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Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)

Marple Julia McKenzie

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010) is one of the better source novels. Sometimes the plot ideas just come together with a simple and credible motive for the first killing and a very elegant method of murder when the opportunity presents itself. Thereafter the deaths that follow show the killer(s) attempting to cover tracks and avoid detection. For these purposes there’s always at least one person who’s seen something incriminating and/or is in possession of information that would reveal the identity of the killer(s). The perennial problem for anyone who writes detective novels in the Golden Age tradition is to maintain some degree of credibility in the plots. Many resort to complexity, thinking the intricacy of the mechanisms substitutes for the need for simple elegance. Others feel the need for variation. Instead of it always being the butler that did it, everyone in the cast of characters must take their turn. So the writers defy plot logic in order the achieve the result they believe will be most surprising to their readers.

So where are we with this third version of the novel to be produced? Having the advantage of two previous adaptations to study, Kevin Elyot has wisely picked the best bits and added one scene which is rather cunning. For once, the core of the original is left intact, and the result is all the better for it. However, this is not to say the final script we see on the screen is a complete success. By modern standards, Agatha Christie’s novels are short. Publishers today think that quantity is quality. So if the original were to be brought to the screen unadorned, it almost certainly would not fill the designated running time at about 90 minutes (leaving plenty of space for ads to bulk it out to a nominal two hours). Even with added material, there’s considerable padding which fills the screen amiably but does not advance the plot with any real enthusiasm. While not blaming the producers for working to their brief, the show as we see it could benefit from losing about 15 minutes. Although it’s always sad to see one character’s part cut back, the role of Dolly Bantry (Joanna Lumley) is overdone. It’s a good double act with Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie), but it also jars since this repeats her appearance in this role from The Body in the Library when she did the same act with Geraldine McEwan.

Joanna Lumley and Julia McKenzie

Joanna Lumley and Julia McKenzie

This leads us to consider what’s added to the original. The major element comes from borrowing the film set idea from The Mirror Crack’d film adaptation which has Marina Gregg (Lindsay Duncan) convinced someone has poisoned her coffee. Also from the film, Jane Marple’s foot is injured which leaves her housebound for the early part of the film and forces us to sit through Dolly Bantree giving a guided tour to the renovated Hall. Into the midst of all this strides Inspector Hewitt (Hugh Bonneville) who’s under instructions from his superiors at the Yard to co-operate with Miss Marple whose reputation has now been established as beyond reproach. He and his sergeant are the comic relief as they wander round trying to establish what it was Marina Gregg saw that left her so transfixed when greeting those entering the VIP area. The one original albeit minor addition is Marina Gregg visiting her son at a local care facility. This rather cleverly makes her seem a more human and tragic figure. Up to this point, she’s seen largely as an actress having trouble with her nerves and attention-seeking which makes her somewhat unsympathetic. Frankly you can understand why most of the people around her would have been queuing up to dispose of her.

I remain unsure whether this adaptation is better because Miss Marple saves one of the victims in the novel. When you have a killer on the loose and there are already two bodies, why not add the third? That said the ending retains the original equivocal nature. The way this is put together makes the suicide of the killer slightly more credible. Although it does remain open for the interpretation one other person might have administered the fatal dose. When you put all this together, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side is the best of the current adaptations so far. Given the poor standard, this is not saying much, but you do have the sense this was a better effort to capture the essence of the Agatha Christie original rather than try to rewrite in a way to make it fit modern expectations and sensibilities.

For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:

Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Big Four (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)

Lost in Austen (2008)

May 28, 2012 3 comments

Lost in Austen (2008) is yet another television version of a fairly respectable literary idea, namely that a human being can transition into the pages of a book and become involved in the action. One of the most interesting and inventive versions of this trope are the Thursday Next novels by Jasper Fforde in which, through the use of a Prose Portal, characters can enter the fictional worlds of both existing great novels and new books still being written. The first is called The Eyre Affair and, not surprisingly involves Jane Eyre, some of Wordsworth’s poetry and Poe’s “The Raven”. If you enjoy literary fantasy, the six novels in this series are well worth reading (with another due in a couple of months). The thematic opposite is represented by books like the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke. In these books, fictional characters are released from their books into “our” world. Handled well, such books, films and television episodes are entertaining because they allow a completely different view of well-known texts. The problem comes with a phenomenon now called Mary Sue or Gary Stu stories.

Darcy (Elliot Cowan) and Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) finally get it together

Many writers of what’s pejoratively known as “fan-fiction” imagine what it would be like to meet and interact with the characters in their favorite movie, TV show, book, comic, or video game. The trap most fall into is to make their treasured character so perfect, he or she becomes a figure of fun. Hence all the other characters are in awe of Mary Sue, believing everything she says or does yet further examples of her brilliance. She’s brave and never outfaced in difficult situations. On occasion, this will make her appear stubborn, but she never pays a price for failing to live up to everyone’s expectations. She just wins the day (again) and goes on as if nothing untoward has happened. Fortunately, the heroine in this serial comes with warts.

Let’s meet Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) a modern fan of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. She smokes, drinks, has a lover and generally acts like a contemporary woman. Her fairly mundane life is disrupted when a doorway opens in her bathroom. Much to her surprise Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton) steps through. After some discussion, Amanda steps back through into the Bennet household, circa 1813. Even though she’s not been formally introduced, she’s accepted as Elizabeth’s friend just as Mr Bingley (Tom Mison) arrives next door. This gives her the chance to experience Jane Austen’s story from the ground up, as it were.

Mr Bingley (Tom Mison) as an almost complete nonentity

There are occasional moments when the humour works as our fish-out-of-water runs into mere incomprehension or actual hostility from the prevailing culture. But the jokes are repetitive. The first time our heroine blurts out some naff contemporary slang, we can smile at the incongruity. But the desperation with which jumbo jet jokes keep flying round the ballroom grows rapidly tiresome. The real problem is Guy Andrews, the scriptwriter, can’t decide what point is to be made. It could be a rewrite of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in which satire prevails on both sides of reality to amuse and divert us. Or it could be an entirely serious affair in which a character suddenly finds herself in an incongruous position and has to decide exactly how to survive. For, make no mistake about it, if the Bennets were real, they would throw Amanda out and watch her die without contemporary money or friends to rescue her. This approach most often comes in time-travel stories like “The Man Who Came Early” by Poul Anderson where a modern man is transported back to a 10th century Viking village and quickly killed in a blood feud because he has no idea how to behave. This serial offers us an entirely contrived situation in which our heroine is allowed to rewrite the book by her inappropriate behaviour.

Mr Collins (Guy Henry) is wonderfully awful

That said, Mr Collins (Guy Henry) is wonderfully awful and Mr Wickham (Tom Riley) is delightfully knowing and rather likeable. Mr Bingham is even more craven than anyone could have imagined and Mr Darcy (Elliot Cowan) is nicely snooty. The tendency of our heroine to drown her sorrows in too much alcohol, grab a fag when things go badly and rescue Jane Bennet with a quick paracetamol are very much of our time.

Now let’s get to the meat of the problem. What’s happening to the book in the “real world”? As our heroine is inserted into the story and begins to distort events, does this change all the words on the pages of already published books? Logic must be carried through. If the printed pages are not changing, why is this a purely personal experience? This is not the same question of how the exchange takes place, but limited to its consequences. To add to this problem, we then get the ultimate metafictional event. Having carried a copy of the book with her into the book, she throws it out of a window and Mr Darcy reads a part of it. He makes no mention of the fact the binding and paper quality is radically different to what would be achieved at that time. He simply accuses our hero of being Jane Austen who has apparently written a book about people without their consent. This makes absolutely no sense. Is he assuming our heroine wrote this before they met, i.e. it is fiction using their names? If so, how does it come to contain details of events only after they have met and where did she get the information about everyone’s income and background history? If it was only written after their first meeting, how has the book been written, typeset using the old hot lead system, printed and distributed in mass market paperback format within the space of a few weeks? This kind of sloppy writing just annoys.

Mr Wickham (Tom Riley) repairs Mr Bennet’s (Hugh Bonneville) broken head

It then gets even worse as first our heroine and then Darcy cross into modern London, then pick up Elizabeth who seems to have adapted well, and all three drop back into the Bennet home. Frankly, this is growing progressively more bizarre. I was prepared to accept a random door opening between Amanda’s bathroom and the Bennet home. It’s just a case of the right pair of women being in the right place at the right time for it to work. But a second door opening from one of those blue portacabin loos you see on street corners into a fictional world is just too much to stomach. Just what are the rules for these portals to keep appearing? Who can use them? Does their use show up in the published book? Frankly, what little possible logic might be suggested is completely abandoned for effect. This is just treating the audience with contempt. In fact, the Bennet story had grown more interesting with Bingham spending the night with Lydia (Perdita Weeks) in the bedroom of an inn and Mr Bennet (Hugh Bonneville) injuring himself in a duel to defend his family’s besmirched honour. It was all lining up to be an interesting mayhem when it all dies down. Elizabeth goes back to her new life in London (although how she will survive without a documented identity is anyone’s guess), Jane (Morven Christie) will get her marriage with Mr Collins annulled and elope with Mr Bingley to America, our heroine gets Darcy but, presumably, is left to honour all the promises she made to rescue the Bennets from the entail trap, and Mr Wickham is left to pursue Caroline Bingley (Christina Cole).

So Lost in Austen ends up neither science fiction nor fantasy. Worse, it avoids any real attempt at satire. It’s a weak-kneed collection of jokes that don’t mesh together into a coherent narrative. Austen purists will be outraged their favourite book has been pillaged. I was deeply disappointed and not a little annoyed as the serial progressed because Guy Andrews refuses to show any logic or self-discipline in the screenplay. Frankly, I can’t see anyone getting much enjoyment out of this.

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