Monday, September 29, 2014

Miss Marple: Endless Night (ITV/PBS, 2014)

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

I watched the latest episode of the current Miss Marple series on KPBS, “Endless Night,” which turned out to be an engaging and convincingly atmospheric bit of neo-Gothic suspense as well as a charming character study and a story that neatly inverted audience expectations. It’s basically told in flashback by Mike Rogers (Tom Hughes), a boyishly handsome young man who narrates to Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie, who comes off less like Margaret Rutherford in the 1960’s Miss Marple theatrical films than like Angela Lansbury in the TV series Murder, She Wrote — a character quite obviously based on Miss Marple’s creator, Agatha Christie!) how he came to fall in love with and marry Ellie (Joanna Vanderham) even though she came from the British aristocracy (with a fortune to match) while he was penniless. He wanted a country estate but didn’t have the money to buy one; no problem, she said, and bought him the land and home he had his heart set on with her money. Mike hired a hot-shot architect to design a modern home on the property and had it built, and he and Ellie seemed happy there despite the insistence of local Gypsy woman Mrs. Lee (Janet Henfrey) that the land was cursed and Mike himself was “born to endless night,” in the words of the famous poem by William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence” (“Some are born to sweet delight/Some are born to endless night/We are led to believe a lie/When we see not thro’ the eye/Which was born in a night to perish in a night/When the soul slept in beams of light”). Naturally Mike’s actions rouse the ire of Ellie’s upper-class family and friends, though oddly when Ellie is found murdered an hour into this hour-and-a-half teleplay (quite late in the running time for the first killing to happen in a Christie story!) oddly they don’t suspect Mike.

Years of reading mystery novels and/or watching their film adaptations have conditioned us to expect that Mike will be unjustly suspected of Ellie’s murder and Miss Marple will prove him innocent — but Christie throws us a curveball this time; Mike really did kill Ellie, and her friend Claudia Hardcastle (Rosalind Halstead), and later on Mike’s own girlfriend Greta (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), whom he met after the war and with whom he worked out the plot to use his native charm to get a rich Englishwoman to fall in love with and marry him, and then kill her for her fortune. As the last half-hour plays out Mike’s body count rises to such dimensions we’re left in the dark as to whether we’re supposed to believe Mike was a greed-motivated opportunistic murderer or a psychopathic serial killer — but then character consistency was always Christie’s weakest suit as a writer — and at the end the modern house on the estate is burned down by the brother of a man Mike drowned to steal his expensive watch (I’m not making this up, you know!), though of course, this being a Christie story, the main murder is committed by Mike substituting cyanide for a medication Ellie was taking (and Claudia died accidentally when she took some of Ellie’s pills). “Endless Night” is made watchable and even engaging by director David Moore’s superb atmospherics, screenwriter Kevin Elyot’s literate adaptation of Christie’s novel, and above all by the excellent cast: Tom Hughes is absolutely convincing as the surface charmer the script tells us he is (he plays essentially the boyish killer Anthony Perkins pioneered as Norman Bates in Psycho, but without the twitchiness that gave Norman away) and Joanna Vanderham is utterly believable as the besotted young woman who will do anything for her man. I think we’ll see much more of these two in the future!