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Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)

Marple Julia McKenzie

Perhaps I’m just getting old and so more often find myself out of sympathy with television representations of the times from my youth. Although I failed to arrange being born into a rich family with a large country estate, we were on the periphery of the county set and I observed many people of the type we see on display in these period adaptations. The book on which Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008) is based was written and set in the 1950s and, as the title suggests, was another of these plots recycling nursery rhymes. At this point I need to distinguish between the source material and the most recent adaptation. I read this when it first came out in paperback around 1958 and, like many books by Agatha Christie, the actual characters are fairly irrelevant. They are the standard stereotypes who do what’s necessary to advance the plot. The basis of enjoyment lies in the rather nice construction of the puzzle. As is always the case when the reader is given a clue in the title, the question is whether the author is playing fair or the clue is actually a bluff. If it’s a bluff, whose bluff is it. The author could be setting out to mislead us from the moment we open the book or the murderer could be using the rhyme for a particular purpose. When I sat down to watch this, I confess I could not remember it. Many of the Agatha Christies have blurred together into a kind of generic lump of Golden Age Detective Fiction. Of all the authors who came to prominence in the 1920s and 30s, she proved to be the best at the mystery three-card-trick. You take a limited number of people, shuffle them around and then devise a set of circumstances in which a different person is the murderer for each book. It can even be everyone or the detective or, in one case, the first-person narrator. Everyone gets to play the part on the whim of the Queen of Crime. The result is there’s little memorable about the individual stories. What we tend to remember are the broad brushstrokes of the detectives and their immediate entourage, and occasional solutions which were outstandingly spectacular.

Ralf Little, Julia McKenzie and Matthew Macfadyen looking to investigate

Ralf Little, Julia McKenzie and Matthew Macfadyen looking to investigate

So here we are with another actress drafted in to play Miss Marple (I suppose Geraldine McEwan was just a little too long in the tooth as she approached her 80th birthday). This time, we’re off with Julia McKenzie. For the record, Joan Hickson featured in an adaptation of this novel that was shown in 1985. So those of you with memories like an elephant or a comprehensive set of DVDs can compare interpretations. This strikes me a somewhat bland but, in part, that’s because she shares the detecting spotlight with Inspector Neele (Matthew Macfadyen) and his faintly comic sidekick Sergeant Pickford (Ralf Little). Perhaps if she was allowed the starring role, we might see her performance in a better light.

As to the plot, we start off with the murder of Rex Fortescue (Kenneth Cranham). Have you noticed how often Agatha Christie gets the ball rolling by killing a bullying patriarch? It’s probably terribly Freudian that these guys always deserve to die. They are usually slightly on the upper side of middle class, reasonably wealthy but ultimately convinced the rest of the world contains an inferior species. In this case, he’s somewhat loopy which is not a desirable mental state for a man running an investment bank. He’s been moving out of all the good, safe bonds into new derivatives and other casino style financial products. This has been driving his son Percival (Ben Miles) nuts. The family were watching their wealth go down the toilet but would the old boy listen? So they were rescued when someone poisoned the idiot and left the rye in his pocket. Naturally Miss Marple is not a little upset when her ex-maid is also slaughtered while hanging out the clothes in the garden. That just leaves the queen to die in the parlour and the rhyme is complete.

Rupert Grave as the black sheep of the family

Rupert Grave as the black sheep of the family

The problem with this adaptation is that the characters are either the servants (the drunk butler and prickly cook) who are easy to spot, or generic wealthy middle class types, often with rather less middle class accents to show their feet of clay. Yes, wealthy people did marry beneath themselves in those days. A fact made embarrassingly obvious in this production by their low class accents and potentially boorish behaviour. And that’s what really depresses me about this adaptation. The class-based drama focuses on the pursuit of money and status. This unhappy shower may have acquired the money but they certainly have not acquired any manners to go with them. This is the noveau riche trying to live the life of the old money, upper class. Percival is the miser son, counting every penny. Lance Fortescue (Rupert Graves) flies in from Paris after his father’s death so he stands out a little as having a little more style. But then the black sheep of the family do tend to be charismatic.

Even though it relies on one person being extraordinarily stupid, I suppose the plot is one of the better ones with the way in which the evidence emerges staying true to the book. I’m going to reserve judgement on Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple. We just don’t see enough of her in this episode. So A Pocket Full of Rye is reasonably entertaining for a show of this type if you can stand being cooped up with this group of rather unpleasant figures for two hours.

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: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
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)

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

February 12, 2012 1 comment

From the moment the dawn breaks and the sun rises to gild the lettering of the title, Pride and Prejudice (2005), you know you are in for a beautiful version of a traditional story. Indeed, as a piece of film-making, the cinematography from Roman Osin and art direction from Ian Bailie are second to none. There are, however, several issues to address. First, as to the plot, we have to make sacrifices if we are to emerge from the cinema in under two-and-a-half hours. The scriptwriters, Deborah Moggach and Emma Thompson, have cut down everything to the bare essentials of the two love stories. More or less everything else is dumped into to a few quick scenes and cameos from the supporting cast. This is not to deny the director, Joe Wright the chance to stage two balls with the manners of the period firmly on display. Except, during the second private ball, the device of having everyone disappear from the screen while Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) and Mr Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) dance is an annoying distraction only mitigated because the sight of key people trying to avoid each other by moving through the crowds is decidedly apt. This scriptwriting process does produce a fast-track from first meetings to the breathless embrace of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy as the second dawn breaks over their impending marriage.

Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen end on the right note

 

Second, although we get to see Elizabeth in something approaching full flow, there’s a considerable amount of screen time denied Mr Darcy to establish his off-putting character. It’s the same with Jane Bennet (Rosamund Pike) who gets significantly less time than Elizabeth with poor Mr Bingley (Simon Woods) relegated to a comic turn. I know he’s not very bright but this is carrying the dimness a little too far. It’s rather the same with Mr Collins (Tom Hollander) who’s held up as clownishly short and awkward for us to mock before he makes an edited version of his proposal and then disappears more or less entirely. I think I did see Wickham (Rupert Friend) a few times, but not as often as I might have expected. I suppose he can make his contribution to Bennet family happiness off-screen.

Rosamund Pike and Simon Woods in a passionate huddle

 

Next, we come to the casting. Brenda Blethyn as Mrs Bennet is rather less afflicted by her nerves than in other versions. This is a more sensible person than we usually see, rightly obsessed with the need to get her daughters married off. In those days, marriage was very much a commercial necessity and, without a male heir to protect ownership of the family home, Mrs Bennet is committed to seeing her daughters safe in the shortest possible time. It’s hardly surprising she should be stressed. Judi Dench cannot put a foot wrong in her two minutes on screen. This is the usual stunning performance as a dragon, in this case Lady Catherine de Bourg. The outstanding catastrophe is Donald Sutherland. What were they thinking? I can’t imagine the producers hoped to increase the international distribution by having a Canadian star as Mr Bennet. As it is, this is a man struggling with his accent and, it would seem, to keep his teeth in place. Both hand gestures and facial movements seem to suggest a man afflicted by early false efforts about to drop out. Almost as bad was the lack of animation. Finally, we come to Keira Knightley.

 

This is an early version of the rebellious daughter and subsequent pirate we’ve all come to love. I’m stunned we should have such a fierce Elizabeth. In times when women were expected to be largely decorative and submissive, her body language and verbal aggression would mark her down as one of society’s barbarian princesses. She strides across the landscape, swinging her bloody sword from side to side, in search of another man’s head to add to the scalps hanging from her belt. Seeing her so dominating is hilarious. Except. . .

Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland as the Bennets accenting the positive

 

When we denizens of the oughties go to the cinema, what do we expect to see as entertainment? If we were aiming for historical accuracy, then we would want not just the costumes and stately homes to match the period. We would expect the culture and language to be reproduced. The alternative approach would be to completely relocate the plot for contemporary audiences. So Clueless starring Alicia Silverstone as Austen’s Emma gives us a high school teen comedy of manners, showing a not unpleasing attempt at romance with a period twist. Returning to Kiera Knightley, this is a modern girl in a period dress. She cares nothing for propriety, never avoiding eye contact when giving her dismissals to the men who propose to her. It’s a, “look at me when I’m talking to you” approach to rejection. Yet it’s this performance that will most appeal to the modern audience. When you have the film framed by two dawns, this is signalling its intention to be lushly romantic. That means our Elizabeth has to wear her heart on her sleeve, first to be passionately wrong and then to be passionately right. That way, we can all stagger out of the cinema, profoundly grateful she finally saw the light (literally and metaphorically). I actually felt quite sorry for this Mr Darcy. He was doing everything according to the How to Propose for Dummies play book of his times only to be confronted by a harridan who shouts him down. Whereas he should have said, “Who cares about the difference in our status in the eyes of the world, let’s get it on right here, right now”, he began by apologising. Well, that’s never going to earn him brownie points with this Elizabeth, is it.

 

So, as a film to entertain modern audiences, this is a success. We can’t expect to see respect paid to an old author if that’s not going to get paying customers through the door. More to the point, modern audiences will not sit still long enough to get us through more of the detailed plot. And, if I stop being my natural curmudgeonly self for a moment, I will admit to enjoying quite large chunks of it. Whatever the faults, Pride and Prejudice (2005) looks the part and, courtesy of Joe Wright, is one of the most beautifully filmed versions of an Austen I can remember seeing.

 

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