayal of the young Elvira Blake. I simply found it unmemorable. I can say the same for Mary Nighy’s portrayal of Elvira’s friend, Brigit Milford; Vincent Regan’s performance as hotel commissionaire Mickey Gorman; Nicholas Burns’ portrayal of twin brothers Jack and Joel Britten; and Charles Kay as one Canon Pennyfather, who struck me as a dull and stuffy character. Ed Stoppard portrays a Polish race car driver named Malinowski, who is suspected by many of being a former Nazi. He gave a pretty good performance, although there were a few moments when he dangerously veered into hammy acting. The role of Amelia Walker proved to be singer Mica Paris’ second and (so far) last dramatic role. Mind you, she gave a pretty good performance, but the moment she opened her mouth, I immediately knew she was not an American. I found her accent rather exaggerated at times. I have always been impressed by Peter Davidson in the past. But I must admit that I did not care much for his portrayal of hotel employee Hubert Curtain. I found it unnecessarily exaggerated . . . especially in one scene.

What else can I say? “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” does featured a good deal of atmosphere. Unfortunately, it struck me as the wrong kind of atmosphere for this particular story. And some of the good performances featured in this movie – especially by Geraldine McEwan, Francesca Annis and Polly Walker – could not save the movie from the shabby screenplay written by Tom MacRae. Honestly, I found the whole thing a mess. I only hope that there will be a better written adaptation some time in the future.

“NEMESIS” (2007) Review

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“NEMESIS” (2007) Review

Without a doubt, Agatha Christie’s 1971 novel, “Nemesis”, is one of her most unusual works. It is not as celebrated as 1934’s “Murder on the Orient Express” or her 1926 novel, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”. But it was the last novel she had written. And it possesses a slow, yet melancholic air that I find very rare in her body of work. 

Two adaptations of the novel have aired on British television. BBC aired the first adaptation, which starred Joan Hickson as Jane Marple, in 1987. Twenty years later, the ITV network aired its own version with Geraldine McEwan in the lead. While the 1987 version adhered as close as possible to the novel, this latest version turned out to be a very loose adaptation, thanks to screenwriters Stephen Churchett and Nicolas Winding Refn, who also served as the film’s director.

“NEMESIS” begins in 1940, when a German Luftwaffe pilot is forced to bail from his damaged plane during the Battle of Britain. Not long after he reaches the ground, he is spotted by a young, beautiful woman, who comes to his aid. The movie jumps some eleven years to 1951. Jane Marple has received news about the death of a friend – a financier/philanthropist named John Rafiel aka Faber, who was a refugee from Nazi Germany twenty years earlier. Rafiel recruits her from the grave to solve a murder that the murder may or may not have taken place. And the victim is unknown. All that he has given her are two tickets on the Daffodil Tour Company’s Mystery Tour. Miss Marple recruits her nephew, novelist Raymond West, to accompany her on the tour. During the early stages of the tour, Miss Marple and Raymond realizes that the other members of the tour had also been “selected” by Rafiel. Miss Marple also discovers that she had been recruited the solve the murder or disappearance of a young woman named Verity Hunt – the same woman who had met the German pilot during the war. And the German pilot turned out to be one Michael Faber, Rafiel’s estranged son.

I might as well state it loud and clear. “NEMESIS” is not one of the best Christie adaptations featuring Geraldine McEwan. Refn and Churchett had inflicted so many changes in the plot, it almost left me confused. Not only were some of the characters from Christie’s novel eliminated, new ones were created for the film. Refn and Churchett also changed the identity of the murderer and the crime’s setting. The pair even changed the identity of the Rafiel character from an English millionaire, whom Miss Marple had met in an earlier novel, to a German refugee from Nazi Germany who had befriended the elderly sleuth (he remained wealthy). And his son transformed from a ne’er-do-well to a former Luftwaffe pilot, embittered by his father’s refusal to help him and Verity during the war.

The addition of World War II as a setting for Verity’s death brought about other changes that left me scratching my head in confusion. In the novel, another young woman was murdered, so that her body would be confused with Verity’s. In the movie, there was some kind of confusion over the identity of a RAF pilot who had died at the very convent where Verity was serving, when she first met Michael. I wish I could explain the whole matter, but I found it rather confusing. Come to think of it, I found the Verity/Nora body switching rather confusing in Christie’s novel. The war did serve the movie’s plot in one positive manner – namely the character of Michael Faber and his brief, wartime romance with Verity. Their romance proved to be more poignant and tragic than Verity’s literary romance with Michael Rafiel.

The cast for “NEMESIS” proved to be a mixed bag. There were some . . . theatrical performances that I found wince inducing. The worst came from Ronni Ancona, who gave a ridiculously hysterical performance as Verity’s half-cousin and Raymond West’s former paramour, the aristocratic Amanda Dalrymple. Another over-the-top performance came from Emily Woof, who portrayed Rowena Waddy, the possessive wife of war veteran and former RAF pilot, Martin Waddy. At the other extreme, Amanda Burton gave a disturbingly minimalist performance as Sister Clotilde, one of the two nuns who knew Verity. Perhaps I had been kind by describing Burton’s performance as “minimalist”. Frankly, she struck me as silent and wooden.

Thankfully, there were plenty of first-rate portrayals that made “NEMESIS” enjoyable. I was impressed by solid performances from Laura Michelle Kelly, who had to portray two characters – Verity Hunt and a young wife named Margaret Lumley; George Cole, who portrayed the former butler of Verity’s illegitimate father; Ruth Wilson, who gave a charming performance as the tour’s guide and potential paramour for Raymond; Lee Ingleby, who portrayed the main investigator and budding novelist, DC Colin Hards; and Anne Reid, who portrayed Sister Clotilde’s older and pragmatic colleague, Sister Agnes.

But there were at least four outstanding performances from the cast. One came from Will Mellor, whose portrayal of Martin Waddy, the war veteran with the damaged face, struck me as very intense and sympathetic. An equally intense performance came from the future “DOWNTON ABBEY” star, Dan Stevens. He did an outstanding job in portraying the many aspects of Michael Faber’s complex personality. Richard E. Grant was a marvelous addition as Miss Marple’s nephew and traveling companion, the witty Raymond West. I was amazed at how he managed to create some kind of screen chemistry with more than one cast member – especially Ruth Wilson, Lee Ingleby and Geraldine McEwan. Speaking of Ms. McEwan, she was superb as the quiet and always observant, Jane Marple. She also infused a great deal of wit and warmth into her portrayal of the elderly sleuth.

“NEMESIS” has some aspects of its production to admire. Production designer Michael Pickwoad, costumer designer Sheena Napier and cinematographer Larry Smith all did a great job in contributing to the movie’s early 1950s setting and even the 1940 preclude. The movie could also boast some fine performances, especially from Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple. But many of the changes to Agatha Christie’s original plot left me shaking my head in confusion. Honestly, it is not one of the better adaptations I have seen. The 1987 adaptation is better . . . but only slightly better.

“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

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“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

William Makepeace Thackery’s 1848 novel about the life and travails of an ambitious young woman in early 19th century has generated many film and television adaptations. One of them turned out to be the 2004 movie that was directed by Mira Nair.

“VANITY FAIR” covers the early adulthood of one Becky Sharp, the pretty and ambitious daughter of an English not-so-successful painter and a French dancer during the early years from 1802 to 1830. The movie covers Becky’s life during her impoverished childhood with her painter father, during her last day as a student at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies, where she meets her only friend Amelia Sedley – the only daughter of a slightly wealthy gentleman and her years as a governess for the daughters of a crude, yet genial baronet named Sir Pitt Crawley. While working for the Crawleys, Becky meets and falls in love with Sir Pitt’s younger son, Captain Rawdon Crawley. When Sir Pitt proposes marriage to Becky, she shocks the family with news of her secret marriage to Rawdon. The couple is ostracized and ends up living in London on Rawdon’s military pay and gambling winnings. They also become reacquainted with Amelia Sedley, who has her own problems. When her father loses his fortune, the father of her beau, George Osborne, tries to arrange a marriage between him and a Jamaican heiress. Leery of the idea of marrying a woman of mixed blood, he marries Amelia behind Mr. Obsorne’s back, and the latter disinherits him. Not long after George and Amelia’s marriage, word reaches Britain of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and control of France. Becky and Amelia follow Rawdon, George, and Dobbin, who are suddenly deployed to Brussels as part of the Duke of Wellington’s army. And life for Becky and those close to her prove to be even more difficult.

The first thing I noticed about “VANITY FAIR” was that it was one of the most beautiful looking movies I have ever seen in recent years. Beautiful and colorful. A part of me wonders if director Mira Nair was responsible for the movie’s overall look. Some people might complain and describe the movie’s look as garish. I would be the first to disagree. Despite its color – dominated by a rich and deep red that has always appealed to me – “VANITY FAIR” has also struck me as rather elegant looking film, thanks to cinematographer Declan Quinn. But he was not the only one responsible for the film’s visual look. Maria Djurkovic’s production designs and the work from the art direction team – Nick Palmer, Sam Stokes and Lucinda Thomson. All did an excellent job of not only creating what I believe to be one of the most colorful and elegant films I have ever seen, but also in re-creating early 19th century Britain, Belgium, Germany and India. But I do have a special place in my heart for Beatrix Aruna Pasztor’s costume designs. I found them absolutely ravishing. Colorful . . . gorgeous. I am aware that many did not find them historically accurate. Pasztor put a bit more Hollywood into her designs than history. But I simply do not care. I love them. And to express this love, the following is a brief sample of her costumes worn by actress Reese Witherspoon:

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I understand that Witherspoon was pregnant at the time and Pasztor had to accommodate the actress’ pregnancy for her costumes. Judging from what I saw on the screen, I am beginning to believe that Witherspoon’s pregnancy served her role in the story just fine.

Now that I have raved over the movie’s visual look and style, I might as well talk about the movie’s adaptation. When I first heard about “VANITY FAIR”, the word-of-mouth on the Web seemed to be pretty negative. Thackery’s novel is a long one – written in twenty parts. Naturally, a movie with a running time of 141 minutes was not about to cover everything in the story. And I have never been one of those purists who believe that a movie or television adaptation had to be completely faithful to its source. Quite frankly, it is impossible for any movie or television miniseries to achieve. And so, it was not that surprising that the screenplay written by Julian Fellowes, Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet would not prove to be an accurate adaptation. I expected that. However, there were some changes I could have done without.

Becky Sharp has always been one of the most intriguing female characters in literary history. Among the traits that have made her fascinating were her ambitions, amorality, talent for manipulation and sharp tongue. As much as I enjoyed Reese Witherspoon’s performance in the movie – and I really did – I thought it was a mistake for Fellowes, Faulk and Skeet to make Becky a more “likeable” personality in the movie’s first half. One, it took a little bite not only out of the character, but from the story’s satirical style, as well. And two, I found this change unnecessary, considering that literary fans have always liked the darker Becky anyway. Thankfully, this vanilla-style Becky Sharp disappeared in the movie’s second half, as the three screenwriters returned to Thackery’s sharper and darker portrayal of the character. I was also a little disappointed with the movie’s sequence featuring Becky’s stay at the Sedley home and her seduction of Amelia’s older brother, Jos. I realize that as a movie adaptation, “VANITY FAIR” was not bound to be completely accurate as a story. But I was rather disappointed with the sequence featuring Becky’s visit to the Sedley home at Russell Square in London. Perhaps it was just me, but I found that particular sequence somewhat rushed. I was also disappointed by Nair and producer Jannette Day’s decision to delete the scene featuring Becky’s final meeting with her estranged son, Rawdy Crawley. This is not out of some desire to see Robert Pattinson on the screen. Considering that the movie’s second half did not hesitate to reveal Becky’s lack of warmth toward her son, I felt that this last scene could have remained before she departed Europe for India with Jos.

Despite my complaints and the negative view of the movie by moviegoers that demanded complete accuracy, I still enjoyed “VANITY FAIR” very much. Although I was a little disappointed in the movie’s lighter portrayal of the Becky Sharp, I did enjoy some of the other changes. I had no problem with the addition of a scene from Becky’s childhood in which she first meets Lord Steyne. I felt that this scene served as a strong and plausible omen of her future relationship with the aristocrat. Unlike others, I had no problems with Becky’s fate in the end of the movie. I have always liked the character, regardless of her amoral personality. And for once, it was nice to see her have some kind of happy ending – even with the likes of the lovesick Jos Sedley. Otherwise, I felt that “VANITY FAIR” covered a good deal of Thackery’s novel with a sense of humor and flair.

I have always found it odd that most people seemed taken aback by an American in a British role more so than a Briton in an American role. After all, it really depends upon the individual actor or actress on whether he or she can handle a different accent. In the case of Reese Witherspoon, she used a passable British accent, even if it was not completely authentic. More importantly, not only did she give an excellent performance, despite the writers’ changes in Becky’s character, she was also excellent in the movie’s second half, which revealed Becky’s darker nature.

Witherspoon was ably assisted with a first-rate cast. The movie featured fine performances from the likes of James Purefoy, Deborah Findley, Tony Maudsley, Geraldine McEwan, Eileen Atkins, Douglas Hodge, Natasha Little (who portrayed Becky Sharp in the 1998 television adaptation of the novel), and especially Romola Garai and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Amelia Sedley and George Osborne. But I was especially impressed by a handful of performances that belonged to Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans and Gabriel Byrne. Bob Hoskins was a delight as the slightly crude and lovesick Sir Pitt Crawley. Rhys Ifans gave one of his most subtle performances as the upright and slightly self-righteous William Dobbins, who harbored a unrequited love for Amelia. Jim Broadbent gave an intense performance as George’s ambitious and grasping father. And Gabriel Byrne was both subtle and cruel as the lustful and self-indulgent Marquis of Steyne.

In the end, I have to say that I cannot share the negative opinions of “VANITY FAIR”. I realize that it is not a “pure” adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s novel or that it is perfect. But honestly, I do not care. Despite its flaws, “VANITY FAIR” proved to be a very entertaining movie for me. And I would have no problem watching it as much as possible in the future.

“TOWARDS ZERO” (2007) Review

“TOWARDS ZERO” (2007) Review

When it comes to the television adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple novels, I tend to stick with those that featured the late Joan Hickson as the elderly sleuth. However, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to watch a movie that starred Geraldine McEwan as Miss Jane Marple. And this movie is the 2007 adaptation of Christie’s 1944 novel called “Towards Zero”

The adaptation of Christie’s novel has drawn a good deal of criticism from purists. First of all, the novel is not a Jane Marple mystery. Instead, the main investigator in “Towards Zero” turned out to be Superintendant Battle, who had been featured in a few other Christie novels, including one Hercule Poirot tale – ”Cards on the Table”. However, Battle did not appear in the 2007 adaptation. Jane Marple replaced him as the story’s main detective, with the police represented by Alan Davies as one Superintendant Mallard. Since ”Towards Zero” has always been one of my favorite Christie novels, I decided to give the movie a chance.

In ”TOWARDS ZERO”, Jane Marple is invited to a house party hosted by an old school friend named Lady Camilla Tressilian. Also included in the party are the following:

*Neville Strange – Professional tennis star and Lady Tressilian’s ward

*Kay Strange – Neville’s younger second wife

*Audrey Strange – Neville’s reserved ex-wife

*Thomas Royce – Owner of a Malaysian plantation and Audrey’s distant cousin

*Mary Aldin – Lady Tressilian’s companion

*Ted Latimer – Kay’s childhood friend

*Mr. Treves- Lady Tressilian’s friend and solicitor

The house party turned out to be a tense affair, due to emotions running rampant between the characters. Neville discovered that he was still in love with his first wife, Audrey. She seemed to harbor emotions for him, despite her reserved behavior. Thomas seemed jealous of Neville, due to his love for Audrey. Mary seemed attracted to Thomas and a little envious of Audrey. Kay was obviously jealous of Audrey. And Ted was also jealous of Neville, due to his love for Kay.

During a supper party, Mr. Treves recalled an old murder case in which a child had made deliberate preparations to kill another and make it look like an accident. That child, according to Mr. Treves, had a peculiar physical trait. All of the suspects possessed a peculiar physical trait. And following the supper party, Mr. Treves died from a heart attack after climbing some stairs that lead to his hotel room. Someone had placed a NOT IN SERVICE sign in front of his hotel’s elevator. Another day or two later, this same person brutally murdered old Lady Tressilian with a blow to the head.

As I had earlier stated, the 1944 novel has always been a favorite of mine. Christie had crafted a complex and original mystery filled with characters of great psychological depth. By inserting another Christie creation – Jane Marple – as the story’s main investigator, I feared that this 2007 adaptation would prove to be a bust. Imagine my surprise when my fears proved to be groundless. Thanks to director David Grindley and screenwriter Kevin Elyot, I found myself surprisingly satisfied with this movie. Despite a few changes – namely the post-World War II setting, Jane Marple as the story’s main detective, the deletion of a character named Andrew MacWhirter, the addition of another character named Diana, the new police officer in charge of the case – Superintendant Mallard, and the budding romance in the story’s conclusion that did not happen in the novel. Perhaps that is why I had enjoyed it so much. Both Grindley and Elyot recognized the novel’s first-rate plot and tried to follow it as closely as possible.

The production values for ”TOWARDS ZERO” impressed me as well. Production designer Michael Pickwoad did an excellent job in re-creating Britain of the early-to-mid 1950s. And he was ably supported by Sue Gibson’s beautiful photography, which struck me as rich in color and sharp. Sheena Napier’s costumes not only captured the era perfectly, but also the personality of each character. I do have one quibble – namely Saffron Burrows’ hairstyle. I am aware that some women wore their hair slightly long past the shoulders. But I got the impression that the hairdresser could not decide whether to give Burrows a 1950s hairstyle or a modern one. Her hair struck me as a confusing mixture of the mid 20th century and the early 21st century.

The cast turned out better than I had expected. If I must be honest, I could not spot a bad performance amongst the entire cast . . . even from Julian Sands, whom I have never been that impressed by in the past. But there were a handful that really impressed me. One came from Saffron Burrows, who gave one of the most enigmatic and intense performances I have ever encountered in a Christie film. I could never tell whether her character was guilty of the two murders or not. And Burrows did a superb job in conveying this ambiguity of the Audrey Strange character with very little dialogue. I was also impressed by Zoe Tapper’s portrayal of the more extroverted Kay Strange. Tapper could have easily given an over-the-top performance, considering the type of character she had portrayed. But the actress conveyed Kay’s passionate nature without turning the character into a one-note scream fest. I also enjoyed Alan Davies as Superintendant Mallard, the new police investigator in this mystery. I not only enjoyed his wit, but also his transformation from his contempt toward Jane Marple’s investigative skills to a full partnership with the elderly amateur sleuth. And Eileen Atkins provided a great deal of comic relief as the second victim, Lady Camilla Tressilian. Not only did she provide much of the story’s sharp humor, Atkins also captured the character’s bombastic and arrogant nature. Her Lady Tressilian struck me as a modern day Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but with a stronger moral center.

But I believe the two best performances came from Greg Wise and Geraldine McEwan as Jane Marple. I found myself completely surprised by Wise’s impressive portrayal of the tennis pro with the two wives, Neville Strange. His performance perfectly portrayed Neville as the complex force of nature that had a major impact upon the other characters in”TOWARDS ZERO”, without indulging in any hammy acting. But I was more than impressed by Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of Jane Marple. I had seen McEwan’s portrayal of Miss Marple in ”THE SITFORD MYSTERY”, and found her performance ridiculously mannered and annoying. No such exaggerated mannerisms marred McEwan’s performance in”TOWARDS ZERO”. The actress gave a subtle performance laced with subtle humor and her character’s intelligence. One of McEwan’s best moments featured very little dialogue on her part in a scene between Miss Marple and the verbose Lady Tressilian, inside the latter’s bedroom.

Most Agatha Christie purists might automatically dismiss this adaptation of ”TOWARDS ZERO”. Especially since the script changed the main investigator from the literary Superintendant Battle to a cinematic Jane Marple. But despite this major change, along with another that included a romance that emerged in the film’s final scene; David Grindley’s direction and Kevin Elyot’s script remained surprisingly faithful to Agatha Christie’s novel. Normally, I would care less about changes in an adaptation of a novel. But in the case of ”TOWARDS ZERO”, this close adherence ended up working in the movie’s favor.