Hercule Poirot: Appointment with Death on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Poirot: Appointment with Death: David Suchet in Hercule Poirot © 2010 MASTERPIECEThree quarters into the new to Masterpiece Mystery presentation of Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death tonight, her detective Hercule Poirot proclaimed to the roundup of suspects “This case mon ami, is full of the red fish.” I couldn’t agree more. In this 2008 ITV/PBS liberal adaptation by screenwriter Guy Andrews there are red herrings leaping out of the plot like a politian’s rebuttal, but not of Christie’s making. In fact, very little of what you experience onscreen is from her 1937 novel. To disarm reproof there is after all, the discreetly placed caveat of “based on” Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death in the opening credits. Does this absolve all sins before they are committed?

(Queue blazing sun and Lawrence of Arabia music.) Eccentric English archaeologist Lord Greville Boynton (Tim Curry) has been trolling through the Middle East for years in search of the head of John the Baptist reputed to have been buried where the river meets the mountains 2,000 years ago. His domineering American wife (Cheryl Campbell) is graciously funding his expeditions from her lucrative stock market dealings, but that is where the joy ends. With her three henpecked adult children and faithful nanny (Angela Pleasence) to fetch and carry, they arrive in Syria where Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) is on holiday. Also joining the happy family reunion is Lord Boynton’s son Leonard (Mark Gatiss) who like everyone who has encountered Lady Boynton’s abrasive manners cannot see why his father adores her.

Observant Poirot is quick to notice the family dysfunctions generated by Lady Boynton’s tyrannical behavior: withdrawn and sullen son Raymond (Tom Riley), anxious and depressed elder daughter Carol (Emma Cunniffe) and troubled younger daughter Jinny (Zoe Boyle) all trying to survive under their mother’s dictatorial fist. Joining this “bonanza of crippled personalities” for the tour of the dig are American businessman Jefferson Cope (Christian McKay), doctor Sarah King (Christina Cole), Scottish psychiatrist Theodore Gerard (John Hannah) and Polish nun Sister Agnieszka (Beth Goddard).

As the group journeys by car into the desert they un-expectantly encounter travel writer Dame Celia Westholme (Elizabeth McGovern) appearing on camelback like Lawrence of Arabia. This ensemble of colorful characters will shortly all be suspects in a crime when Lady Boynton is found murdered roasting under the desert sun. Commissioned to find her killer by his old friend Colonel Carbury (Paul Freeman) Poirot must work quickly to discover clues and interrogate the suspects. There are several among them who would benefit from her death and yet others with no apparent connection at all until, “The voices of the little gray cells have begun to sing to Poirot.” Mix in white slavery, child abuse, financial ruin and revenge and the motives to murder become an appointment with death.

For those viewers like myself who have not read the original novel this new production looks beautiful, sounds enchanting and feels like a Poirot mystery. There is a deeply moral thread in the plot echoed by Lord Boynton from the start – “try as one might, one cannot escape his rightful destiny.” This eastern philosophy clashes with the western characters as they attempt to manipulate lives and change fate with serious consequences.

The casting was excellent as always. Elizabeth McGovern as Celia Westholme and John Hannah as Theodore Gerard should have been the anchors of the production but their roles were not very helpful to the story. Both have secrets to hide and unevenly play out the game until its tragic end. Tom Riley as Raymond reminded me of the emotionally crippled Anthony Perkins in Psycho, except his domineering mother convincingly played by Cheryl Campbell was not a mummy in the upstairs bedroom, but a raging bully in the flesh. Other casting choices were intriguing. Did anyone else see a young Orson Wells in the performance of Christian McKay as American Jefferson Cope? He even sounded like him! I became suspicious that director Ashley Pearce was doing all this character mirroring on purpose when Zoe Boyle as Jinny continued her blank stares and cow eyes a la Maggie Smith. If she got a voice coach she might have a future in the profession beyond luminescent damsel in distress.

Putting aside the beautiful production values and excellent casting, this liberal 2008 adaptation had its troubles. Red herrings are Christie’s forte and any mystery aficionado anticipates the shift of the investigation from suspect to suspect as eagerly as the next P. D. James novel. Without revealing spoilers for those who have not seen it, screenwriter Andrews’ important denouement fell flat as Poirot went around the room disqualifying each suspect. It was totally unbelievable.

If Appointment with Death is case in point of a classic being ‘improved’ for a modern audience, I am puzzled. Some will argue that the original novel (not one of Christie’s best efforts) was fine as it was. Others will queue up in favor of creative license. I have seen this approach with Jane Austen’s challenging novel Mansfield Park. People don’t get it and want to fix it. With the recent profitability of literary mash-up’s and re-interpretations such as the Austen/Grahame-Smith Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and director Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film Sherlock Holmes, one can see where the industry is going with this and take your side. I am sitting on the fence at the moment. Agatha Christie may be speaking through her character Lady Boynton by thinking that “we are not sufficiently sorry” , but you can “despise me if you dare.”

Image courtesy of © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Hercule Poirot: Third Girl on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Poirot: Third Girl: David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker © 2008 MASTERPIECEIf Masterpiece Mystery fans were unsettled by last week’s uncharacteristically dark and moralistic production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, then absolution is in order with Third Girl, a total turn-around back to the sophisticated Art Deco 1930’s London and country manor house crime dramas that we have come to cherish and expect. In this new 2008 ITV/PBS co-production, David Suchet continues as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot joined by Zoë Wanamaker in her re-occurring role as crime novelist Ariadne Oliver. Faced with one of their most challenging cases they must discover if a tormented heiress is a murderer or another criminal is amongst a group of suspects who may have set her up.

Norma Restarick (Jemima Rooper – Lost in Austen) arrives at Poirot’s London flat distressed and distraught, hoping that he can save her. She believes she has committed murder, but before he can assist her she abruptly leaves oddly claiming the distinguished detective is too old. Baffled, Poirot later visits his friend celebrated crime novelist Ariadne Oliver and learns she had sent Norma to him for assistance. Mrs. Oliver shares with him that Norma is the “third girl” in a flat of single women who live upstairs. The night before Mrs. Oliver had attended their birthday party for “first girl” Clemency Burton-Hill (Claudia Reece-Holland) a secretary of Norma’s recently reunited father Andrew Restarick (James Wilby). While there she witnessed the “second girl” Frances Cary (Matilda Sturridge) a Bohemian actress/model flirting with Norma’s love interest artist David Baker (Tom Mison – Lost in Austen) upsetting Norma who leaves the party.

Poirot and Mrs. Oliver are both unaware of yet a further connection in her apartment building until they learn that Norma’s childhood nanny Lavinia Seagram (Caroline O’Neill) is also a resident until her death only the night before. Is this the woman Norma believes she murdered? The police arrive to investigate and Inspector Nelson (John Warnaby) is quick to conclude a suicide, but Poirot and Mrs. Oliver are not convinced. Is Norma guilty, innocent or insane?

While Norma’s roommates and family fret over her unstable state of mind, Poirot delves into her family history also becoming fearful of her life, but for different reasons. Who would benefit from her demise? Is it her grand-uncle Sir Roderick Horsfield (Peter Bowles) or her father Andrew Restarick, the two people who will co-inherit her large estate? To flush out the killer, Poirot must depend on fragile Norma’s help to trick a confession out of the criminal only Poirot has suspected.

Based on Agatha Christie’s 1966 novel, Poirot purist might be miffed again with more artistic license being taken by screenwriter Peter Flannery when they discover changes to her original plot and rearrangement and elimination of characters. Having not read Third Girl I was not offended taking everything presented at face value, quickly accepting the time shift from the 1960’s to the 1930’s atmosphere that I so enjoy in many of Ms. Christie’s novels.

There was also much to distract me in the decadent and delightful high quality production values: gorgeous costumes, striking locations, superlative acting by an all-star cast, ambient direction by Dan Reed (Inspector Lewis) and the stunning cinematography by Paul Bond. Did I say stunning cinematography? Wowza! Zoë Wanamaker’s performance was the highlight for me. Her scene after she awakens after being struck on the head is brilliant and LOL funny! Unfortunately, the last fifteen minutes were a disappointment. The traditional round-up of suspects into one room and final denouement was accelerated into a muddling quandary. Can one assume that this condensed 90-minute format did not allow enough plot development and clues to make everything click?  It took another viewing of the scene before this dull elf could absorb and decipher. (Oh, and since there are no sportscars in this episode, I will accept Poirot’s persimmon sofa’s as my guilty indulgence!)

Image courtesy © 2008 MASTERPIECE

Hercule Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express: David Suchet as Hercule Poirot © 2010 MASTERPIECEMystery fans were treated to the opening of season X of Poirot on Masterpiece Mystery last Sunday with a new episode of Murder on the Orient Express, one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels. Amazingly, this new production is only the second time it has been adapted for television and follows the famous and glitzy 1974 Hollywood movie directed by Sidney Lumet with an all-star cast including Albert Finney as Detective Hercule Poirot, Lauren Becall as the outrageously brash American Mrs. Hubbard and Ingrid Bergman in her Oscar winning role as Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson. Having seen this version some 36 years ago (yikes), I watched it again in preparation for this new David Suchet production. With the passing years, it is even more of an opulent showpiece of bravada by the then fading Hollywood studio system than I remembered, packed with so many stars and stunning costumes that my eye could not settle upon the seriousness of the story nor my head erase the earworm that the musical score created. It was glamorous. It was exciting. It was a dog and pony show that Agatha Christie’s novel never was. It still made me smile in appreciation of the great acting and direction from an era that we may look back upon in wonder.

The bones of the plot are basically the same. Hercule Poirot boards a luxury passenger train the Orient Express traveling from Istanbul to London and on the second night out the train becomes snowbound in Yugoslavia. During the night a ruthless American businessman Samuel Ratchett (Toby Jones) is murdered. Not only has he has been stabbed repeatedly; he appears to have been drugged. Poirot’s friend and director of the train line Xavier Bouc (Serge Hazanavicius) asks him to investigate the murder, and with the assistance of Dr. Constantine (Samuel West) Poirot begins to collect clues in the victims room and interview all of the passengers on the train. The evidence leads him to the famous kidnapping and murder five years earlier of a young girl Daisy Armstrong by Lanfranco Cassetti who was tried for the crime but not convicted. Poirot soon discovers that Samuel Ratchett is personally connected to the criminal and so are each of the passengers in a sad and tragic way. But who among them killed Samuel Ratchett and why?

From the first scene Poirot purists will know that this is not your typical ITV/PBS production of an Agatha Christie novel. While interrogating a British army officer in Palestine, Poirot catches him in a lie and the officer pulls his revolver and commits suicide right in front of him. This alone is a shocking image, but Poirot’s unemotional reaction to his death was so chilling that there is no doubt that screenwriter Stewart Harcourt (Dracula) and director Philip Martin (Wallender) have taken an entirely different approach in their interpretation of the cozy mystery fare that we have become so accustomed to on Masterpiece Mystery. Next Poirot is in Istanbul and he witnesses another pointless death of a woman accused of adultery being stoned by a mob of her family and neighbors. Is this a foreshadowing of what is yet to come for us aboard the Orient Express? Both of these scenes are added embellishments to Christie’s original novel and definitely not in the 1974 candy coated film. There are many other changes that I will leave for the observant viewer to deduce.

Even though many liberties have been taken with Christie’s plot and characters this new slant on Poirot really worked. Yes, the Jane Austen purist in me who is tweaked when others dally with my Jane is not offended by this hybridized Poirot. I just imagined him in a parallel universe aboard the antithesis Orient Express and it all worked for me. The highlight was the casting. David Suchet is more introspective and melancholy than I have ever seen him in this role before and it suits him as well as his waxed mustache and prim manners. (anyone who is that persnickety about their appearance andfood is sure to have a dark side) Eileen Atkins as the elegant Princess Dragomiroff, a white Russian who has seen the revolution and knows deeply what murder means, and Barbara Hershey as the pushy American widow Caroline Hubbard whose defense against suspicion is her brassy attitude were both the key performances. Hugh Bonneville as Mr. Ratchett’s man Edward Masterman and David Morrissey as English colonel John Arbuthnot sadly did not get much air time, but made a lasting impression.

The ending scene outside the snowbound train when Poirot must decide what justice must be done will linger with you and make you want to watch the movie again to catch all the bits that passed you by. This new direction for an Agatha Christie’s classic story seems to be in line with the trend to take what our culture values and remake it in our own unique vision. One wonders out loud how these changes will be viewed in twenty or thirty years, similar to my experience of watching the 1974 movie. Each is entertaining, but have we done justice to Miss Christie?

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Miss Marple: The Blue Geranium on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Miss Marple: The Blue Geranium: Julia McKenzie in Miss Marple © 2010 MASTERPIECEMiss Marple concluded last Sunday on Masterpiece Mystery with the final episode, The Blue Geranium, a twisted tale infused with the seven deadly sins, those tempting vices that have plagued man since the beginning of time. I can think of no better foundation for an intriguing murder mystery than, wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. They are the stock and trade of the genre. And like the super-sleuth that she is, Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) is the only one who can unravel the complicated mystery surrounding three deaths in the quaint village of Little Ambrose.

Based on a short story by Agatha Christie published in 1932, the mystery begins almost immediately with the death of heiress Mary Pritchard (Sharon Small) whose life up until her demise involved hypochondria and histrionics. Her husband George (Toby Stephens) does not take her concerns over medical ailments or the flowers in her bedroom wallpaper turning blue very seriously. She on the other hand is convinced that it symbolizes her impending death. Proving him wrong is not what anyone expected. Did she indeed die of shock, or are there people around her who would benefit from her death? In Miss Marple’s view it all seems very odd and the villagers escalating tensions equal a long list of suspects. Two more victims and a quick confession by George Pritchard closes the case for Detective Inspector Somerset (Kevin R. McNally) who hopes to ride on the glory of the case right back to London after being banished for bad behavior.

On the day of the court hearing all seems to be wrapped up neatly until Miss Marple watches her gardener mixing a cyanide solution to kill wasps and it suddenly becomes clear that she has made a mistake. George Pritchard is not the killer and she must stop the court hearing. Phoning Inspector Somerset she gets no farther than the court assistant and rushes to London in search of her friend Sir Henry Clithering (Donald Sinden) who she hopes to convince to use his influence to intercede in the case. As she tells him the story of the Blue Geranium Murder we are taken back in time through the events leading up to Mary Pritchard’s death, the family and villagers involved, and all the reasons why she got it all so terribly wrong the first time round. “It became so knotted that it was difficult to tell one thing for the other” until she sees the light when her gardener mixes the poison to kill the wasps. Mary was also poisoned. Is it the philandering husband full of pride, the jilted sister full of wrath, or another whose lust for money will drive their greed to commit murder?

On first viewing, this episode was rather flat for me. I could not identify or sympathize with any of the characters. Fortunately, this script really gave Julia McKenzie a chance to use her acting skills showing greater depth of emotion than I remember in past episodes. The rest of the cast gave fine performances, but their characters were so unappealing that I never warmed to any of them. Mary Pritchard was an odious, manipulating, gluttonous woman whose death no one seemed to grieve. Her family was not much better. Husband George was cheating on her, sister Philippa Pritchard (Claudie Blakley) was a bitter and spiteful, her brother-in-law Lewis Pritchard (Paul Rhys) was an alcoholic gambler, her doctor Jonathan Frayn (Patrick Baladi) was a revengeful thief, and even Miss Marple’s friend Reverend Milewater (who shall remain a mystery because this actor is shamefully not credited, anywhere) is downtrodden over his decaying church and unproductive life. Oh my. Add to that a gray winter setting and not so thrilling locations and I was nonplused. On second viewing the story grew on me as I caught more of the seven deadly sins subtext by screenwriter Stewart Harcourt who greatly expanded the original short story. With so much sin in such a small place there had to be one vice that I could identify with. It arrived in this beautiful vintage red roadster.

Images courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Miss Marple: The Secret of Chimneys on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Miss Marple: The Secret of Chimneys: Julia McKenzie and Stephen Dillane © 2010 MASTERPIECEThe fifth series of Miss Marple continued on Masterpiece Mystery last Sunday with a new episode, The Secret of Chimneys. I was not familiar with this Miss Marple mystery novel written by Agatha Christie in 1925, so I just sat back and let it take me by surprise. It certainly did. There was distinct difference in this episode. The script, direction and editing were a cut above the normal fare which piqued my curiosity to investigate the original novel and the production team. I do not know whose feet I should throw all the accolades at or who deserves the laurel wreath of distinction, but screenwriter Paul Rutman, director John Strickland and film editor Nick Arthur made a triple play worthy of Eric Bruntlett. This is the best Miss Marple episode I have seen so far in the new Julia McKenzie reign. Fast paced, packed full of red herrings and double takes, I was questioning each character’s motives and analyzing every possible clue to the last, and then was totally surprised by the final reveal.

Ambitious M.P. George Lomax (Adam Godley) is pressuring the Revel family on many fronts. He has given their young daughter Virginia (Charlotte Salt) a deadline to accept his marriage proposal and her father the ninth Marquis of Caterham (Edward Fox) must entertain an Austrian count Ludwig van Stainach (Anthony Higgins) at his grand, but fading, country estate Chimneys to seal a deal for iron ore that England is desperate for after the war. The guests assemble for the weekend including cousin Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie), eldest daughter Lady Eileen “Bundle” Brent (Dervla Kirwan), National Trust advocate Miss Hilda Blenkinsopp (Ruth Jones) and faithful servant Miss Treadwell (Michelle Collins).

The count arrives and agrees to the deal on the condition that Chimneys be given to him in compensation. This does not sit well with anyone but Lord Caterham whose reputation and finances went south after the theft of the Mizoram diamond at a Chimneys party twenty years ago. His daughter Bundle is determined to carry on in grand decline, Miss Blenkinsopp wants the property for the National Trust and Miss Treadwell silently observes in disapproval. When the count is found shot with Virginia’s beau Anthony Cade (Jonas Armstrong) standing over him and the smoking gun near-by, scandal seems to be following the family across the generations as Miss Marple and chief inspector Fitch of Scotland Yard (Stephen Dillane) team up to investigate the murder discovering clues to the past that will unearth the deadly secret that happened at Chimneys so many years ago.

Faithful readers of the Miss Marple mysteries will be quite puzzled by this new adaptation. The original novel of the same name does not include Miss Marple at all, the plotline has been changed drastically and characters have been interchanged at random. Even the murderer is not the same. If this was a Jane Austen adaptation I would be screaming bloody murder in her defense. Having not read the original novel, I just took it for face value and loved it. Happily, Miss Christie did not write only six major novels so the offense seems less invasive to me, but short shrift for Marple book fans. Screenwriter Paul Rutman who I have admired in the past for his previous Miss Marple episode from last year, They Do it with Mirrors (2009) and two Inspector Lewis episodes, The Vanishing Point (2009) and The Great and the Good (2008) is a superb storyteller and a master at multilayered suspense. I am certain that the Marple die hards will not agree with me on that, but que sera, sera. It was a great story and ironically a cut above some of the previous episodes even though it has little Christie in it. I was thrilled to see Miss Marple do something besides observe and drop hints to the inspector on the case and enjoyed Julia McKenzie’s performance thoroughly. Finally they gave her more than one sentence of dialogue at a time.

The staid and measured performance by Stephen Dillane as Inspector Fitch was the highlight for me. He stole every scene that he appeared in because I was so intently listening and watching his every word and gesture that the other characters were secondary. If he could have his own series I would be enthralled. Virginia’s beau Anthony had me squinting in deep thought to place him before I realized it was Robin Hood without his bow and arrows. Ah, and Edward Fox as Lord Caterham. What distinction. What grace. Besides coming from the distinguished Fox acting dynasty (his brother is James Fox, nephew Laurence Fox and daughter Emilia Fox) he is a national treasure and never disappoints. As usual, the locations and costumes were superb. I want the Austin Healey that Miss Marple and Virginia arrive at Chimneys in. Ah, perchance to dream.

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Miss Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Miss Marple: The Mirror Crack'd: Joanna Lumley and Julia McKenzie © 2010 MASTERPIECESpinster sleuth Miss Marple returned to Masterpiece Mystery last Sunday with her sensible shoes and ingenious deductions in one of Agatha Christie’s venerable warhorses, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. What true classic mystery aficionado has not seen one of the movie adaptations of this wonderful 1962 book of the same name? It has been trotted out no less than two times prior to this new production showcased by former Miss Marple’s: Angela Lansbury and Joan Hickson. Now Julia McKenzie gets her chance to slip into the Marple mantle and solve a double murder at a grand manor house  in her own village of St Mary Mead.

The locals are all aflutter when an American film actress Marina Gregg (Lindsay Duncan) takes up residence at Gossington Hall with her fifth husband, a dashing young English film director Jason Rudd (Nigel Harman) who has resurrected her waning career and the country estate formerly owned by Miss Marple’s friend Dolly Bantry (Joanna Lumley). A charity benefit hosted by the glamorous couple includes the press and all of the community but Miss Marple who must regretfully remain at home with a sprained ankle. During the party, the inquisitive Dolly Bantry observes local Marina Gregg fan Heather Badcock (Caroline Quinten) rambling on to her hostess about their meeting years earlier. Marina’s mysterious reaction to Heather’s recollection is to stare off into the distance in frozen shock? Dolly thinks it quite odd, but is later distracted by a more tragic event. Heather is dead and a poisoned daiquiri is suspected.

Dolly wastes no time in revealing all the details of the party to her friend later that afternoon. Miss Marple suspects murder and wonders if the cocktail was really meant for Marina but given to Heather by mistake? Dolly continues her report by equating Marina’s death-like daze to a Tennyson poem, “Out flew the web and floated wide – The mirror crack’d from side to side; “The curse is come upon me,” cried The Lady of Shalott.” As the investigation continues, Inspector Hewitt’s (Hugh Bonneville) suspect list lengthens as all the guests are interviewed. Is it Marina’s ex-husband the spiteful gossip columnist, her husband’s ex-girlfriend the jilted starlet or the suspicious young female photographer snapping shots of the guests at the party? It appears that many at the party have secret reasons to want Marina dead, including Marina herself.

It is easy to understand why The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side has been adapted so many times by movie producers. It is an intriguing story dripping with Hollywood glamor and colorful characters.  In this instance, the campy screenplay by Kevin Elyot moves Chrisite’s characterizations and plot twists even further toward a farcical spoof of the mystery genre than written or previously filmed. Director Tom Shankland’s use of over-the-top melodrama through clips of Marina’s films and the Movietone-like newsreels poke fun at the era and set the tone for the entire film. Oddly, Miss Marple is sidelined with an injury early on so her friend Dolly becomes her eyes and ears. Watching actress Joanna Lumley as Dolly acting like a giddy school girl over the celebrity parade and snooping on her neighbors was the highlight for me. Lumley’s infectious energy and deadpan comedy is so well suited for this type of role reminding me that Julia McKenzie’s low key and flat Miss Marple has yet to grow on me. The next episode of Miss Marple is an encore presentation of A Pocket Full of Rye on June 6th.

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Masterpiece Mystery: Miss Marple – They Do It With Mirrors Recap & Review

Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple (2009)The third episode of the Miss Marple Mysteries aired on Sunday, July 19th on Masterpiece Mystery with They Do It With Mirrors, a new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1952 novel on PBS. The new Miss Marple Julia McKenzie adds a sympathetic and knowing mantle to her interpretation of the famous elderly detective of St. Mary Mead, ever-ready to volunteer her sharp eye and deductive reasoning to solve a crime. Who says old ladies are sedentary, dim-witted and forgetful? Not Miss Marple! 

Jane Marple’s glamorous friend Ruth Van Rydock (Joan Collins) is concerned about her sister Carrie Louise (Penelope Wilton). Strange goings on at her home seem to be escalating; the most recent a suspicious fire in her office destroying her personal papers. On the premise of a social visit, Miss Marple arrives at Stonygate, Carrie Louise’s large estate that also doubles as a correctional facility for young men. Underway are the rehearsals of a play to entertain the inmates organized by Carrie’s third husband Lewis Serrocold (Brian Cox) and his troubled assistant Edgar Lawson (Tom Payne) who thinks he is Winston Churchill’s son. All of the household have been recruited to participate in the play including Carrie’s two daughters from her first marriage, Mildred (Sarah Smart) and her adopted daughter Gina (Emma Griffiths Malin) now married to an American GI Wally Hudd (Elliot Cowan, Mr. Darcy in Lost in Austen), and a stepson Stephen from her second marriage to theatrical producer Johnny Restarick.

Julia McKenzie and Joan Collins in They Do It With Mirrors (2009)

When another stepson Christian Gulbrandsen (Nigel Terry) from her first marriage arrives unexpectedly wanting to discuss urgent business with Carrie Louise’s husband Lewis, Miss Marple’s antennae go up. Christian retires to his room while the rehearsal proceeds. When the play is interrupted by Edgar wielding a gun threatening Lewis, and the faulty house lights go out, everyone is horrified until the surprise entrance of Johnny Restarick subdues the assailant. Center stage is the distracting drama unfolding with a gun. Off stage, Christian is murdered in his room while typing a letter. Was the over-the-top gun scene a staged cover-up for the murder? The local police are called in to investigate, and another murder unfolds right before their eyes, and then another. Three murders in as many days has the inspector scrambling to keep up. With such a line-up of eccentric suspects before them, it will take Miss Marple’s shrewd maneuvering to wheedle the clues out of everyone and expertly deduce that the murders unfolding before her were a clever ruse done with mirrors, to hide a deadly secret. 

They Do It With Mirrors First Edition Cover (1952)Wow! This story was like a stage play within a stage play. With so many characters and so much back story, the details and timing were critical. Honestly, as the investigation began I had my suspicions which Miss Marple quickly dashed as new evidence disqualified one suspect, and incriminated another. With this complex and creative plot, it is easy to see why Agatha Christie is considered the queen of crime. I have to commend screenwriter Paul Rutman for attempting to keep the narrative clean and straight forward. Given the time restraints of the production a few plot wholes arrived, like too many sides stories going on that could not be fleshed out properly, a chase scene on a bicycle that seemed pointless, and the unbelievable ending at the lakeside (which I will not spoil with further detail) leaving me with sinking feeling *wink* . The director Andy Wilson conducted traffic with precision, energizing the cast into strong performances. Julia McKenzie’s previous staid and controlled presence in the series showed more spontaneous craft and confidence. I can tell that she is settling in to her new role and finding her stride. When her eyes twinkled and her face lit up in recognition of a clue, she connected with the character and her audience. 

Next up, the concluding episode of the Six by Agatha series on Masterpiece Mystery on Sunday, July 26th, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? 

Miss Marple: Murder is Easy on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – Recap & Review

Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple (2009)The second episode of the Miss Marple Mysteries aired on Sunday, July 12th on Masterpiece Mystery with Murder is Easy. The new Miss Marple Julia McKenzie continues to improve in her interpretation of Agatha Christie’s amateur detective who may look like a harmless and kindly elderly lady, but is as sharp as her knitting needles.

Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) meets a stranger on a train who claims “murder is easy.”  The doddering Miss Pinkerton (Sylvia Syms) is on her way to Scotland Yard to report two suspicious deaths in her village and shares some scattered facts with Miss Marple during their short journey. When Miss Marple reads in the paper of her accidental death in the train station on the same day as their meeting, she may be the only person who knows of Miss Pinkerton’s suspicion that the deaths are indeed murders. She travels to the village of Wychwood-under-Ashe to reveal what she knows and discover the truth. The villagers are distressed by the three recent deaths, but do not have a clue that there is a murderer amongst them. When three more deaths happen in quick succession, Miss Marple assists retired policeman Luke Fitzwilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and local constable PC Terrence Reed (Russel Tovey) in uncovering a murderer with a dark secret that will shock and scandalize the community.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Julia McKenzie in Miss Marple - Murder in Easy (2009)

De rigueur in this stylishly produced series, the costumes, locations and acting were superb. The producers have the knack of selecting an outstanding supporting cast of the best veteran British actors available. One wonders out loud if doing a Miss Marple episode has become the UK equivalent of a guest appearance on the American television show from the 1970’s The Love Boat, but with much more class! I was particularly impressed with Benedict Cumberbatch as the young retired policeman Luke Fitzwilliam. Viewers will recognize him from several quality performances in To The Ends of The Earth (2005), Amazing Grace (2006) and The Other Boleyn Girl (2008). His subtle and pensive characterization of Fitzwilliam had me wondering about the characters back story of his days in Mayang as a policeman, and why this handsome and stoic man was unattached. (subliminal Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy emerging) Anna Chancellor was perfectly cast as Lydia Horton, the ambitious Politian’s wife. Has she been typecast since her portrayal of snarky Caroline Bingley in the miniseries Pride and Prejudice in 1995? Who cares! She plays the snobby social climber so well that she can make a career out of it and never be boring. My favorite performance was by far by Jemma Redgrave (Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park 2007) as Jessie Humbleby the widow of one of the victims on the brink of a mental breakdown. When Miss Marple grimaces after drinking a greenish cocktail that she has politely accepted made by the hand of the babbling Mrs. Humbleby, one can only imagine what she has mistakenly put in it to cause such an uncharacteristic reaction by a woman who is known for not revealing anything!

Murder is Easy First Edition (1939)With six recent murders, and one linked to them from the past, this might be one of Agatha Christie’s most complicated plots. Adaptated from her 1939 novel, it was neatly condensed down by screen writer Stephen Churchett into a fast paced 90 minuets. I found myself intently concentrating on the action, trying not to miss the connecting sphere of the villagers, or any clues to the identity of the murderer. It did however, suffer from being lopt’d and cropt’d with some distinct plot and character changes readers of the novel will definitely notice, but will matter little to viewers who will be wrapped up in discovering whodunit. I am still waiting for Julia McKenzie’s interpretation of Miss Marple to outweigh my fondness for Geraldine McEwan and Joan Hickson’s previous Miss Marple’s. Given time, I hope she will succeed.

Up next in the Six by Agatha series on Masterpiece Mystery on Sunday, July 19th, They Do It With Mirrors.

Masterpiece Mystery: Mrs. McGinty’s Dead

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Who would want to bludgeon to death a humble country charwoman? Suspicions lead Superintendent Spence (Richard Hope) to conclude that her dodgy tenant James Bentley (Joe Absolom) who has fallen on hard times was motivated by theft to commit the crime. After Bentley is convicted and sentenced to die by the gallows, things still do not seem quite right, and he calls upon Hercule Poirot (David Suchet), the greatest detective in the world to confirm his doubts and help him discover the real murderer, as Masterpiece Mystery continues with Agatha Christie’s, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead on PBS.

David Suchet and Zoe Wannamaker in Mrs. McGintys Dead (2009)

Poirot travels to Broadhinny, a country village to investigate the scene of the crime meeting his friend Ariadne Oliver (Zoe Wanamaker) the novelist visiting a local playwright Robin Upward (Paul Rhys) who is adapting her novel into his next play. Poirot begins by interviewing all of Mrs. McGinty’s family and work connections. Even though she led a simple life, she worked for many wealthy residents in the village with secrets to hide. What did she discover that was so important that would prompt her murder? When Poirot inspects the remains of her personal belongings, he discovers a recent Sunday paper with an article cut out on the whereabouts of two women involved in separate murders from thirty years ago. One picture is of a young child Lily Gamboll, and the other of a young woman Eva KBook cover of Mrs. McGinty's Dead (1952)ane. Which woman in the village could each of these women be? There are plenty of red herrings appearing before Poirot uses all of his little grey matter and discovers the identity of the real murderer.

This second Poirot episode of the Masterpiece Mystery season had been adapted for the screen from Agatha Christie’s 1952 novel by Nick Dear who brought us the incredibly moving adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion in 1995. Riding on that cloud of glory, I expected the same sensitivity and nuances that he had delivered previously in this new production. The result was quite the opposite. I may be comparing apples to oranges with genres, but his choices in pacing and dialogue had me confused and replaying certain parts of the DVD screener over again. Because of the layered affect of Christie’s plots, if you miss one clue, the next does not make sense. Ah, mon ami, I may be being too critical of Mr. Dear, since producers and directors do not always shoot the script that was presented to them.

David Suchet and Mary Stockley, Mrs. McGinty's Dead (2009)

As always, the production values were outstanding. The costumes, locations and cars, yes the vintage cars, were just stunning. The large cast was quite impressive and I particularly appreciated the performances of Siân Phillips as Mrs. Upward, Zoë Wanamaker as Mrs. Oliver and Amanda Root as Shelagh Rendell. Viewers might recognize these three British actresses from their roles as Madame de Volanges in Valmont (1989), Madame Hooch in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and Anne Elliot in Persuasion (1995) respectively.

Masterpiece Mystery continues next Sunday July 5th with A Pocket Full of Rye with Julia McKenzie, in her premier as Miss Marple, Christie’s famous elderly spinster amateur detective whose deductive skills are as sharp as her knitting needles.

  • Read the complete synopsis of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead
  • Read my previous review of Cat Among Pigeons

Masterpiece Mystery: Cat Among Pigeons – A Review

Image from Hercule Poirot: A Cat Among Pigeons © 2009 MASTERPIECEAgatha Christie mystery fans were dancing on tabletops across America tonight, when David Suchet returned as their favorite fastidious Belgian super sleuth Hercule Poirot, in Masterpiece Mystery’s opening episode of Six By Agatha Hercule Poirot: Cat Among Pigeons on PBS. It was more than worth the wait for this long time Masterpiece Mystery fan. What an elegantly produced production it was; superb British casting, classy costumes, period locations, masterful direction and an excellent adaptation of Christie’s classic 1959 novel,  all culminating into giant culture rush for this Anglophile/mystery lover. Swoon!

As the music started with the opening credits, I smiled in recognition of how much the Harry Potter movies have premeated into our culture. Here is a scene of children arriving for school term and the music is so similar to the whimsical children’s choral piece that opens the Harry Potter movies that I laughed out loud and thought the producer a cheeky monkey for slipping in that subliminal message! I wondered what other things they might borrow to make Hercule Poirot into Harry Potter! Anyway, our super sleutBook cover of A Cat Among Pigeons (1959)h has been invited to Meadowbank Girls School by his friend the headmistress Miss Bulstrode, played by Harriet Walter, who Austenites will remember portrayed Fanny Dashwood in the 1996 movie adaptation Sense and Sensibility. The progressive Miss Bulstrode has built up the school’s reputation, but now would like to retire. Doubtful that her co-founder Miss Chadwick (Susan Wooldrige) will be able to take over, she asks Poirot’s for his expert advice at character analysis to help select her replacement. No sooner than he has arrived the physical ed teacher Miss Springer (Elizabeth Berrington) is killed violently with a javelin through the heart in the school gymnasium sending the young ladies, including Princess Shaista (Amara Karan) sequestered there after a revolution in her country, into a panic of concern. She reveals to Inspector Kelsey (Anton Lesser) and Poirot that she is certain that she will be killed next. The first suspects are the new staff members at the school, a gardener Adam Goodman (Adam Croasdell), the secretary Miss Rich (Claire Skinner who was Fanny Dashwood in the 2008 Sense and Sensibility) and a French teacher Mlle Blanche (Miranda Raison).

Image from Hercule Poirot: A Cat Among Pigeons: Harriet Walter and David Suchet © 2009 MASTERPIECE

Another teacher is killed, sending the parents and the board of governors into a frenzy. Poirot suspects that there is a connection between the murders and Princess Shaista. One clever student Julia Upjohn (Lois Edmett) aides in the discovery of a valuable treasure connected to the Princess hidden in a tennis racket smuggled out of her country after the revolution. Could this be the motive for the murders? When Princess Shaista is kidnapped, Miss Bulstrode and Miss Chadwick watch their students pulled out of school by panicked parents, and years of hard work and the school’s reputation erode away. Poirot suspects everyone, but reveals little until his signature final roundup of suspects into the drawing room as he deconstructs his logic and reveals the killer. He had me guessing to the last.

Image from Hercule Poirot: A Cat Among Pigeons: Georgia Cornick © 2009 MASTERPIECE

One of the most enjoyable aspects of watching these British productions for me is the face hunt, as I sleuth out actors from their previous roles on Masterpiece or movie roles. And so the mystery becomes an inner mystery of me – hopefully all resolved by the end of the production. In Cat Among Pigeons there were some challenging faces to match to previous roles; one in particular who kept my “grey matter” churning until the very end. Like the great super sleuth Hercule Poirot, it took me ninety minutes to solve my own mystery – that Miss Chadwick, the deputy headmisstress of Meadowbank School was in fact Miss Daphne Manners from the 1984 Masterpiece Theater production of The Jewel in the Crown. No small coincidence that both roles were the axis of each story.

Masterpiece Mystery continues through July 26. Next week, another Hercule Poirot mystery, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, followed by four new Miss Marple episodes staring Julia McKenzie. Oh my. Where are my smelling salts?

Images courtesy © 2009 MASTERPIECE