“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 FOUR FEATHERS” (1977) Review

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“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (1977) Review

I have heard of the 1977 adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’ 1902 adventure film. But I never thought I would see it. Recently, it occurred to me to rent the movie from Netflix, because I have yet to run across it at any store that sells DVDs. I did rent “THE FOUR FEATHERS”. Needless to say, it produced some rather interesting feelings within me. 

Anyone familiar with Mason’s tale knows that “THE FOUR FEATHERS” is the story about a 19th century British Army officer named Harry Faversham, who harbor plans to resign from his commission in the Royal North Surrey Regiment and live out the rest of his days with future wife Ethne Eustace. During a ball held at his family estate, telegrams for Harry and three of his friends – Jack Durrance, William Trench and Thomas Willoughby – ordering them to report for duty, due to their regiment being shipped out to the Sudan to participate in the Mahdist War. Being the first to receive the telegrams, Harry had them destroyed so that he would not have to report for duty a day before his resignation from the Army was due to be official. Realizing what Harry had done, his father ostracized him, his three friends gave him white feathers that labeled him as a coward, and Ethne breaks off their engagement and also hands him a white feather. Also, Harry’s best friend, Captain Durrance, becomes a rival for Ethne. Haunted by his efforts to avoid combat, Harry travels to the Sudan to help his friends any way possible and return their feathers.

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” attracted a good deal of critical acclaim, after it aired on British and American television. The movie also earned a Primetime Emmy nomination. And if I must be honest, I find that particularly surprising. I have seen this movie twice. Granted, it seemed pretty decent as far as television movies go. But . . . an Emmy nomination?“THE FOUR FEATHERS”? It just did not strike me as being that memorable. The Wikipedia site claimed that it was a very faithful to Mason’s 1902 novel. Actually, it was no more faithful than any other adaptation I have seen. But I do feel that the movie’s critical acclaim might be overrated.

The movie can boast its virtues. “THE FOUR FEATHERS” provided a small, but detailed peek into Harry Faversham’s childhood that gave audiences a good idea behind his aversion to continuing his military career. It also featured at least two excellent action sequences – the skirmish that led to the destruction of Durrance’s company and his blindness, and Harry and Trench’s escape from the prison-of-war camp at Omdurman. Dramatic scenes abound in the film, especially one that featured the breakup of Harry and Ethne’s engagement and the former’s final confrontation with his militant father, retired General Faversham. 

And I cannot deny that some very good performances were also featured in “THE FOUR FEATHERS”. David Robb, Harry Andrews and Robin Bailey all gave solid performances. I found Simon Ward’s portrayal of William Trench rather intense, but believable. Both Robert Powell and Jane Seymour were excellent as Jack Durrance and Ethne Eustace. Beau Bridges proved to be an enjoyable surprise in his portrayal of the lead character, Harry Faversham. I recall reading one review of this movie, in which the critic praised the rest of the cast, but put down Bridges’ performance. Apparently, he found the idea of an American portraying a Victorian British military officer unbelievable. I have seen Americans portray British characters before. And quite honestly, I thought Bridges did an excellent job by giving a subtle performance and avoiding histronics . . . unlike his performance in the 1976 film, “SWASHBUCKLER”.

And while I found the production’s quality solid, I did not find it particularly dazzling. I can only assume that as a television production, it would not be on the same quality as a theatrical release. The movie’s costume designs by Olga Lehmann seemed a little more impressive. I especially enjoyed her costumes for Jane Seymour, despite my confusion over whether the costumes reflected the 1870s or the 1880s. But if I must be honest, I have seen other television productions a lot more impressive. I was also disappointed to find that the story’s jingoistic portrayal of the British Empire somewhat off-putting, especially for a television movie that had aired in the 1970s. I would even add that the sympathetic portrayal of Harry’s anti-military attitude struck me as a bit hypocritical, considering that the movie’s conservative view of British imperialism. I must also admit that I found myself slightly repelled at the sight of white English actors portraying Sudanese soldiers. Did the producers really find it that difficult to find non-white actors to portray the Sudanese? Speaking of white actors portraying African ones:

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Yes, ladies and gentlemen. The above photo is an image of British actor Richard Johnson portraying a Sudanese Arab named Abou Fatma, who assists Harry in his efforts to save his friends. Johnson gave a nice, solid performance as Fatma, but . . . why? Why??? Why on earth did the producers cast Johnson in this role? He looked like a performer in a 19th century minstrel show . . . or a cast member from “THE BIRTH OF A NATION”. This kind of wince-inducing casting may have been common in the film industry during the first half of the 20th century. But “THE FOUR FEATHERS” aired on television around 1977/78. Nearly a year after the ABC miniseries, “ROOTS”. What in the hell were the producers and casting director Paul Lee Lander thinking?

Do not get me wrong. “THE FOUR FEATHERS” is a pretty solid adventure movie that can boast a first-rate cast led by Beau Bridges. But I do feel that the movie is critically overrated. I did not find it that impressive, dramatically or production wise. I found the casting of white actors portraying non-white characters rather repulsive. And the movie’s sympathetic portrayal of the character’s anti-military stance in comparison to its pro-conservative portrayal of British imperialism struck me as hypocritical. Still . . . it was not a bad movie.