“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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“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (2008) Review

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (2008) Review

The year 2008 marked the fourth adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel, “Sense and Sensibility”. First aired on the BBC, this three-part miniseries had been adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by John Alexander. 

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” told the story of the two older of three sisters and their financial and romantic travails in early 19th century England. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, along with their mother and young sister, Margaret; found themselves homeless and in financial straits following the death of their father. Their elder half-brother, John Dashwood, had promised their father he would financially compensate them, since the Norland Park estate was entailed to the male heir. Unfortunately, John possessed the backbone of jelly and allowed his venal wife Fanny to convince him into withholding any financial assistance from the Dashwood women. Fanny received a shock when her younger brother, Edward Ferrars, paid a visit and ended up becoming romantically involved with Elinor. Before their romance could flourish; Elinor, her sisters and her mother were forced to leave Norland Park. They settled at a cottage in Devon, owned by Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John Middleton.

Upon settling in Devon, the Dashwoods became acquainted with the gregarious Sir John, his chilly wife and his equally extroverted mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings. Marianne attracted the attention of two potential suitors – Sir John’s neighbor and former Army comrade, Colonel Christopher Brandon; and a handsome young blade named John Willoughby. Being seventeen and emotionally volatile, Marianne preferred the handsome Willoughby over the more stoic Colonel Brandon. And Elinor began to wonder if she would ever lay eyes upon Edward Ferrars again.

Unlike Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s 1995 adaptation of Austen’s novel, John Alexander and Andrew Davies had decided to be a little more faithful to Austen’s novel. They included Lady Middleton, the autocratic Mrs. Ferrars and both Steele sisters – Lucy and Anne – to the story. They also included Edward Ferrars’ brief visit to the Dashwoods’ cottage, the dinner party at Mrs. Ferrars’ London house and a contrite Willoughby’s conversation with Elinor. But for me, being faithful to a literary source does not guarantee a superior production. If Alexander and Davies called themselves creating a production more faithful and superior to the 1995 movie, I do not believe they had succeeded. I am not saying that this ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” was a terrible production. On the contrary, I believe it was first-rate. I simply believe that the 1995 movie was a better adaptation.

This three-part miniseries had a lot going for it. Both Davies and Alexander beautifully captured most of the heart of soul of Austen’s tale. And aside from a few scenes, it was wonderfully paced. ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” captured the financial and social dilemma faced by the Dashwood females, upon the family patriarch’s death. The miniseries’ style permeated with warmth, solidity and color. The production designs created by James Merifield did an excellent job in sending viewers back to early 19th century England. But I must give kudos to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who received a well deserved Emmy nomination for his beautiful photography. The Devon, Hertfordshire and Surrey countryside looked rich and lush in color. I also enjoyed Michele Clapton’s colorful costumes, which earned a BAFTA nomination. Were they historically accurate? I do not know. I am not an expert in early 19th century fashion. However, I do have a question. Was ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” set during the decade of 1800-1809? Or was it set between 1810 and 1819? According to the family tree briefly shown in the following photo, the movie was set around 1800-1801:

There were some aspects of ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” that did not appeal to me. As much as I had enjoyed Merifield’s production designs, I found it disappointing that the majority of the London sequences featured interior shots. Which meant that viewers failed to get a truly rich view of early 19th century London. But most of my quibbles were about a few scenes that struck me as unnecessary. The miniseries opened with a young couple making love in the candlelight. Viewers easily surmised the identities of the pair – John Willoughby and Colonel Brandon’s young ward, Eliza. Perhaps this was Davies’ way of foreshadowing Willoughby’s character and his near seduction of Marianne. This was the first scene I found unnecessary and heavy-handed. There are some stories in which the use of foreshadowing as a literary device work very well. This particular scene failed to work for me. Another scene that struck me as unnecessary was Edward Ferrars’ brief visit to Barton Cottage. This scene was lifted from the novel and was used to foreshadow Elinor’s discovery of his engagement to Lucy Steele. Again, the use of foreshadow failed to work for me. I would have preferred that the audience’s knowledge of the Edward-Lucy engagement had been revealed as a complete surprise to them, as well as to Elinor.

Two more scenes also failed to impress me. Austen’s novel had hinted a duel between Willoughby and Brandon over the former’s seduction of young Eliza. Davies’ screenplay included the duel, after Willoughby’s rejection of Marianne and the birth of his and Eliza’s child. This duel would have served better following Willoughby’s seduction. In fact, I wish that Davies had not included it at all. For a brief moment, I found myself confused on whether the duel was fought over Eliza or Marianne. The scene also seemed to be an indication of Davies and Alexander’s attempt to inject some overt masculinity into Austen’s tale. The last scene that Davies carried over from the novel featured Willoughby’s expression of remorse to Elinor, over his treatment of Marianne. I must admit that I found that scene a little contrived and unnecessary. Willoughby’s reasons behind his abandonment of Marianne and his embarrassment at the assembly ball seemed pretty obvious to me. And in the 1995 version, the expression on Greg Wise’s face fully expressed Willoughby’s remorse more effectively than any of Austen’s (or Davies’) words.

Despite my misgivings, I must admit that ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” possessed a first-rate cast. Both Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield gave solid performances as the story’s two heroines – Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Morahan nicely portrayed the sober and level-headed aspects of Elinor’s personality. Yet at the same time, she conveyed subtle hints of the character’s emotions behind the mask. I found it difficult to believe that Morahan’s Elinor was 19 to 20 years-old in this story. She looked and behaved like a person who was at least 5 to 10 years older. Morahan had a tendency to utilize this ”deer-in-the-headlights” expression, whenever Elinor was surprised. Wakefield gave a decent performance as the volatile Marianne. She portrayed the character as written by Austen – an emotional and thoughtless adolescent with a kind heart. Were young females in their late teens really expected to behave in a mature manner, consistently? My only problem with Wakefield was there were a few moments when her performance seemed mechanical with hardly any style or true skill.

The miniseries received fine support from the likes of Janet Teer as the emotional Mrs. Dashwood, Mark Williams as the jovial Sir John Middleton, Jean Marsh as Mrs. Ferrars, Mark Gatiss as the vacuous John Dashwood and young Lucy Boynton as Margaret Dashwood. In his first scene, Dan Stevens seemed to hint that his interpretation of Edward Ferrars might prove to be a little livelier than past interpretations. It was a hint that failed to flourish. His Edward proved to be just as mild. At least his performance was adequate. When the miniseries first aired in Britain nearly three years ago, the media had declared Dominic Cooper as the new sex symbol of British costume drama. After seeing his performance as John Willoughby, I find this hard to swallow. But he did give a decent performance. There were performances that failed to impress me. One, I had a problem with the Steele sisters. Anna Madeley’s performance as the subtle, yet catty Lucy Steele seemed perfectly fine with me. But I found Daisy Haggard’s broadly comic take on Anne Steele ridiculously overdone. And I never could understand why one Steele sister spoke with a well-bred accent (Lucy) and the other with a regional accent that strongly hinted of the lower classes. Very inconsistent. I also had a problem with Rosanna Lavelle as Sir John’s cold wife, Lady Middleton. She barely seemed to exist. In fact, I never understood why Davies did not follow Emma Thompson’s example by deleting the character altogether. Linda Bassett gave a friendly performance as Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton’s mother. But her portrayal lacked that deliciously meddlesome trait that prevailed in Austen’s novel and the 1995 movie. And I also found Bassett’s accent questionable. I could not tell whether her character was from amongst the upper or middle class.

At least two performances in ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” managed to impress me. One of those performances belonged to Claire Skinner, who portrayed the Dashwood sisters’ bitchy sister-in-law, Fanny Ferrars Dashwood. Skinner was truly superb as the venal and manipulative Fanny, who seemed more than determined to not only rule her husband, but also make her sisters-in-law miserable for the sake of her ego. My favorite Fanny scene featured that delicious montage in which she wore down John’s determination to help his sisters and stepmother financially. The other outstanding performance came from David Morrissey’s portrayal of the stoic Colonel Brandon. As much as I admire Morrissey’s skills as an actor, I have found some of his performances a little too theatrical at times. I certainly cannot say the same about his performance in ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”. He perfectly captured the quiet nuance of his character; and at the same time, expressed Brandon’s passion for Marianne through facial expressions and body language.

”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” may have been marred by scenes that I found unnecessary, and lacked a witty sense of humor and something of an edge; but it still turned out to be an intelligent and solid adaptation of Austen’s novel. And fans of Austen’s novel can thank Andrew Davies’ script, John Alexander’s direction, Sean Bobbitt’s photography and a solid cast lead by Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield.