Agatha Christie's Marple: The Geraldine McEwan Collection

Agatha Christie's Marple: The Geraldine McEwan Collection (DVD Cover)

Recurring character(s): Miss Jane Marple (Geraldine McEwan)

Director: Various

Original air date(s): 12/12/2004 to 01/02/2005; 02/05/2006 to 04/30/2006; 07/15/2007 to 08/19/2007
DVD Date: 11/02/2010

Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 1140 minutes

Note(s): Episodes in this collection are all adapted from novels by Agatha Christie, though several do not include Miss Marple as a character.

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Agatha Christie's Marple: The Geraldine McEwan Collection

Review: Agatha Christie's amateur sleuth Miss Jane Marple has been portrayed by many actresses, but only a few have played her in a recurring role.

From the late 1980s through the early 1990s, the BBC adapted all of the full-length novels into made-for-television films starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. (I've seen a couple of these and, quite frankly, thought that Hickson played Miss Marple almost as a caricature, though clearly I'm in among the minority here. It has even been reported that, before her death, Christie herself pictured Hickson in the role.)

In 2004, ITV rebooted the series with Geraldine McEwan starring as Miss Marple. Twelve made-for-television films, which aired on an irregular basis over five years and feature the actress, comprise this set. (All of these episodes have previously been released on three DVD sets, four episodes to a set, titled Series 1, 2, and 3.)

The role was taken over in 2009 by Julia McKenzie, who, as of the date of this review, is the current ITV Miss Marple. (You can read my review of three episodes in which she has appeared, Agatha Christie: Marple Series 5.

The twelve episodes in Agatha Christie Marple: The Geraldine McEwan Collection clearly showcase the range the actress brings to the character -- and they are better for it. Many of these adaptations deviate significantly from their source -- indeed, some of the original novels don't even feature Miss Marple -- but, I would argue, they are often for the better; even in those episodes where the plot does seem to drag a bit, McEwan shines. If you already own one or more of the individual seasons featuring McEwan as Miss Marple, I would still highly recommended this set for your own collection. (Give your existing season DVDs to a friend or family member, to introduce them to the series.)

Each episode runs just over 90 minutes in length. (A quick sequence note: I'm reviewing these episodes in the order in which they appear in this set. After doing a little background research, it seems ITV may have aired them in a different order.) Rather than provide plot summaries (they're readily available elsewhere), I'm going to rank the episodes as Below Average, Average, or Above Average, and give reasons why I rated them so.

"The Murder in the Vicarage": Above Average. This first episode in the new series introduces Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple, and what a delight she is. The plotline is rather simplistic and not overly complicated, so the real reason to watch the episode is to get acquainted with the "new" Miss Marple, which includes a tantalizing glimpse into her life before she came to St. Mary Mead. Adapted from the novel of the same title, and, appropriately enough, the first to feature Miss Marple, originally published in 1930. The character of Miss Marple had previously appeared in a number of serialized short stories, later published as the collection The Thirteen Problems.

"The Body in the Library": Above Average. This is an example of a murder mystery plot that seems relatively simple at first, then gets terribly complicated as it progresses, yet all makes sense in the end. Several significant changes were made from the original novel, which I think worked to improve the whodunit aspect. My biggest gripe was with the police detective investigating the crime, who I found to be insufferable ... though that was probably the point. Adapted from the novel of the same title, the second to feature Miss Marple, originally published in 1941.

"A Murder Is Announced": Average. The murder mystery plot of this episode cannot be faulted, and is deservedly considered a classic. It is a twist on what a gathering of people remember from a collectively witnessed event. Miss Marple puts it in perspective for the detective investigating the murder of a thief, who shot one of his potential victims but was killed himself: "I must admit it's been fascinating listening to what people saw -- or thought they saw -- last night. Because in reality, they couldn't actually have seen anything." The room the murder took place in was dark! I rated this episode only Average as this adaptation seems artificially stretched to fit its alloted time, with several extended scenes that are of little interest or relevance. Adapted from the novel of the same title, the fourth to feature Miss Marple, originally published in 1950.

"4:50 from Paddington": Average. Also known as "What Mrs McGillicuddy Saw", the plot of this episode is a standard family whodunit, that is, who is killing off their brothers/sisters/nieces/nephews/etc. to be the sole survivor to inherit the family fortune. New for this adaptation is the appearance of a young inspector Miss Marple once knew as a youth to investigate the crime (once one has been established); apparently the producers decided it wasn't enough for Miss Marple to decide the case without someone to bounce ideas off of. It's not obvious, however, what value he really brings. Overall, though, it's rather thinly plotted and the denouement aboard a train is more than a little contrived. (I'm reasonably sure it didn't happen this way in the book.) Adapted from the novel of the same title, the seventh to feature Miss Marple, originally published in 1957.

"Sleeping Murder": Above Average. The plot for this episode is structured along the lines of a tale of psychological suspense, and it's quite effective. It also shows off Miss Marple's sleuthing skills quite admirably, as the police don't make an appearance until well into the second half and are really unnecessary anyway. The title comes from advice Miss Marple gives the young woman, after she suspects someone was killed in her house, to let "sleeping murder lie", adding, "It was a long time ago. Do you really want to rake up the past? Who knows what else we may find?" Adapted from the novel of the same title, chronologically written just after The Murder in the Vicarage (and thus the second in the series) but set aside by Agatha Christie with orders not to publish it until after her death. Thus, when published in 1976, it became Miss Marple's twelfth and final case.

"By the Pricking of My Thumbs": Average. This episode is a departure from the norm in a couple of ways. It is not an adaptation of a Miss Marple novel or short story, but rather taken from one of the later Tommy and Tuppence novels. The couple make an appearance here -- Tommy actually takes off on business in an early scene, reappearing towards the end -- but the screenplay was rewritten to include Miss Marple, who helps Tuppence investigate the unexpected death of Tommy's aunt. The title comes from Macbeth, part of a verse in which the second line is arguably better known: "By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes." The tone of this episode is very different than the ones preceding it, the editing and soundtrack making it seem more like a thriller than a cozy, albeit a relatively light one. The puzzle aspect of the mysterious painting provides most of the interest here.

"The Moving Finger": Above Average. Told in part from the point of view of one of the characters (who also narrates some of his scenes), this episode is directed with a bit of whimsy, with shots from unusual angles and scenes filled with bright colors. The plot is clever and filled with misdirection. Miss Marple, however, has a relatively small role and really doesn't have much to do apart from explaining "whodunit" at the end. Adapted from the novel of the same title, the third to feature Miss Marple, originally published in 1943.

"The Sittaford Mystery": Below Average. Another episode not adapted from a Miss Marple mystery, rather one based -- and loosely at that -- on a stand-alone novel of suspense. There are a lot of elements here that should work well together: a backstory set in Egypt, a manor house and country inn cut off as the result of a snow storm, a cast of characters that on the surface have nothing in common but all of whom have a reason to be where they are when they are. Yet it's all rather confusing. Miss Marple, whose role is very small here, essentially solves the case by looking at a photograph and extrapolating -- with the barest of facts -- what must have happened. The Sittaford Mystery was originally published in 1931, and the first Christie novel to be published in the US under a different title, The Murder at Hazelmoor.

"Towards Zero": Above Average. I was a little torn on this episode, how to rate it. I think the plot is terrific, but the pacing of the episode is off, alternately too slow where little happens and too rapid when the intricacy of the plot should have been explored a bit more. Miss Marple is involved from the beginning, and I think most of the better episodes have a large(r) role for her to play. This episode was not adapted from a Miss Marple novel or short story, but rather one that originally featured Superintendent Battle. (The superintendent in this episode, named Mallard, is played by none other than Jonathan Creek himself, Alan Davies.) Towards Zero was originally published in 1944 and is the last of Christie's five books to feature the superintendent.

"Nemesis": Above Average. Readers familiar with this novel, which was chronologically the last written by Christie to include Miss Marple (though, as mentioned above, it wasn't the last published), may be surprised at how little in common this adaptation has with the original storyline. Still, this episode has many of the hallmarks of a classic Christie plot that includes a group of apparent strangers but who also share a common life thread. Of course it's up to Miss Marple to find it ... and learn what it means. Adapted (loosely) from the novel of the same title, the 11th to feature the amateur -- and now aging -- sleuth, originally published in 1971.

"At Bertram's Hotel": Average. This variation on the manor house mystery takes place almost entirely (no surprise here) at Bertram's Hotel in London, where Miss Marple is staying at the request of a friend, who is in the city for the reading of a will. The plot here is rather complicated with multiple intersecting storylines, the denouement dependent on a number of coincidences that might otherwise seem unlikely. Still, the episode is visually interesting, and the inclusion of a maid as amateur sleuth, who Miss Marple takes under her wing, is quite endearing. Adapted from the novel of the same title, the 10th to feature Miss Marple, originally published in 1965.

"Ordeal by Innocence": Above Average. This episode is another not adapted from a Miss Marple story, though, in contrast to others where her presence seems to be an afterthought, here it appears integral to the storyline. It is another family drama that largely plays out at a manor house, yet so many elements of the plot feel original. It may, indeed, be the best of the twelve episodes included in this set. Adapted from the stand-alone novel of psychological suspense of the same title, originally published in 1958.

Rating

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