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Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)

Marple Julia McKenzie

As Agatha Christie Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009) gets underway with this latest slice of Golden Age detective fiction, we’re suddenly transfixed by the appearance of a number of “old stalwarts”. Well, perhaps “transfixed” is not quite doing justice to the moment. I confess to being stunned and amazed Joan Collins is still going strong. Born in 1933, she contrives to look younger than Julia McKenzie and Penelope Wilton. For the record, both the book and this script require all three to be approximately the same age, having attended the same school. I’m not sure how she’s managing to preserve her youthfulness but, if Joan Collins could put it in a bottle, she would make millions more than her acting career has so far delivered. This only leaves the problem of her screen presence which is what you might might call idiosyncratic. I suspect she’s always been less an actor and more a personality. Even at the height of her popularity in Dynasty, there’s a magnificently artificial quality about her. In this performance, she’s definitely not in the business of acting “with” Julia McKenzie. They both just happen to be on the screen at the same time. There’s also something distinctly weird about the accent adopted by Penelope Wilton. Not only is it uncertain what she’s supposed to be aiming at, the goalposts keep moving as her voice trembles into a different variation for every scene.

So where are we with this adaptation? In terms of fidelity to the book, we’re fairly accurate with two variations. In the novel, a part of the mansion has been turned over to house delinquent boys, whereas in this adaptation, we see a compound in the grounds for the rehabilitation of adult offenders. The second is a redesign of the group scene when Lewis Serrocold (Brian Cox) and Edgar Lawson (Tom Payne) have their argument — the body of Christian Gulbrandsen being found almost immediately afterwards. On balance, I think this an improvement over the book. What actually works well on the page might not look quite so good on the small screen. Whereas this rather cleverly preserves the spirit of the original while making it visually arresting and spreading the degree of uncertainty about who might have committed the murder. The arrival of Johnny Restarick (Ian Ogilvy) is also pleasing, allowing us to see the outside of the mansion from his perspective in flashback as he approached through the early evening mist.

Julia McKenzie and Joan Collins as "old friends"

Julia McKenzie and Joan Collins as “old friends”

For once, keeping the ending the same also works well given this motive for the murders. There’s considerable pathos in seeing this acted out. However the other elements of the ending are definitely not even vaguely realistic. The failed marriage between Gina Elsworth (Emma Griffiths Malin) and Wally Hudd (Elliot Cowan) has been nicely shown. She’s shamelessly flirting with all and sundry while he stares morosely into his morning porridge. Then, miraculously she’s reformed and goes off to produce multiple babies to populate a house on the prairies. It’s wholly incredible. I’m also not sure about the character of Mildred (Sarah Smart). Even allowing for the fact her mother is shown as a complete failure in the parenting stakes, she’s grown up into an embittered religious fanatic, considered somewhat loopy by everyone. To have her reconcile with her mother and essentially become “normal” is stretching credibility. Finally, we come to the core “romance” between the Serrocolds. Given this version of the story, their relationship is supposed to be deeply loving where he would do almost anything for her. Frankly, I think these parts fundamentally miscast or the director is seriously at fault. Penelope Wilton comes across as almost completely self-absorbed with little or no empathy as a parent or wife. After seeing him play an endless sequence of villains, it’s fun to see Brian Cox try to appear somewhat more normal. But this performance fails to show any affection. Although couples who have been married for a few years can lack the more obvious signs of passion, this couple just seems to be sharing occupation of the house and an interest in rehabilitating criminals. They’re more like colleagues than lovers.

The result of all this musing is another failure. I’m still not convinced by Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple. She doesn’t feel proactive enough. When Joan Hickson was on the case, you felt a judge and jury had walked on to the screen to weigh the wickedness around her. For all her faults, Geraldine McEwan had a certain self-mockery about her performance, being fairly dotty and not averse to trying to matchmake when there was a young couple to push in the right direction. In this story, Miss Marple is supposed to walk into the household and take command to ensure nothing happens to her lifelong friend. Sadly, there’s absolutely no sign of that at all. So with all the weak performances and a fairly indifferent plot, Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors is showing every sign of continuing the decline of the series into oblivion.

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: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
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)

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)

Somewhere in England, many moons ago, the powers-that-be decided the best way to make films was to borrow the concept of the repertory company from the theatre. So, as we work our way through the Ealing comedies to the Carry On films and beyond, a template for success emerged. Essentially this involves taking a small group of well-known actors, dropping them into a “situation” and watching what happens. These victims of circumstance are usually friends, often living together in the same village or part of a city. The catalyst can be anything from a cargo of whisky washing up on shore to the need for the WI to raise money for a worthy local cause. Once the characters are established and the stimulus applied, the cast twists and turns in the wind until all the loose ends have been chased down and resolved. The film ends when as much of the inherent tragedy has been dispelled and there’s enough hope to inspire the paying customers when they leave the cinema. Never let it be said that any British film carrying the label of a comedy is anything other than a pottage of misery that ends with half a smile.

Judi Dench and Celia Imrie arrive

 

So it is with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) in which director John Madden works from a screenplay by Ol Parker based on a novel by Deborah Moggach. We start off by meeting our indomitable character actors. We find Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) two months after the death of her husband. She was married forty years, was never troubled with any decision-making and, consequently, has no way of dealing with all the debts he left behind other than by selling the flat and going somewhere cheap to live. Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy) is a recently retired civil servant who lost his lump sum when he invested in his daughter’s IT business. The initial scenes as he and Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton) look around a flat in sheltered accommodation nicely captures their despair. Murial Donnelly (Maggie Smith) was in service. She was highly competent, but when she grew old and had trained her successor, she was discarded in much the same way her employers might throw out an old washing machine. Now she needs a hip replacement and the waiting times in the UK are a minimum of six months. Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) is a retiring High Court judge who wants to return to his old home in India where he left a friend forty years ago. Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) and Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) are getting old and desperately lonely. They hope to remedy their situation by joining the others in retirement in Jaipur as the first residents of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (for the Old and Beautiful).

Maggie Smith not feeling comfortable in her surroundings

 

From the outset, we have to suspend disbelief. The hotel is run by Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel). He’s the stereotypical Wilkins Micawber, always convinced something will turn up. Unfortunately, his head is so far up into the clouds of optimism, he forgets to actually do anything to make any of his plans a success. The idea he could have advertised his hotel in England and organised the arrival of these seven guests is laughable. Equally absurd is the reaction of the magnificent seven when they discover the hotel is slightly less well-appointed than they might have thought from the Photoshopped pictures. However, we’re not to dwell on such matters. Our heroes arrive, they move in. That gets us started.

Tom Wilkinson playing a straight bat

 

The city of Jaipur is beautifully filmed and the hotel is wonderfully dilapidated. So, with one exception, they all use it as a base. Tom Wilkinson immediately sets off in pursuit of his old friend, Bill Nighy takes to wandering round and soaking up the atmosphere. Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie join the local social club and start searching for singles. Maggie Smith goes into hospital to have her operation, Judi Dench gets a job in a local call centre, advising on how to make telephone sales pitches to elderly people in England, and Penelope Wilton sits around the hotel in dark despair. As a local subplot, Dev Patel is in love with a girl who works at the call centre but her face does not fit into his mother’s plans for an arranged marriage. Continuing in the same order, Tom Wilkinson’s search is a mixture of fear and longing. The resolution of this thread is unexpected and affecting. Bill Nighy is a civil servant who has never managed to change a lightbulb. He’s defeated by practicality yet desperately loyal to his wife. In a way, both men are somewhat unworldly but do their best to fit in, no matter where they may find themselves (even if it means partaking of a little apple smoke). Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie are driven by desperation. They fear dying alone but have been trying too hard to meet people and make friends. They end with varying degrees of success.

Bill Nighy scouting the town

 

The most interesting thread is given to Maggie Smith and I find myself undecided on whether she could make the transformation we see. In England and immediately on her arrival in India, she appears to be irredeemably racist. Putting the best possible interpretation on what happens, we’re supposed to think this was born out of ignorance. Because she had never met “different” people, she instinctively feared and so refused contact with them. However, when she finally does allow herself to interact with some of the local people, she embarrasses herself into rethinking her prejudice. In a way, the result is a somewhat ironic return to her life of service. Judi Dench gives a wonderful performance as a woman relearning what it’s like to have a life. It’s a warm and, at times, amusing journey as she remembers the time she met her husband-to-be on a carousel and he put his arm around her waist to steady her on a rising and falling horse. Watching her give up the past and embrace the future is a delight. Penelope Wilton gets her way and goes back to England (and not a moment too soon). Dev Patel is also rescued from himself, so it all works out well in the end. Ah yes. Here comes the catchphrase. It does all come out well in the end. If things are not well at this moment, it can’t be the end.

 

So on balance, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is worth seeing. I smiled and shed a tear or two. It’s a classic ensemble British comedy so the tears won out, albeit there had to be a little finagling in the plot to get everything to end as it should. Without a little contrivance, life would be too dull.

 

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