I need to preface this review by stating that I have been watching the various Agatha Christie mystery series for as long as I have been aware of television, and Miss Marple is a childhood favorite. The new Miss Marple played by Julia McKenzie is much more like Joan Hickson's Miss Marple (in my humble opinion, the ultimate Marple) than Geraldine McEwan's, who had the role for the first three seasons of the new series. McEwan's Marple always seemed a bit too odd and slightly off her rocker, rather than the sharp old woman portrayed in the books. McKenzie isn't quite as much of a wolf in sheep's clothing — she can hardly mask the intelligence in this character, but she does at least come across as sane.
McKenzie has the sharp intellect down, but she's missing the sweet, old-fashioned lady part of the character. I will cut her some slack, though, as the writers and directors carry part of the blame. Only two of these four stories originally featured the iconic character, so she had to be inserted into the plots by those who themselves may not have a full understanding of the complexity of the character. Still, after so many years of filming these stories, you'd think someone would have raised a flag or two.
The first episode, "Murder Is Easy" (screenplay by Stephen Churchett; directed by Hettie Macdonald), handles the "insert Marple here" well, relatively speaking, and in fact is a very good re-telling of the story in film form. The story begins with Miss Marple sharing a train car with a woman who is quite upset over some deaths in her village that she believes to be murder and is on her way to Scotland Yard. Unfortunately, she "accidentally" falls down the escalator at the train station and is killed. When Miss Marple sees her obituary in the paper, she picks up the scent. Meanwhile back in the village, a young man who recently settled there begins to question some of the events himself, and it's no surprise that Miss Marple makes him her assistant when she arrives in the village to investigate. Soon we meet a cast of characters with so many back stories and red herrings that it's almost a surprise when the murderer and motivation are reveled. I say almost because the clues eventually point to who, but the why remains unclear until the reveal.
"Why Didn't They Ask Evans?" (screenplay by Patrick Barlow; directed by Nicholas Renton) wins the award for the most painful insertion of Miss Marple into a non-Marple story out of the entire set. The story is not one of Christie's better works, although it is notable for having a bumbling, young amateur sleuth who both stumbles upon a mystery and its solution, despite having more flaws than most of her lead characters. In this version, he and his female friend (and fellow investigator) are hamstrung and upstaged by Miss Marple. Unlike other Marple stories that feature another person actively sniffing out the clues while she processes the information in the background and suggests leads of inquiry, this Miss Marple jumps in the middle of the fray, taking over and stealing the thunder from the two young sleuths. A disappointing adaptation that could not be overcome by the talents of the actors.
"A Pocket Full of Rye" (screenplay by Kevin Elyot; directed by Charles Palmer) and "They Do It With Mirrors" (screenplay by Paul Rutman; directed by Andy Wilson) are the two stories that originally featured Miss Marple, and while they did not suffer the painful adaptation moments to the extent of "Evans," they also fail to be particularly memorable. In "A Pocket Full of Rye," Miss Marple finds herself investigating the murder of her former housemaid, which leads to solving the murder of the wealthy (and generally disliked) businessman. As with the Joan Hickson version of the story, the characters of the black sheep son (Lance Fortescue) and his wife (Pat) are quite sympathetic and well-portrayed by the new actors.
"They Do It With Mirrors" is one of my least favorite of the Marple mysteries, and this version doesn't make me like it any more than I did before. The character of Carrie Louise Serrocold, while I think is meant to be sympathetic, never quite resonates with me, so I find it hard to have any concern for her well-being, which is essential for the plot of the story. Actually, she reminds me of Pat Fortescue in "A Pocket Full of Rye" — a good, innocent person who tends to fall for the wrong sort of men, even when they seem to be alright on the surface. However, I found Pat to be a more intelligent and compelling character than Carrie Louise.
The set contains the usual collection of uninspiring extras one has come to expect from the Agatha Christie DVD releases — an assortment of facts about the main actors and Agatha Christie, and a photo gallery. If ever a set needed something else to inspire potential purchasers, this is one.
So far, I have enjoyed the Miss Marple "reboot" with the first three seasons (see my review of Series 3), but this fourth season is so disappointing that I fear for what will follow. Hopefully, McKenzie will settle more into the role and the writers will be inspired to put more effort into creating solid adaptations that do not rely on sex and scandal to cover up the flaws.