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DVD Review: Agatha Christie’s Marple: Series 5

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Given the disastrous attempts in the past at rewriting non-Marple stories to include the iconic character, I was a little concerned about the direction of the series. Thankfully, these three new productions seem to have righted that ship.

Julia McKenzie seems to have settled into the character better, or at least is not being put in out-of-character situations by the writers and directors. She’s still not quite as much of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” as Joan Hickson’s Marple, but she is leaning more in that direction than what we saw in the first set of episodes.

The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (screenplay by Kevin Elyot, directed by Tom Shankland)
American film actress Marina Gregg (Lindsay Duncan) has bought Gossington Hall, one of the old homes near St. Mary’s Mead, and is filming her next feature production directed by her young husband Jason Rudd (Nigel Harman). Continuing with the village tradition, the couple hosts a party as a fundraiser for a local organization, and everyone in the village turns out to see the movie star. Among them is the couple’s neighbor and former owner of their house, Dolly Bantry (Joanna Lumley), and a fan who bores them with a story of meeting Marina years ago before dropping dead in the middle of the party.

Marina believes that she was the intended victim, and no one is telling everything they know. Despite being laid up at home with a twisted ankle and missing the party, Miss Marple susses out the truth in good time, but not before Justice strikes a balance and the guilty are given their reward.

Viewers may remember that Joanna Lumley appeared in the first production of the new Marple series, The Body in the Library. Thankfully, Elyot and the producers have learned a bit since that terrible re-write, and this time around stayed more faithful to the source material. Some things were altered, and there was a bit more innuendo than what may have been implied in the original story, but in the end the important parts were done correctly, with each actor playing their roles splendidly.

I include Julia McKenzie in that praise as well. I was unimpressed with her Marple the first time around, but she either had better direction or spent a bit more time studying the role since then. It also helps that the story includes the character in the first place, so her part is less ridiculous than in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans, for example. A promising start for the fifth series.

The Secret of Chimneys (screenplay by Paul Rutman, directed by John Strickland)
Over twenty years ago, a parlor maid and a famous diamond disappeared from Chimneys after a grand party held there. An Austrian count (Anthony Higgins) has an offer the British government can’t refuse, and he specifically asks to broker the deal at Chimneys. Unfortunately for him, things don’t turn out quite the way he had hoped.

Miss Marple, a guest of the family, is on hand to unravel the mystery of the count’s death and the missing diamond from all those years ago. Inspector Finch (Stephen Dillane) keeps her close, in part to protect his own reputation in Scotland Yard against her reputation of out-sleuthing the best.

Because significant portions of the clues are from past events, the writer and director needed to walk a fine line between info-dump monologues and confusing flashback scenes. I particularly enjoyed the way that the scenes seamlessly blended between the present and the past as the characters recreated their movements. That little bit of cinematography made this complex plot easier to follow.

That being said, very little of the original story remains in this adaptation. And honestly, that’s not a bad thing. The result is a plot that still has some of the international politicking mystery of the original but without so many confusing threads and twists. The original, of course, did not have Miss Marple in it, and I tip my hat to Rutman for pairing her up with the Inspector to make her role in the sleuthing a bit more plausible. Of course, since very little of the original story remained, she could have been incorporated into this version any way they wanted.

The Blue Geranium (screenplay by Stewart Harcourt, directed by Dave Moore)
On the way to visit an old friend in the quaint village of Little Ambrose, Miss Marple meets a distraught young man who later turns up dead. His is not the only death to rock the village, and two more follow.

Mary Pritchard makes everyone’s life hell on earth, including her husband and sister. A great believer in the occult, Mary is told that she will die when the red geranium on her wallpaper turns blue. While many wish her dead or gone, including the vicar, no one believes the fortune teller’s prophecy until it happens, and Mary seemingly dies from the shock.

Even Miss Marple is confused by the muddled mess of lies and hidden agendas, which Marple describes as being like a tangled ball of knitting projects. But, she eventually sorts it all out, and saves the wrong person from taking the fall.

This story was adapted from one of the short stories in a collection that featured Marple and some of her friends like Sir Henry Clithering (played here by Donald Sinden) who gather together to tell stories about unsolved crimes or mysteries, and each time Marple is able to solve them. This adaptation follows the original story at the core, but adds a few other complexities that enhance the roles of some of the minor characters. As far as I’m concerned, this illustrates how well the short stories take to film adaptations and allow more creative license by the writers than the longer stories.

Agatha Christie’s Garden
This documentary was also included in the Poirot Classic Collection 2 set, so it’s likely that fans already have a copy in their collection. Hosted by Pam Ferris (Rosemary & Thyme, The Darling Buds of May), the documentary is a mini-biography of Agatha Christie’s life as related to her childhood home and her summer home, Greenway. Several Agatha Christie experts are interviewed, but the more interesting perspectives come from author P.D. James and Matthew Prichard, Christie’s grandson. However, the documentary is rather dry, and I found myself dozing off during this second viewing. Recommended only if you enjoy a lot of talking heads and slightly fuzzy scenes of greenery.

Summary
With only three productions and a previously released documentary, this collection is rather slim compared to previous releases. However, if a slower pace with fewer adaptations is what it takes to do it right, then that is fine by me. I enjoyed these three so much that I look forward to viewing them again, and soon.

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