One of the characteristics of the new Miss Marple series starring Geraldine McEwan is the slightly darker, more contemporary take on Agatha Christie's classic whodunits. Dedicated fans have complained about changes the writers have made in this new series, and in some cases, such as a completely different murderer, the complaints are valid. However, they are more tolerable if one approaches the series from the perspective of each script being an interpretation loosely based on the original plotline.
Since there are only four episodes in Series 3, I will go over each of them individually.
"Towards Zero" (screenplay by Kevin Elyot; directed by David Grindley)
The plot is complex, and one cannot describe too much about it without giving away the ending. Neville Strange (Greg Wise) is a moderately decent tennis player and all around good sport. He recently left his first wife, Audrey (Saffron Burrows), and married the flashy Kay (Zoe Tapper). Things are not as perfect as he would like, and for some reason he thinks that getting the two Mrs. Stranges together on holiday at his guardian's home would be a good idea. As you can imagine, things don't work out very well between the two, and in the middle of all that, his guardian's widow, Lady Tressilian (Eileen Atkins), is murdered.
Miss Marple happens to be on holiday at a nearby hotel, and comes over often to visit her old school friend, Lady Tressilian, shortly before her death. Miss Marple's contributions towards solving the crime in the television adaptation were originally attributed to several different characters in the book, one of whom (Andrew MacWhirter) does not make an appearance at all. One of the keys to unraveling the murder is pointed out to Superintendent Mallard (Alan Davies) by Marple, but in the book the Superintendent — named Battle, who is a re-occurring minor character in Christie's books — sees the thing himself because it is something is old friend Poirot would notice.
Purists will be pleased that at least the murderer and the motivations have not been changed, and that the story stays fairly close to the original. The deviances here and there, and the inclusion of Marple, are not distracting.
"Nemesis" (screenplay by Stephen Churchett; directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)
The essence of the original story has remained in this adaptation, but the circumstances and some characters have changed, not to mention the inclusion of some new red herrings. It begins in 1940, with scenes of a single-person aircraft in the process of a crash landing in the rural English countryside, which is witnessed by a young (and beautiful) woman. She finds the pilot is alive and speaking German.
Fast-forward to 1951, and Jason Rafiel, famous writer and a friend of Miss Marple, has died. He has arranged for his solicitor to bring a recording of his request to Marple, as well as two tickets for a coach tour of country houses and gardens. Rafiel wants Marple to solve or prevent a murder, but he doesn't give any details beyond that. Marple is intrigued, and decided to bring her nephew, Raymond West (Richard E. Grant), along with her on the tour.
It becomes quickly apparent that each of the members of the tour are somehow connected with each other and with Rafiel, including his estranged son, Michael (Dan Stevens). At this point, I stopped making notes of the changes and waited to see how it would all unfold. The end result is the same as the book: Miss Marple reveals the identity of the person who killed Verity Hunt (Michael's fiancé), and it turns out to be someone close who loved her just a bit too much, but the circumstances are all altered.
Verity (Laura Michelle Kelly) was the young woman from the beginning scenes who was a novice in the nearby cloister, and Michael is the young German pilot. Originally, Verity was a young orphan raised by two spinsters, who met the ne'er-do-well son of a famous financier (Rafiel) and fell in love. The sisters are now two nuns, with the third widowed sister from the book eliminated completely. The nuns are named Sister Clotilde (Amanda Burton) and Sister Anthea (Anne Reid), and until I heard the names which correspond to the characters in the book, I was beginning to think that the whole thing was going to be completely altered.
There are a number of other changes, and almost all of the other members of the bus tour are there to serve the side plotlines that relate to this new interpretation of Verity and Michael. The difficulty of doing a film adaptation of Nemesis is that it is made up of a great deal of dialog and internal reflections, and is not very heavy on the action. The German pilot/forbidden love angle certainly added an exciting element, and provided a few more action scenes, as well as an additional murder.
As it stands, it is an interesting contribution to the canon of film adaptations of Christie's works, but I wouldn't consider it to be the most notable one. Amanda Burton is stunning as usual, and her acting in the climactic scene is the only reason why it worked at all. The 1987 adaptation staring Joan Hickson stayed fairly true the characters and events of the original book, and it was able to translate well enough to the screen. I can only assume that the writers of this adaptation felt that a little more sex and intrigue, and fewer old biddies, would make this story more appealing to modern audiences.
"At Bertram's Hotel" (screenplay by Tom MacRae; directed by Dan Zeff)
After the near-complete re-write of Nemesis, Christie fans will be sufficiently numbed to appreciate the new adaptation of At Bertram's Hotel. The story begins with a flashback to Marple as a young girl going to stay at Bertram's Hotel with her aunt. This is followed by Marple of the present gazing at the bustling Bertram's Hotel, where she is going to stay for a while. It is not explained why a old woman from the country would be staying in an expensive hotel, but perhaps the screenwriter or director felt it would take too much time to explain, what with all the new plot additions to incorporate into the story.
Marple soon discovers that Bertram's Hotel appears to be the same as it was when she was a child because that is how the owners want it to be, playing to the foreign visitors' desires to have the classic British hotel experience. There is also a lot more going on behind the scenes, including fraud, theft, and Nazis. Oh, those Nazis! Hardly ever made an explicit appearance in the books, but the screenwriters for the new Marple series seem to enjoy putting them in, even if it means changing the nature of established characters, such as Ladislaus Malinowski (Ed Stoppard), who has different reasons for being involved with Bess Sedgewick (Polly Walker) than he did in the book.
The first major event to shatter the illusion of old-world luxury and perfection at Bertram's is the murder of one of the maids who had a bit too much money for a maid. While the police investigate, another of the maids helps Marple sniff around for clues. Like Jane Marple, Jane Cooper (Martine McCutcheon) notices things and has a nose for ferreting out the truth. It doesn't take long for the killer to strike again, at the intended victim.
Purists will be pleased to note the at least the murderer, victim, motive, and setting are all accurate. However, there are a few more twists and turns to go through, as well as other crimes to surface and be discovered, before the final reveal. The ending is not quite the same as the original, but I think that modern audiences will find it ultimately more satisfying. It's the sort of ending I had wished the book to have, and it makes the story more palatable than it was in the original form. I always liked the character of Bess Sedgewick, and I like this Bess even more.
This is the first time I've really noticed the quality of the set and props used in the production. This was far more like the luxurious Bertram's Hotel described in the book than any version I have seen or otherwise imagined. I was also amused at times by the camera angles and motion, such as when Mutti (Danny Webb) is eating a muffin and the camera follows the muffin at a close distance from the plate to his mouth. This sort of close filming was also used effectively to create a sense of danger at other points in the film.
Dr. Who fans will be pleased to see the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davidson, who makes an appearance as Hubert Curtain, a slightly crooked estate manager written in to fulfill one of the new side plotlines.
"Ordeal By Innocence" (screenplay by Stewart Harcourt; directed by Moira Armstrong)
This one follows the original story fairly accurately, with only a few minor alterations and additions. It begins two years prior to the present with the serenity of the house at Sunny Point broken by a loud and violent argument between Jacko Argyle (Burn Gorman) and his mother, Rachel (Jane Seymour). He is demanding money from her to pay his bookie, whom he claims will kill him if he doesn't pay up. She has had enough of his scheming and always asking for money, not to mention his utter lack of respect towards her, so she refuses to help. Later that evening, she is brutally killed, and Jacko is later found to be guilty of her murder.
Two years have passed since that time when Miss Marple receives a letter from her old friend, Gwenda Vaughn (Juliet Stevenson), inviting her to her wedding. Vaughn had been Leo Argyle's (Denis Lawson) assistant, and sometime after his wife's death, they had fallen in love. Marple accepts the invitation, and arrives a day or so in advance to allow herself time to recover from the traveling. She is introduced to the rest of the Argyle family, which consists of five grown children — one of whom is a new character, Bobby (Tom Riley), Jacko's twin brother — and the housekeeper/companion, Kirsten Lindstrom (Alison Steadman). Everyone seems happy and there is no hint of any lingering sadness over the death of their mother and brother.
That happiness is soon shattered by an unexpected visitor, Dr. Arthur Calgary (Julian Rhind-Tutt), who informs them that he is/was Jacko's alibi for the night of the murder, and he would have been able to help had he not shipped off to Antarctica the next day. He thinks this news will make them happy, but what he didn't realize is that now the suspicion of murder will fall on each of them, and on Vaughn in particular. With the help of Marple, he sets out to do what he can to find out who the real killer is, in order to save the innocent from the ordeal of being under suspicion.
Like the other adaptations in this set, the murderer and the motive remain the same as they were in the book, and like the other adaptations, new subplots and characters are introduced to muddy the waters. I appreciated how the screenwriter shifted events around so that they could be presented chronologically, unlike the book. This made it easier to present the story visually. I did not care for the graphic depictions of the murders, and at one point had to bury my face in the fur of my cat, who was napping on my lap while I watched. That sort of thing is not at all to my taste, which is why I enjoy Christie murder mysteries as much as I do — they're more about the puzzle and the personalities than they are about graphic descriptions of the murders.
As far as the Marple series goes, I think that Series 3 has had much better productions and representations of Christie's books than the previous season. For the most part, the writers paid better attention to the intent and feel of the originals, and did not change too much to make it unpalatable for dedicated fans, while also adding just enough to (hopefully) allow the episodes to compete with grittier, more modern stories. Where they failed was with "Nemesis," which was altered so completely from the original that it hardly seemed like a Christie story anymore. I hope they don't make that same mistake in season four.
As I've come to expect from the DVD sets, there are few extra features to speak of; just the usual textual actor biographies and a biography of Agatha Christie. Nothing that couldn't be found online somewhere, which makes me wonder why they even bother putting them on each of the discs. I hope that some day the producers will have the sense of mind to edit together a few behind-the-scenes or interviews to toss onto the DVD sets. With all the changes and alterations that are made in this series, one would think that a commentary track would be an excellent selling feature.