“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.

Ranking of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” Movies

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With one more season of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” left with David Suchet as the famous literary Belgian detective, I thought it would be nice to rank some of the series’ feature-length movies that aired between 1989 and 2010. I have divided this ranking into two lists – my top five favorite movies and my five least favorite movies: 

RANKING OF “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” MOVIES

Top Five Favorite Movies

1-Five Little Pigs

1. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – In this beautifully poignant tale, Hercule Poirot investigates a fourteen year-old murder in which his client’s mother was erroneously convicted and hanged for.

2-After the Funeral

2. “After the Funeral” (2006) – When a relative of a deceased man questions the nature of his death at a family funeral, she is violently murdered the following day and the family’s solicitor requests Poirot’s help. Better than the novel, the movie has a surprising twist.

3-The ABC Murders

3. “The A.B.C. Murders” (1992) – In this first-rate adaptation of one of Christie’s most original tales, Poirot receives clues and taunting letters from a serial killer who appears to choose his random victims and crime scenes alphabetically.

4-Murder on the Links

4. “Murder on the Links” (1996) – While vacationing in Deauville with his friend, Arthur Hastings, Poirot is approached by a businessman, who claims that someone from the past has been sending him threatening letters. One of my favorites.

5-Sad Cypress

5. “Sad Cypress” (2003) – Poirot is asked to investigate two murders for which a young woman has been convicted in the emotional and satisfying tale.

Top Five Least Favorite Movies

1-Taken at the Flood

1. “Taken at the Flood” (2006) – In this rather unpleasant tale, Poirot is recruited by an upper-class family to investigate the young widow of their late and very rich relative, who has left his money solely to her.

2-The Hollow

2. “The Hollow” (2004) – A favorite with many Christie fans, but not with me, this tale features Poirot’s investigation into the murder of a successful doctor at a country house weekend party.

3-Appointment With Death

3. “Appointment With Death” (2008) – In this sloppy adaptation of one of Christie’s novel, Poirot investigates the death of a wealthy American widow, during his vacation in the Middle East.

4-Hickory Dickory Dock

4. “Hickory Dickory Dock” (1995) – In a tale featuring an annoying nursery rhyme, Poirot’s secretary Miss Lemon persuades Poirot to investigate a series of apparently minor thefts in a university hostel where her sister works, but simple kleptomania soon turns to homicide.

5-One Two Buckle My Shoe

5. “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” (1992) – Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp investigates the alleged suicide of the Belgian detective’s dentist. Despite the heavy political overtones, this movie is nearly sunk by a premature revelation of the killer.

“SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” (2012) Review

 

“SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” (2012) Review

The past ten months has been a busy period for the Brothers Grimm. During that period, there have been two television shows and two movies that featured their work. At least one television series and the two movies retold the literary pair’s story about Snow White, including the recent film, “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN”.

Directed by Rupert Sanders; and written by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini, “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” is a twist on the Snow White tale in which the Huntsman not only becomes the princess’ savior, but also her protector and mentor. In this tale, Snow White is a princess of Tabor and the daughter of King Magnus and Queen Eleanor. After the Queen’s death, King Magnus marries a beautiful woman named Ravenna after rescuing her from an invading force of glass soldiers. As it turns out, Ravenna is a powerful sorceress that controls the glass soldiers. She kills Magnus on their wedding night and seizes control of Tabor. Duke Hammond and his son William (Snow White’s childhood friend) manages to escape the castle. But Snow White is captured by Ravenna’s brother Finn and imprisoned in one of the castle’s towers.

As a decade passes, Ravenna drains the youth from the kingdom’s young women in order to maintain her youth and beauty. When Snow White comes of age, Ravenna learns from her Magic Mirror that the former is destined to destroy her, unless she consumes the young woman’s heart. When Finn is ordered to bring Snow White before Ravenna, the princess manages to escape into the Dark Forest. Eric the Huntsman is a widower who has survived the Dark Forest, and is brought before Ravenna. She orders him to lead Finn in pursuit of Snow White, in exchange for her promise to revive his dead wife. But when Eric learns from Finn that Ravenna will not be able to resurrect his wife, he helps Snow White escape through the Forest. Snow White later promises him gold if he would escort her to Duke Hammond’s Castle. Meanwhile, the Duke’s son William manages to infiltrate Finn’s band in order to find Snow White on his own.

What can I say about “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN”? It is not perfect. Well . . . I had at least two minor and one major problems with the movie. The two minor problems centered around the performances of Chris Hemsworth (Eric the Huntsman) and Charlize Theron (Ravenna). Basically, both gave first-rate performances. I cannot deny that. But . . . there were moments during the movie’s first half hour in which I found it difficult to comprehend Hemsworth’s accent? Was he trying to use a working-class Scots or English accent? Or was he using his own Australian accent? I could not tell. As for Theron . . . she had a few moments of some truly hammy acting. But only a few moments. But the major problem centered around the character of Snow White.

The movie’s final showpiece featured a battle between Snow White and Ravenna’s forces at Tabor’s Castle. The battle also featured the princess fighting along with both Eric and William. When on earth did Snow White learn combat fighting? When? She spent most of the movie’s first thirty minutes either as a young girl or imprisoned in the Castle. I figured that Eric, William or both would teach her how to fight in combat before their forces marched back to Tabor. The movie featured a scene in which Eric taught Snow White on how to stab someone up close . . . but nothing else.

The only reasons I wanted to see “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” were the visual effects and the fact that I was a fan of ABC’s “ONCE UPON A TIME”. That is it. Otherwise, I would not have bothered to pay a ticket to see this film. But I am glad that I did. Because I enjoyed it very much, despite its flaws. Thanks to Daugherty, Hancock and Amini’s script, “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” is part epic, part road movie, part fantasy horror tale and part romance. For me, all of these aspects made this tale about Snow White fascinating to me. And Snow White has never been one of my favorite fairy tales. Director Rupert Sanders not only meshed these attributes into an exciting movie. More importantly, his direction gave the movie a steady pace. I find it amazing that “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” is Sanders’ first feature film.

The most interesting aspect about the film was its love triangle between Snow White, Eric and William. Although Eric was originally supposed to be nothing more than a savior and mentor for Snow White, someone made the decision to add a little spice to their relationship. I suspect that this had something to do with Hemsworth’s age and his chemistry with star Kristin Stewart. The movie did not end with Snow White romantically clenched with one man or the other. Although some people were either disturbed or annoyed at this deliberately vague ending, I was not. I suspect that if Snow White had chosen either Eric or William, she would not have found her choice an easy one – either politically or romantically.

There are other aspects of “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” that I found admirable. One, I was impressed by Dominic Watkins’ production designs, which ranged from horror to light fantasy. I was afraid that the movie would visually turn out to be another fantasy production with another second-rate “LORD OF THE RINGS” look about it. Watkins’ designs were ably enhanced by the special effects team led by Vince Abbott and Greig Fraser’s beautiful photography. And I loved Colleen Atwood’s costume designs. She did a great job for most of the cast. But her designs for Charlize Theron’s evil queen were outstanding. Take a look:

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The performances featured in “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” struck me as pretty damn good. The revelations of the actors portraying the Seven Dwarfs took me by surprised. Toby Jones was the first to catch my eye. Then I realized that a who’s who of well known British character actors were portraying the dwarves – Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, and Eddie Marsan. They were all entertaining, especially Hoskins, McShane and Marsan. More importantly, I was very impressed by their roles in the movie’s final battle. Sam Spruell’s performance as Ravenna’s sleazy brother Finn sruck me as almost as frightening as Charlize Theron’s Queen Ravenna. But only almost. Despite her moments of hammy acting, Theron nearly scared the pants off me, making her Evil Queen just as frightening as the one featured in the 1937 Disney animated film.

I must admit that I was not that impressed by Sam Claflin’s performance as the missionary in last year’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES”. But I suspect that was due to the role he was stuck with. “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” provided him with a much better role as the aristocratic William, who felt guilty over his and his father’s failure to prevent Snow White’s imprisonment following the King’s death. Not only was Claflin was able to strut his stuff in a more interesting role and prove that he could be a first-rate action hero; he also had surprisingly great chemistry with both Stewart and Hemsworth. As for the Australian actor, he was superb as the grieving huntsman, Eric. Okay, I had a few problems with his questionable accent during the movie’s first half hour. However, he overcame that flaw and gave a great and emotionally satisfying performance as a man whose destructive grieving was overcome by his relationship with Snow White. And he also proved that he was more than an action star in a scene in which he gave a beautiful soliloquy regarding Eric’s feelings for the princess. The belle of the ball – at least for me – was actress Kristen Stewart. I must be honest. I am not a fan of the “TWILIGHT” movies or Stewart’s role of Bella Swann. But I certainly enjoyed her performance as Snow White in this film. For the first time, Stewart seemed to be portraying a character that seemed animated, interesting and pro-active. She has great chemistry with both Hemsworth and Claflin. And she did surprisingly well in the action sequences . . . especially in Snow White’s confrontation with Ravenna. I hope to see Stewart in more roles like this.

I heard rumors that due to the movie’s surprising success, Universal Pictures hopes to release a sequel to “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN”. I do not know if this is a good idea. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed the movie very much, despite its flaws. The script proved to be an interesting mixture of fantasy, horror, comedy, romance and a road trip. And the cast, led by Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron, was first-rate. But considering how the movie ended, I simply do not see the need or possibility for a sequel. Besides, I felt more than satisfied with this particular film.

“FIVE LITTLE PIGS” (2003) Review

“FIVE LITTLE PIGS” (2003) Review

 

”FIVE LITTLE PIGS”. That is the name of this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1942 novel. Who would have thought that a story with a title straight from a nursery rhyme would lead me to view it as one of the better screen adaptations of a Christie novel I have ever seen? 

I just gave the game away in the last paragraph, did I? I gave my opinion of ”FIVE LITTLE PIGS” right off the bat. My recent viewing of ”FIVE LITTLE PIGS” made me realize two things – a) it is a well-written and melancholy story with tragic overtones; and b) it is one of the finest Christie adaptations I have ever seen. Hmmm . . . I think I may have repeated myself. Well, I cannot help it. I feel that strongly about this movie.

The story began with Hercule Poirot receiving a visitor – a wealthy young woman from Canada named Lucy Lemarchant, who admitted to being the only child of a famous artist named Amyas Crale. According to her, Crale had been murdered fifteen years ago and Lucy’s mother, Caroline, ended up being arrested, convicted and executed for the murder. Years later, Lucy read a letter from Caroline in which the latter claimed her innocence. Despite his doubts, Poirot agreed to investigate Crale’s death. He ended up interviewing five other people who had been at the Crales’ house party fourteen years earlier – five people whom Poirot dubbed ”the Five Little Pigs”:

*Phillip Blake – a stockbroker and old childhood friend of Amyas Crale
*Meredith Blake – a reclusive former amateur herbalist and Philip’s brother
*Elsa Greer (Lady Dittisham) – a spoiled society lady who had once been Crale’s mistress and subject
*Angela Warren – a disfigured archaeologist and Caroline Crale’s younger sister
*Cecilia Williams – Lucy and Angela’s devoted governess

”FIVE LITTLE PIGS” turned out to be one of those rare Agatha Christie stories in which most of the drama occurred in distant past. What started as a cold case involving the murder of a philandering, yet talented artist, ended as a tale of sad regrets and family tragedy. This was emphasized in the movie’s finale with one last flashback featuring Crayle and Caroline enjoying happier times with their daughter before murder and tragedy struck. That last scene made me realize that the murderer – in an act of emotion – had not only killed the artist, but destroyed a family.

Another one of the movie’s major assets turned out to be its cast. David Suchet gave his usual competent portrayal of Belgian-born sleuth, Hercule Poirot. But I must admit that one of his finest moments – not only in the movie, but during the entire series – came when he exposed the murderer. Suchet did an excellent job of revealing Poirot’s emotional outrage toward the murderer, without any histrionics whatsoever.

There were certain cast members that I believe stood out. Toby Stephens gave a surprisingly poignant performance as Philip Blake, Aymas Crale’s boyhood friend, who harbored a secret passion for the painter. Julie Cox portrayed Aymas’ young mistress, Elsa Bell (the future Lady Dittisham) with an interesting mixture of arrogance and innocence. And Aidan Gillen’s portrayal of Aymas Crale as a self-involved, occasionally immature and passionate seemed spot-on for a character that was supposed to be a talented artist. But my favorite performance came from Rachael Stirling, who portrayed Aymas’ long suffering wife, Caroline. The interesting thing about her performance – at least to me – was that she seemed to be at the center of the story. In the end, it was Stirling – along with Suchet – who carried the film. And she managed to do this with a very subtle performance.

I also have to give kudos to cinematographer Christopher Gunning for his lush photography in the 1920s flashbacks. And costume designer Sheena Napier did a solid job of creating costumes for two eras – the mid 1920s and the late 1930s/early 1940s. But the movie’s real gems turned out to be Kevin Elyot’s adaptation of Christie’s sad and tragic tale and Paul Unwin’s direction. Thanks to the both of them, ”FIVE LITTLE PIGS” ended up being one of the best cinematic adaptations of an Agatha Christie novel I have ever seen.