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Saturday, June 18, 2011

MARPLE: SERIES 5 -- DVD review by porfle

Having recently reviewed seasons one through three of British TV's Masterpiece Mystery series "Marple", which starred Geraldine McEwan as Agatha Christie's beloved geriatric sleuth, I was curious as to how her replacement Julia McKenzie would fit the role.  I missed out on season four, but with the DVD collection MARPLE: SERIES 5 and its three feature-length mysteries, I find the series still in good hands.

As usual, Miss Jane Marple is an elderly spinster living in the small post-WWII English village of St. Mary Mead and enjoying her retirement by knitting, gardening, and solving incredibly complicated murder mysteries that have baffled Scotland Yard.  Her style is to stay on the periphery of things, observing those around her while nary the smallest detail or clue escapes her notice. 

With a different star and some new faces behind the camera, this isn't quite the same show that it was in the McEwan era--things aren't as lighthearted and colorful, and Miss Marple herself is somewhat more reserved and buttoned-down.  But the dark, dense, and relatively sober aura that permeates these engrossing mystery tales makes for some deeply compelling entertainment, while the differences in McKenzie's interpretation of the title role eventually become part of her own individual charm.

The set begins with my favorite, "The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side" (previously adapted as a feature film starring Angela Lansbury, with the shortened title THE MIRROR CRACK'D).  This scintillating mystery blends the pastoral setting of Miss Marple's hometown with the tacky decadence of old Hollywood when Marina Gregg (Lindsay Duncan), a fading movie queen on the comeback trail, moves into a nearby mansion with her young husband and current director, Jason Rudd (Nigel Harman). 

During a gala party in which the actress is feted like royalty by her local fans, a townswoman dies from poisoning after downing a drink meant for Marina.  Miss Marple's brassy friend Dolly Bantry (the returning Joanna Lumley) recalls a peculiar detail--as Marina and the doomed woman were chatting earlier, a strangely blank look fell over the actress' face.  Was it fear of someone she saw entering the room?  Or something more mysterious?  Further attempts on her life and a gaggle of likely suspects with various motives keep Miss Marple's inquisitive mind busy as she helps a stuffy police inspector and his bumbling assistant sort it all out.

"The Secret of Chimneys" finds Miss Marple spending a weekend at the rambling country estate, The Chimneys.  Another guest, an aristocratic German count, has come to try and purchase the property from Lord Caterham (Edward Fox) for reasons yet unknown, but is later found shot dead in a secret passage behind a wall.  Anthony Cade, the young suitor of Lord Caterham's daughter Virginia, is caught standing over the body and arrested, but Miss Marple suspects there's more to the case than meets the eye.  Her investigation uncovers clues to another murder which took place in the house decades earlier and resulted in the disappearance of a young chambermaid and a priceless diamond.

One of the pleasures of "The Secret of Chimneys" is the droll relationship between Miss Marple and Chief Inspector Finch (Stephen Dillane), a catlike Scotland Yard detective with a legendary reputation.  Aware of Miss Marple's own amateur prowess in the field, Finch displays a wry delight in having her as a worthy associate on the case, and their playful deference to one another is endearing.  This episode ends with one of those classic final scenes where the suspects are gathered together in one room and Miss Marple deftly unravels the case before their eyes, as Inspector Finch looks on with fond admiration.

The third and final story in the set is "The Blue Geranium", starring Toby Stephens (the bad guy in DIE ANOTHER DAY) as a wealthy country squire whose overbearing wife Mary (Sharon Small) is terrified that evil forces are out to get her.  Consulting horoscopes, fortune tellers, and other arcane sources, she foresees her own death and is proven right when her husband finds her dead in bed.  One of the geraniums on the wallpaper has inexplicably turned blue, which she predicted would be a harbinger of her demise.

What makes this episode most interesting is the fact that while the suspect charged with Mary's death is on a fast track to execution, Miss Marple suddenly realizes who the real killer is and must rush to the rescue.  Through her friendship with a bigwig in Scotland Yard, she is allowed to testify in the sentencing hearing and gets to demonstrate her formidable detective skills to a captive audience of rapt listeners.  One of her most tangled, emotional, and suspect-ridden cases yet, "The Blue Geranium" is the one which, for me, really made me accept Julia McKenzie once and for all as the new Miss Marple.

Some of the notable guest stars appearing in this set are Toby Stephens (DIE ANOTHER DAY), Joanna Lumley ("Ab Fab", "The New Avengers"), Lindsay Duncan ("Rome"), Joanna Page (FROM HELL), Paul Rhys (also in FROM HELL), Caroline Catz ("Single-Handed"), David Calder (THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH), Charlotte Salt (BEOWULF), and Anthony Higgins (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK).

The four-disc DVD collection from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen and Dolby Digital stereo, with English subtitles.  Discs 1-3 contain text interviews with Julia McKenzie and Joanna Lumley, cast filmographies, info on various shooting locations, and a piece about how Agatha Christie's 120th anniversary is celebrated by fans around the world. Disc four is an hour-plus documentary about Dame Agatha's personal retreat entitled "Agatha Christie's Garden."   

I earnestly recommend this series to mystery fans who love to settle in for a richly photographed, expertly acted, and marvelously written whodunnit that's dripping with period atmosphere and takes its own sweet time getting to where it's going because that's part of the fun.  If that sounds good to you, the three cracking stories found in MARPLE: SERIES 5 won't disappoint.

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