Marple: Murder is Easy

Rating 2

Directed by Hettie Macdonald

Written by Stephen Churchett, based on the novel by Agatha Christie

Starring Julia MacKenzie (Miss Marple), Benedict Cumberbatch (Luke Fitzwilliam), Margo Stilley (Bridget Conway), Shirley Henderson (Honoria Wayneflete), David Haig (Major Hugh Horton), Russell Tovey (PC Terence Reed), Steve Pemberton (Henry Wake), Sylvia Syms (Lavinia Pinkerton), Lyndsey Marshal (Amy Gibbs), James Lance (Dr Geoffrey Thomas), Tim Brooke-Taylor (Dr Edward Humbleby), Camilla Arfwedson (Rose Humbleby), Anna Chancellor (Lydia Horton) and Jemma Redgrave (Jessie Humbleby)

Miss Marple meets Lavinia Pinkerton during a train journey, who tells her she is travelling up to London to report a double murder to Scotland Yard. When Lavinia dies, seemingly after a tragic fall on an escalator at an underground station, before she can report her suspicions to the police, Miss Marple travels to the village of Wychwood to investigate her claims. She discovers a web of secrets and intrigue and before long more murders occur, disguised as accidents.

‘Murder Is Easy’ is the second episode of the fourth season of ‘Marple’, the ITV production based on Agatha Christie’s much-loved amateur detective. Geraldine McEwan played the title role in the first three seasons (twelve episodes). As brilliant an actress as McEwan is, I didn’t really take to her interpretation of the character or, more to the point, the style in which the stories were presented. They seemed to be forever winking at the audience, as if telling us that they were in on the joke that these are rather dusty and quaint old stories from an age that, if it ever really existed in the first place, is long gone. It became, almost, a parody, and Miss Marple, as portrayed by McEwan, was, for my tastes, far too obviously knowing.

Part of the problem, I imagine, is that I grew up initially with the Margaret Rutherford interpretations (four films in which she played a boisterous larger-than-life Marple modelled on herself as much as the character created by Agatha Christie) and then the classic BBC adaptations of the 1980s and early 1990s, with the definitive portrayal of Miss Marple by Joan Hickson. All twelve Miss Marple novels were dramatised, the last adaptation in 1992 when Hickson was 86 years old, six years before her death. Hickson is an impossible act to follow and McEwan quite rightly adopted a different approach, one that I didn’t particularly enjoy.

Season four of ‘Marple’ sees Julia MacKenzie take over the role of Miss Marple. MacKenzie’s approach is closer to the source material than McEwan and the first two episodes (‘Murder is Easy’ and, before it, ‘A Pocketful of Rye’) are less stylised, but there seems to be a spark missing. The BBC version of ‘A Pocketful of Rye’ starring Joan Hickson, first broadcast in February 1985, is one of my particular favourites and I struggled with the new adaptation, giving up on it less than an hour into its two-hour running time (with adverts). I stuck with ‘Murder is Easy’ until the bitter end, but came away feeling that it was all rather flat and uninspiring.

‘Murder is Easy’, although an original Agatha Christie novel, is not a Miss Marple story. It is, in fact, one of five novels featuring the character Superintendent Battle, this one first published in 1939. The story has been radically reinterpreted here to remove Battle and insert Miss Marple into the narrative, rather unconvincingly at times. Other changes have also been made to the original novel (which I have not read), including the motivation behind the murders.

The characters remain rather indistinct throughout. Although there are six deaths in quick succession, five as the result of apparently tragic accidents and one, it seems, because of suicide, all of them actually murders, nobody in the close-knit community of the tiny village seems unduly alarmed, apart, of course, from Lavinia Pinkerton, herself one of the victims.

A number of sub-plots are introduced that do not amount to very much. One of the subsequent murder victims appears to be suffering from a potentially quite serious illness (coughing up blood), but nobody, including the local doctor and the usually eagle-eyed Miss Marple, appears to be in any way concerned about this. In fact, this illness, whatever it might have been, is simply a way of creating a means to allow for her murder, a very contrived and rather obviously signposted one at that. A young American woman, allegedly visiting the village to take brass rubbings in the local church, is clearly there for another purpose altogether, but although both Miss Marple and Luke Fitzwilliam, the former police officer she collaborates with, know this, they seem quite content to allow it to slide until the eventual dénouement.

Following a coroner’s inquest into the apparently accidental death of one of the victims, at which Fitzwilliam expresses his opinion that it was, in fact, murder, the coroner adjourns the inquest to allow police enquiries to take place. These are conducted not by a detective or team of police officers, but by a young constable, who asks questions that are fed to him by Miss Marple, sitting in an adjoining room, listening in. While some degree of suspension of disbelief is necessary to allow a scenario in which Miss Marple is allowed a role in the investigation, this is a particularly flimsy and unlikely set-up.

Julia MacKenzie seems, at this early stage, to be a reasonable choice for the new Miss Marple and there is a decent supporting cast here. The setting looks authentic and there are good production values, but the result is not especially satisfying.

The next instalment, ‘Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?’, is, once again, an adaptation of a Agatha Christie novel that does not feature Miss Marple.

Director Hettie Macdonald directed the brilliant and acclaimed 2007 Doctor Who episode ‘Blink’.

Review posted 14 September 2009

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