TV on DVD: Agatha Christie's Marple -- Series 4 (2008)

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Following the retirement of actress Geraldine McEwan who portrayed Agatha Christie's brilliantly subtle "spinster" sleuth in the three previous seasons of ITV's successful series, Cranford and Notes on a Scandal actress Julia McKenzie took up the knitting needles and inquisitive mind embodied in Agatha Christie's Marple.

With the release of its fourth series that coincides with the broadcast of the included works here in the states as part of PBS's Masterpiece Mystery!, once again we're presented with a quartet of high quality adaptations of feature-length standalone mysteries breathtakingly captured in cinematic 16x9 widescreen format and presented with Dolby Digital sound.

Routinely clocking in at a breakneck 93 minute running time, McKenzie is joined by a top-notch cast of familiar faces in supporting roles including Matthew Macfadyen, Joan Collins, Shirley Henderson, Rupert Graves, Anna Chancellor, Jemma Redgrave, Brian Cox, Helen Baxendale, Prunella Scales, Warren Clarke, Natalie Dormer, Rafe Spall, Samantha Bond and Liz White.

In the set, Miss Jane Marple seeks to unmask the murderer(s) in the four given mysteries that comprise the series (A Pocket Full of Rye, Murder is Easy, They Do It With Mirrors, and Why Didn't They Ask Evans?) as well as their modus operandi which are typically revealed in Christie fashion with a mind-boggling denouement. Although fortunately for our sake, the Marple explanations always make far more sense to viewers than the ones rattled off (sometimes) via thirty minute near monologues by David Suchet's Hercule Poirot.

However, while Poirot was able to overhear conversations and happen upon clues by sitting quietly in rooms much like Miss Jane Marple who seems to hide behind knitting as part of her drawing room mystery camouflage-- one major difference between Christie's two greatest and most popular detectives was that Marple was far less vain. Unlike Poirot, Marple needed none of the man's glory nor the title of "the greatest detective in the world," since in some cases, once she's cracked a complicated puzzle in her roundabout way, she simply disappears from the scene before the guilty party is even apprehended.

While she always fears the worst whenever she's brought in, she stumbles onto cases typically as a guest or when asked to put her amateur sleuthing skills to good use by a friend or acquaintance. Although Marple fans may recall her as a cynical, tough-minded woman who doesn't faint at the sight of corpses or being held up at gunpoint in a standoff with an unstable suspect and we do see some of those qualities here, overall McKenzie's approach to Marple feels different. Basically it's a bit more cheerful and mumbling yet self-consciously meek and therefore McKenzie's Marple as penned by the screenwriters adapting Christie's work for the four different directors employed for the titles in question at first seems like she's acting in stark contrast to the woman we've known on the page and in previous films.

However, quickly we discover that instead of the Marple portrayed by some as a bit pushier and insistent-- especially when dealing with the authorities-- our new Jane Marple operates on the simple truth that people will tell an old woman anything. Throughout these four feature films, Marple is ultimately a clever confidant who is instantly trustworthy because of her soft-spoken demeanor and the way that she instinctively seems to know just when to ask certain questions at that eventually leads to solving the most difficult of cases.

In quintessential Christie fashion-- inspired no doubt by the author's background in pharmacology work-- poisons are used repeatedly throughout the series and the body count often grows from one corpse to several such as in the wickedly named Murder is Easy when people begin dropping like the local bees kept at the vicarage in a way that makes us realize they must have stung someone the wrong way and died as a result.

Although unfortunately the decision to pair these particular four mysteries together might not have been the best one from a storyteller's point-of-view since all four involve the same type of secret, motive, and individual(s) that leads to the killings-- making one wonder why Christie was so fixated on the issue and why all four past secrets led to evil-- overall it's a solid and satisfying collection. However, due to the familiarity of the concluding link that occurs in the first, second, third, and fourth volume consecutively-- despite the fact that of course, Christie gives them all wondrously unique twists, subplots, red herrings, and more surprises-- Agatha Christie's Marple perhaps works best viewed in the PBS like weekly format instead of as a marathon which makes the repetition that much more glaring.

Exquisitely photographed and with stunning period production design for the early 1950s set series where the wounds of World War II still haven't healed-- amazingly as works on their own there isn't a dud in the bunch. The series begins with the classic case of a wealthy man with more enemies than friends who is found poisoned at work. Yet when we learn that the man died also with a pocket filled with rye and there seems to be a strange clue involving the term "Blackbird," Marple works subtly alongside Matthew Macfayden's Inspector Neele when she discovers that her sweet but dim-witted maid Gladys who had begun working in the victim's crowded household has also perished in a gruesome fashion.

And in Murder is Easy, Marple is led to a seemingly idyllic village after she encounters a stranger on a train "accidentally" killed shortly after a curiously suspicious confession entices Marple to visit a tight-knit community where the death toll is on the rise as church pews begin emptying out. While she's again faced with multiple motives, UK film fans who are used to certain actors being typecast will immediately be able to identify the killer by the guest star portraying a resident. Although once again and similar to Rye, piecing together the clues into a final solution is a different story altogether for Marple, though luckily for us it's one that's much easier to comprehend than Rye's.

Once we've left the beauty of the English village, the last two titles-- They Do it With Mirrors and Why Didn't They Ask Evans?-- primarily take place indoors, giving us a sense of heightened suspicion and claustrophobia especially in the brilliant final mystery that livens things up by giving Marple two young aspiring sleuth sidekicks. Asked to investigate a strange fire at the sister's residence of Jane Marple's good friend played by Joan Collins, Marple journeys to the eccentric home of Ruth van Ryock to make sure that no danger is awaiting Ruth in Mirrors.

Further complicating Marple's visit is the rather large ensemble cast that's initially hard for audiences to keep straight. And to this end, we become acquainted with Ruth's life of ex-husbands and stepchildren-- some of whom are much older than she is herself-- and begin tallying up all of the possible perpetrators. It's a laundry list of suspects to say the least including a shell-shocked World War II veteran, a mentally unstable assistant who believes he's the son of Winston Churchill, along with a rehabilitation center filled with endless suspects given the fact that Ruth runs an adjacent facility for "reformed" citizens.

Aside from some scenes that had this reviewer with an Indiana Jones like fear of snakes desperately wanting to look away-- by far, the most unorthodox and original feature contained in the fourth series was the fourth volume of Why Didn't They Ask Evans? wherein a young man discovers a dying stranger stranded on the rocks of a cliff by the sea. As the young Bobby Attfield risks his own life to get to the victim, the dying man utters the five words that would be used for the title of the mystery but instead of informing the police about the strange utterance, the scared Bobby keeps this knowledge private.

Of course, that changes when a beautiful old friend from school named Frankie Derwent suggests that the two take up the case themselves. Soon in over their heads and posing as others at a creepy mansion connected to the deceased-- luckily for Bobby and Frankie-- Miss Marple arrives to assist the boy she's known since he was a child and more importantly help solve the case.

Again, while the same past mistakes and secrets twist is used repeatedly and in Murder is Easy especially some of the decisions made by the director in deciding when to let us in on a visual clue seemed a tad too early and obvious, all of the traditional Christie criticisms of an over-reliance on poisons, some characters who feel one-dimensional etc. is easily brushed aside thanks to the elegant and classy execution.

Although I wish that McKenzie's Marple had a little more spunk so that some of her triumphs and confidences shared resembled more determined investigation rather than the recurring nonchalant, "ah well, I'm old and people will talk to me" style of knowledge gathering, by the time Mirrors and Evans have rolled around you can see the actress visibly grow more accustomed to her role. And soon, McKenzie begins making Jane Marple slightly more confident in some memorable sequences during the comedic near-play like set-up of the fourth title.

A must-own for Christie fans and especially those, like me, who always enjoyed Marple more than Poirot when picking up one of the author's mystery novels-- the stellar craftsmanship and dedication of those in front of and behind the camera is apparent as soon as the works begin. And luckily for fans, we can already look forward to the arrival of more Marple as a fifth series has been ordered for ITV.

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