Monday, September 22, 2014

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple: “A Caribbean Mystery” (ITV/WGBH/PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I settled in at home and watched a couple of TV shows. I put on the first half of a PBS double-feature of the Miss Marple TV series, “A Caribbean Mystery,” featuring Agatha Christie’s second most famous character and based on a Christie novel that was previously filmed in 1989 as a TV-movie with Helen Hayes as Marple (and that might be worth seeing!). The plot is typical Christie, and I noticed a self-borrowing from her story “Philomel Cottage,” quite well filmed in 1937 by a British company as Love With a Stranger with Basil Rathbone showing his usual authority as the principal villain (and a quite remarkable story from Christie because it’s a psychological thriller rather than a mystery). The self-borrowing is the character of Major Palgrave (Oliver Ford Davies), a typical upper-class Brit who has retired to a Caribbean resort called St. Honoré (presumably in Jamaica — exactly what former British colony in the Caribbean that has recently become independent isn’t specified but there’s a quite funny in-joke that narrows it down — more about that later) and, among other things, has brought his collection of photos of notorious murderers. Major Palgrave is found dead, ostensibly as a result of a side effect of medication to treat his high blood pressure, but of course Our Heroine (Julia McKenzie, who’s quite good in the role even if she can’t summon Margaret Rutherford’s marvelous dottiness and she comes off more like Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote — a character obviously based on Agatha Christie!) suspects otherwise. We get the usual Christie-esque assortment of ill-defined supporting characters to provide the requisite number of suspects, including a wheelchair-bound chemical magnate whom I was expecting to turn out to be the killer, partly because he didn’t seem to have any other function in the plot and partly because I’m so used to all those 1930’s movies in which the bad guy is merely faking needing a wheelchair for some sinister purpose or other.

Instead the killer turns out to be [spoiler alert!] Tim Kendall (Robert Webb), owner of the resort hotel around which the action is centered, who wants to terminate his marriage to Molly Kendall (Charity Wakefield) and marry a younger woman not only for her hotter bod but her richer bank balance as well. He’s hatched an elaborate plot to make Molly look crazy enough to take her own life — including bribing a Black maid, Victoria (Pippa Bennett Warner), to fake her own death and thereby freak out Molly, though he actually kills Victoria later on — and apparently he’s murdered two previous wives and made their deaths look like suicide. Only Major Palgrave recognized him from a photo in his collection of famous murderers’ pin-ups and therefore Tim had to off him, too. There are a couple of quite nice bits in this movie, including one in which the Black police chief of St. Honoré tells Miss Marple to butt out with a nicely honed anti-colonial speech to the effect that their country is now independent and therefore they don’t have to listen when white Britishers come in and tell them how to do things, and an elaborate in-joke in which one of the characters turns out to be Ian Fleming. Fleming confesses to Miss Marple that he’s working on a spy novel but is stuck for a name for his central character — and just then the two attend a lecture by a thoroughly nerdy and boring ornithologist who introduces himself as “Bond — James Bond.” (The real Ian Fleming actually did get Bond’s name from a real-life ornithologist who did an Audubon-like survey of the birds of Jamaica, but he couldn’t have seen that James Bond lecture because he lived a century earlier than Fleming — though, ironically, when the first James Bond movie was being cast, one of the actors who auditioned for the role was actually named James Bond.) But for the most part it’s the usual Christie nonsense, handsomely photographed (it’s so nice to see a color film of anything these days that’s actually colorful, shot in an interesting setting and taking full advantage of the beauty of the Caribbean locations) but indifferently constructed and with Christie’s usual faults: arbitrary plotting, overly exotic murder methods (I remember the PBS Extraordinary Women episode on Christie, which said her experience with drugs as a war nurse in World War I was what led her to dispatch so many of her people with poison) and characters as flat as cardboard.