“A POCKET FULL OF RYE” (2009) Review

 

“A POCKET FULL OF RYE” (2009) Review

While the producers of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” seemed to regard the 1930s as the “golden age” of Hercule Poirot mysteries, I get the feeling that the producers for both “MISS MARPLE” and the recent “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” regard the 1950s in a similar manner for those stories featuring Miss Jane Marple. As a fervent reader of Christie’s novels, I must admit that I believe most of the best Jane Marple mysteries had been published during the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. One of those mysteries was the 1953 novel, “A Pocket Full of Rye”.

The novel was first adapted into a television movie in the mid-1980s, which starred Joan Hickson. Another television adaptation aired on ITV some twenty-four-and-a-half years later, starring Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple. “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” centered around the mysterious death of a London businessman named Rex Fortescue. After drinking his morning tea at his office, the businessman dies suddenly, attracting the attention of the police in the form of Inspector Neele. Neele and his men discover rye grain in the dead man’s pocket and that he had died from taxine, an alkaloid poison obtained from the leaves or berries of the yew tree. Neele realizes that Fortescue may have been initially poisoned at home due to presence of yew trees at the latter’s country home and the time it took for the poison to work.

Fortescue’s second and much younger wife, Adele, becomes the main suspect, due to her affair with a golf instructor at a nearby resort named Vivian Dubois. However, Adele is murdered, while drinking tea laced with cyanide. On the same day, a third victim is found in the garden, all tangled in the clothesline and with a peg on her nose. She was a maid named Gladys, who used to work for Jane Marple. When Gladys and Adele’s murders are reported in the media, Miss Marple pays a visit to the Fortescue home to learn what happened to Gladys. Miss Marple informs Inspector Neele that she believes the three murders adhered to the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”, which may have something to do with one of Rex Fortescue’s old dealings – the Blackbird Mine in Kenya, over which he was suspected of having killed his partner, MacKenzie in order to swindle it from the latter’s family. However, an investigation of Fortescue’s financial holdings and family connections reveal the possibility of other motives, as the following list of suspects would attest:

*Percival Fortescue – Rex’s older son, who was worried over the financier’s erratic handling of the family business
*Jennifer Fortescue – Percival’s wife, who disliked her father-in-law
*Lance Fortescue – Rex’s younger son, a former embezzler who had arrived home from overseas on the day of Adele and Gladys’ murders
*Patricia Fortescue – Lance’s aristocratic wife, who had been unlucky with her past two husbands
*Elaine Fortescue – Rex’s only daughter, who resented his opposition to her romance with a schoolteacher
*Gerald Wright – Elaine’s fiancé, a schoolteacher who resented Rex’s hostile attitude toward him
*Mary Dove – the Fortescues’ efficient housekeeper, who harbored a few secrets in her past
*Vivian Dubois – Adele’s lover and professional golf instructor
*Mrs. MacKenzie – the slightly senile widow of Rex’s former partner, who urged her children to seek revenge against the financier

I honestly did not know how I would view “A POCKET FULL OF RYE”. To my surprise, I enjoyed it very much . . . aside from a few scenes that I felt were out of place. The movie turned out to be a well-paced mystery that featured some solid acting from the cast. Although not completely faithful to Christie’s novel, the television movie proved to be a little more faithful, thanks to screenwriter Kevin Elyot and director Charlie Palmer. The character of Miss Henderson, Rex’s religious sister-in-law from his first marriage, was deleted from this production. And I did not miss her. I am also very grateful that Elyot and Palmer stuck to the novel’s original ending and avoided a ridiculous chase sequence that seemed to mar the 1985 adaptation. Although there was nothing really dramatic about the story’s final scene, it projected an air of justice finally achieved that I found particularly satisfying, thanks to Julia McKenzie’s performance.

I was also impressed by the movie’s production values. One, production designer Jeff Tessler and his crew did a top-notch job of re-creating the movie’s mid-1950s setting. I should add . . . “as usual”. After all, Tessler worked as production designer for the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” series since it debuted back in 2004. “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” proved to be the first of four episodes for the series, in which she served as costume designer. Her work in this film provided audiences with the color and top-notch skill in which she created costumes for that particular time period. Another veteran of the “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” was cinematographer Cinders Forshaw, whose sharp and colorful photography proved to be one of the hallmarks of the series. One thing I cannot deny about “A POCKET FULL OF RYE”, it is damn beautiful to look at.

Did I have any problems with the movie? Well . . . yes. A few. Actually, I have only one major problem with the production . . . namely the addition of sexual situations in at least two or three scenes in the film. I am not a prude. Trust me, I am not. But . . . I found the sexual scenes featured in “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” out of place. Yes, the Christie novels have featured the topic of sex in many variations – including adultery, incest and homosexuality. And I have seen on-screen sex in one other production – namely 1965’s “TEN LITTLE INDIANS” and 2004’s “DEATH ON THE NILE”. I have never seen “TEN LITTLE INDIANS”. But the sex featured in “DEATH ON THE NILE” seemed so minimalized. I can say otherwise about “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” and the performers involved were clothed. But the way Palmer shot the scenes seemed so in-your-face. I can tolerate the scene featuring Adele Fortescue and Vivian Dubois. Personally, I thought their sex scene pretty much fit the narrative and confirmed (in a rather ham fisted manner) that the pair was involved in an affair. But the sex scenes featuring Lance and Patricia Fortescue seemed just as ham fisted. Even worse, I could not see how they served the narrative. The scene (or scenes) seemed to come out of no where.

I can certainly state that I had no problems with the performances in this production. Well, I had a problem with one performance. Julia McKenzie was excellent as soft-spoken Jane Marple, who seemed very determined to learn the murderer’s identity, due to her past with one of the victims. I can also say the same about Matthew MacFadyen’s performance, which struck me as intelligent, yet deliciously sardonic as Inspector Neele. I also enjoyed Helen Baxendale’s subtle performance as the quiet, yet observant housekeeper, Mary Dove. On the other hand, Rupert Graves gave an exuberant and very entertaining portrayal of the Fortescue family’s black sheep, Lance. And he clicked very well with actress Lucy Cohu, who gave a charming performance as Lance’s wife, Patricia. Another interesting performance came from Liz White, who portrayed Rex Fortescue’s enigmatic daughter-in-law, Jennifer. Actually, I believe she gave one of the better performances in the movie. Another first-rate performance came from Anna Madeley, who portrayed Rex’s shallow and adulterous wife, Adele.

I really enjoyed Joseph Beattie’s portrayal of Adele’s sexy, yet desperate lover, Vivian Dubois. And Ben Miles gave a subtle, yet complex performance as Rex’s pragmatic older son, Percival. Kenneth Cranham, Laura Haddock and Prunella Scales gave memorable performances as Rex Fortescue, his secretary, Miss Grosvenor and Mrs. MacKenzie. It seemed a pity they were not on the screen long enough for me to truly enjoy their performances. “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” also featured solid performances from Hattie Morahan, Chris Larkin, Ken Campbell, Wendy Richards and Rose Heiney.

“A POCKET FULL OF RYE” proved to be an entertaining movie and a worthy adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1953 novel. Along with a fine cast led by Julia McKenzie, I thought director Charlie Palmer and screenwriter Kevin Elyot handled the adaptation very well, aside from the sex scenes that struck me as unnecessary. Despite that . . . setback, I still managed to enjoy the movie.

 

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“RETURN TO CRANFORD” (2009) Review

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“RETURN TO CRANFORD” (2009) Review

Due to the success of the 2007 miniseries, “CRANFORD”, the BBC aired a two-part sequel called “RETURN TO CRANFORD” (also known as the “CRANFORD CHRISTMAS SPECIAL”), some two years later. Like the original miniseries, it was adapted by Heidi Thomas and directed by Simon Curtis. 

“RETURN TO CRANFORD” was based on material from Elizabeth Gaskell’s two novellas and a short story – “Cranford”,“The Mooreland Cottage”, and “The Cage at Cranford”, were all published between 1849 and 1863. Also, themes from“My Lady Ludlow”“Mr. Harrison’s Confessions”, and “The Last Generation in England” were included to provide continuity with the first miniseries. The new miniseries took place between August and December 1844. The citizens of Cranford find themselves facing major changes in their society, as the railroad continues to be constructed near the edge of town. In fact, I was surprised to learn that a great deal of the story surrounding the new railroad was not in any of Gaskell’s novellas and short story. Only the storylines featuring about Mrs. Jameson’s (Barbara Flynn) cousin, Lady Glenmire (Celia Imrie) and Captain Brown (Jim Carter), Miss Pole’s (Imelda Staunton) Parisian “cage” for her pet cockatoo, and a magician named Signor Brunoni (Tim Curry) putting on a show came from Gaskell’s works.

I have to be frank. It did not bother me that most of the material featured in the miniseries did not come from any of Gaskell’s novellas and short stories. Thanks to some decent writing by Heidi Thomas, I believe that it all worked out fine. Unlike the 2007 miniseries, “CRANFORD”, the screenplay for “RETURN TO CRANFORD” seemed tighter and more focused. In fact, I noticed that the majority of major storylines featured in the miniseries have ties to the main story about the railroad’s construction. Because of this, “RETURN TO CRANFORD” avoided the episodic style of storytelling that I believe marred “CRANFORD”. My favorite storyline featured the budding romance between two newcomers to the town of Cranford – William Buxton (Tom Hiddleston), the Eton-educated son of a salt baron (Jonathan Pryce) and Peggy Bell (Jodie Whittaker), the daughter of a less-affluent widow (Lesley Sharp). Mr. Buxton wants William to marry his ward, the Brussels-educated Erminia (Michelle Dockery). But neither are interested in each other. And Peggy has to deal with her ambitious and greedy brother, Edward (Matthew McNulty), who dislikes William. What I liked best about“RETURN TO CRANFORD” was that most of the storylines were tied to the new rail line being constructed near Cranford – even the William/Peggy romance.

As much as I hate to admit it, “RETURN TO CRANFORD” had its problems. Another storyline featured the problematic pregnancy suffered by Miss Matty’s maid, Martha Hearne (Claudie Blakley). The problem arose, due to the lack of doctors in Cranford. And I found this confusing. The 2007 miniseries ended with two doctors residing in the town – the recently married Dr. Frank Harrison and longtime resident Dr. Morgan. A year later, both no longer resided in Cranford and Heidi Thomas’ script never revealed their whereabouts or fate. Thomas’ real misstep featured the death of LadyLudlow (Francesca Annis) and the arrival of her ne’er-do-well son, Septimus (Rory Kinnear). The latter’s attempt to cheat young Harry Gregson (Alex Etel) out of the money he had inherited from the late Mr. Carter was a poorly conceived and written storyline. And despite the built-up, it failed to have any real impact upon the Harry Gregson character, due to its vague ending. As much as I found Signor Brunoni’s Christmas show rather charming, I thought it also reeked of a sentimentality that made my teeth hurt. Especially when Miss Matty’s reunion with Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan) and his daughter entered the picture.

The production design for “RETURN TO CRANFORD” was top notch as ever. And Alison Beard’s supervision of the costumes proved to be just as first-rate as Jenny Beavan’s work in the 2007 miniseries. The cast continued its first-rate work from the previous miniseries – especially Judi Dench as Miss Matty Jenkyns, Imelda Staunton as town gossip Octavia Poole, Francesca Annis as the aristocratic Lady Ludlow, Emma Fielding as her assistant Laurentia Galindo, Alex Etel as Harry Gregson, Julia McKenzie as Mrs. Forrester, Jim Carter as Mr. Brown, Alex Jennings as the Reverend Hutton and Barbara Flynn as the pretentious Mrs. Jamieson. But the newcomers that impressed were Tom Huddleston as William Buxton, Jonathan Pryce as the tyrannical Mr. Buxton, Jodie Whittaker as Peggy Bell, Celia Imrie as the earthy Lady Glemire and Tim Curry as the warm-hearted magician Signor Brunoni.

For a while, I had been reluctant to watch “RETURN TO CRANFORD”. Because it was a sequel to the 2007 miniseries, I figured that it could never be as good as “CRANFORD”. I was wrong. I do not know if I would consider it better than the first miniseries. But the latter is certainly not better than the sequel. And ”RETURN TO CRANFORD” does have one major advantage . . . namely Heidi Thomas’ screenplay turned out to be more tightly written, due to her decision not to use much of Elizabeth Gaskell’s material. Personally, I find that rather ironic.

“CRANFORD” (2007) Review

“CRANFORD” (2007) Review

Nearly four years ago, the BBC aired a five-part miniseries adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s series of stories about a small town in North West England. After viewing the 2004 miniseries, ”NORTH AND SOUTH”, my curiosity regarding the 2007 miniseries became piqued and I turned my attention toward it. 

Created by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, directed by Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, and adapted by Heidi Thomas;”CRANFORD” is based upon three of Gaskell’s novellas published between 1849 and 1858 – ”Cranford””My Lady Ludlow”, and ”Mr Harrison’s Confessions”. Birtwistle, Conklin and Thomas took aspects of Gaskell’s stories, re-shuffled them and added some of their own plotlines to create the five-episode miniseries. ”CRANFORD” mainly focused upon the small English village between 1842-1843, during the early years of the Victorian Age. On the surface, Cranford seemed like an idyllic community in which time remained stuck in the late Georgian Age. However, progress – both technological and social – began its intrusion upon the community for better or worse. The arrival of a young doctor named Frank Harrison with modern new ideas about medical practices, and a railway construction crew on the town’s outskirts that meant the arrival of the railway, change and possibly unwelcomed citizens; seemed to be the prime symbols of the encroaching Industrial Age.

Many humorous and tragic incidents shown as minor plotlines are scattered throughout ”CRANFORD”. But the main stories seemed to focus upon the following characters:

*Miss Matilda “Matty” Jenkyns – the younger of two elderly sisters who had to endure a series of travails that included the death of a loved one, the reunion with an old love and the loss of her income.

*Dr. Frank Harrison – Cranford’s new young doctor who has to struggle to win the trust of Cranford’s citizens and the love of the vicar’s oldest daughter, Sophy Hutton.

*Lady Ludlow – the Lady of Hanbury Court who struggles to maintain funds for her spendthrift son and heir living in Italy.

*Mr. Edmund Carter – Lady Ludlow’s land agent, who views Lady Ludlow’s attempts to raise funds for her dissolute son with a leery eye and clashes with his employer over the fate of the young son of a poacher.

*Harry Gregson – the very son of the poacher, whom Mr. Carter views as promising and whom Lady Ludlow views as someone who should remain in his station.

*Octavia Pole – a spinster and Cranford’s town gossip who proves to be the subject of a series of hilarious events.

I realize that ”CRANFORD” is a highly acclaimed program. And I also understand why it became so popular. The production team for “CRANFORD” did an excellent job in conveying television viewers back in time to the early Victorian Age. The miniseries possessed some very whimsical moments that I found particularly funny. These moments included Miss Deborah Jenkyns’ assistance in helping Miss Jessie Brown and Major Gordon stay in beat during their rendition of ”Loch Lomond” with a spoon and a teacup; Miss Pole’s hysteria over a thief in Cranford; Caroline Tomkinson’ infatuation with Dr. Harrison; and especially the incident regarding the cat that swallowed Mrs. Forrester’s valuable lace.

Yet, ”CRANFORD” had its poignant moments. Dr. Harrison’s futile efforts to save young Walter Hutton from the croup, along with Miss Deborah Jenkyns’ death allowed Episode 2 to end on a sober note. And the doctor’s more successful efforts to save Sophy Hutton from typhoid gave the last episode a great deal of drama and angst. I found it almost difficult to watch Miss Matty endure one crisis after another – until she finally prevailed with the establishment of her own tea shop, with the help of the ladies of Cranford and her reunion with her long lost brother. My heartstrings also tugged when the conflict between Mr. Carter and Lady Ludlow over Harry Gregson ended on a tragic, yet poignant note. But the one scene that left me in tears turned out to be the series’ final shot of Cranford’s citizens bidding good-bye to the recently married Dr. Harrison and Sophy. The miniseries closed on what seemed to be a real sense of community.

And that is what the theme of ”CRANFORD” seemed to be about – at least to me. Community. However, this theme and the Gaskell novellas that the miniseries were based upon have led me to a conclusion. There seemed to be a lack of balance or blending between the series’ format and the material. If ”CRANFORD” had been based upon one novel or a series of novels that served as a continuing saga, I would never have any problems with its tight structure of a five-episode miniseries. But ”CRANFORD” was based upon three novellas written over a period of time that were certainly not part of a continuing saga. And if I must be frank, I personally feel that the miniseries could have served its source of material a lot better as a one or two-season television series.

I realize that producing a television series that was also a period drama would have been more expensive than a miniseries or a series set in the present. But Heidi Thomas’ script seemed vague for the miniseries format. With the exception one particular storyline, ”CRANFORD” seemed to be filled with minor stories that were usually resolved within one to three episodes. For example, the Valentine card storyline that left Dr. Harrison in trouble with the ladies of Cranford stretched across three episodes. Even the railway construction storyline only appeared in three episodes and not in any particular order. Miss Matty’s financial situation only stretched into two episodes. And plots featuring the lace-swallowing cat, Miss Matty’s relationship with Mr. Thomas Holbrook, and Jem Hearne’s broken arm only appeared in one episode. The only storyline that consistently appeared in all five episodes turned out to be the conflict between Lady Ludlow and Mr. Carter over Harry Gregson’s future.

But one cannot deny that ”CRANFORD” was blessed with a first-rate cast. The cream of this cast consisted of a sterling group of veteran British actresses, whose characters dominated the series. However, only a handful of performances really caught my attention. Two of them belonged to Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins as the Jenkyns sisters – the mild-mannered Matty and the domineering Deborah. Judging from their outstanding performances, I can easily understand how one of them earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress and the other won both an Emmy and a BAFTA for Outstanding Lead Actress. Another outstanding performance from a veteran actress came from Francesca Annis, who portrayed the intensely conservative Lady Ludlow. Annis did a wonderful job in conveying her character’s rigid opposition to education for the lower classes and struggle to overcome these feelings in the face of her kindness and compassion. Philip Glenister, who made a name for himself in the 1995 miniseries ”VANITY FAIR”and in the award winning series ”LIFE ON MARS” and its sequel, ”ASHES TO ASHES”; certainly proved his talents as an actor and strong screen presence in his portrayal of the intense, yet very practical Mr. Edmund Carter. I especially enjoyed Glenister’s scenes with Annis, while their characters clashed over the fate of young Harry Gregson. Providing the bulk of comic relief were actresses Imelda Staunton (from 1995’s ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” and ”HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX”) and Julia McKenzie (the new Miss Jane Marple for ITV). They portrayed two of Cranford’s biggest gossips, Miss Octavia Pole and Mrs. Forrester. Staunton seemed truly hilarious, while portraying Miss Pole’s terror and anxiety over becoming the victim of a thief. And not only was McKenzie funny as the finicky Mrs. Forrester, she gave a poignant soliloquy in which her character recalled a past act of kindness from Miss Matty.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed ”CRANFORD”. Thanks to directors Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, along with production designer Donal Woods, screenwriter Heidi Thomas and costume designer Jenny Beavan; the miniseries gave television audiences a warm, humorous and poignant look into village life in early Victorian England. But despite the production team and the cast, I believe the miniseries has a major flaw. Its source material – three novellas written by Elizabeth Gaskell – did not mesh very well with the miniseries format. I believe that ”CRANFORD” would have been better off as a television series. Such a format could have served its stories a lot better.