Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Film: NEMESIS starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

Tuesday's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Films is a weekly meme hosted by Todd Mason at his blog, SWEET FREEDOM. Don't forget to check in and see what other overlooked films other bloggers are talking about today. Link.

Okay, yeah, NEMESIS is technically not a movie, but you can watch it as such on Netflix streaming, if you like. And I like. This is one of my favorite Joan Hickson aka Miss Marple adaptations primarily because it (more or less) follows the book's plot, fleshing out the story visually and adding another character while removing a couple and rearranging a few events, but all to the better in this case. The adaptation was done by novelist T.R. Bowen so maybe that's why it worked so well and directed beautifully by David Tucker.

An addition I liked: Miss Marple's sad-sack nephew, Lionel (Peter Tilbury) whose wife has recently changed all the locks on their house to keep him out, has come to visit.. He arrives in St. Mary Mead, bags packed, looking for a temporary place to stay.

Instead he gets to accompany Miss Marple on a journey into the past to discover the truth of a murder which occurred some years before. Miss Marple is the 'nemesis' of the title, an appellation given to her by the late Jason.Rafiel, an elderly, self-made multi-millionaire who once helped Miss Marple prevent a murder while on holiday in the Caribbean (see A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY).

He has recently died and left Miss Marple a sum of money, but also instructions in his will for her to take a bus trip. On this trip she, unbeknown to her, will be joined by several characters who are there to keep an eye on her as well as to serve as guides to the truth of the murder of a girl named Verity Hunt years before. Whether they know they are 'guides' isn't made clear, especially since one of them turns up dead, but no matter.

Miss Marple complies with Rafiel's request out of respect for his acumen and also because she is intrigued by the vagueness of it all. She will, in any case, inherit the money whether she is successful in her quest or not.

"But how will I know if I've been successful?" Miss Marple asks the lawyer.
"We've been informed that you'll know you've been successful when you've been successful."
Miss Marple says, "Yes, yes, I can see how that could be." 
The lawyers merely look puzzled and wary.

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

The lawyers, Broadribb and Schuster are played by two veteran character actors who know just how to do this sort of thing perfectly, they are adorable: Roger Hammond and Patrick Godfrey. I love their scenes together, with Miss Marple and later with Rafiel's son, Michael.

It is this son, Michael, who had been accused of Verity Hunt's murder but was never brought to trial. The son has since refused his inheritance and become a homeless vagabond, leaving the Rafiel family mansion sitting empty and decaying. (Decay is very much a part of the plot, perhaps because this was the last Jane Marple mystery written by Agatha Christie, though it was not the last published.)

As part of Mr. Rafiel's bequest, Miss Marple joins a Houses and Gardens of England bus tour. True to form, she soon realizes that several of the passengers on the bus are concerned in her mysterious quest and begins putting two and two together realizing too that she is being guided from the grave - in a manner of speaking - by Mr. Rafiel.

NEMESIS is about the reach of memory and the power of love to destroy. But most of all, it is about justice.

What I like most about this particular version (besides all the wonderful performances) is the gorgeous scenery and architecture, the all around English country ambiance which the film-makers made such good use of. Not to mention the beautiful vintage green and yellow (if I'm remembering correctly) bus.

The art direction on this particular Miss Marple film is absolutely top notch. This is the England we all imagine when we think of visiting. Even down to the cozy tea shop in which several characters stop to have tea and pertinent conversation. The English countryside has never looked so invitingly atmospheric -  lovely, green and flowering.

Too bad murder and madness must rear their ugly heads later in the story.

P.S. Don't, whatever you do, watch the newer version of NEMESIS starring the badly miscast Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple. The story was twisted around and peopled with ridiculous characters and not very clever actors. This adaptation was simply a dreadful mistake which probably had Agatha Christie spinning in her grave.

In my view, no one can ever equal Joan Hickson's portrayal of Miss Marple and the brilliant adaptations of Christie's work done for PBS in the 1980's.


  1. I love this adaption of "Nemesis" I must confess however, that Geraldine McEwan is a wonderful Marple too. She and Joan went in different directions with the character. McEwan lacked on to Marple's impishness while Hickson nailed the Nemesis quality. Love your review. I could watch Marple and Poirot daily and find some newness I missed the first time. The Brits(BBC) do Christie brilliantly!

  2. OOPS! Meant McEwan latched onto impishness!

  3. Hi Gilby, maybe I would have liked Geraldine McEwan more if the stories had been better adapted. I must admit though I never thought of Miss Marple as 'impish'. :)

    But I'm glad you appreciate Joan Hickson's qualities.

    Whenever I'm in a slump of some sort, I tune into Miss Marple or Poirot episode and it just does the trick. But for me, it's only the early PBS adaptations of the 80's and 90's. Love them.

  4. Nope. Like Suchet with Poirot, she is the definitive Mrs. Marple.

  5. I totally agree with this review. Nemesis is one of my favourite of the Joan Hickson adaptations. I too like the addition of the bumbling but affable nephew Lionel and his humourous backstory. The other slight variations from the novel also make for a rewarding televisual experience.

    I have not bothered watching the Geraldine McEwan versions of Miss Marple for the same reasons as you state. I'm glad to note that the general consensus among true Christie fans is that the McEwan versions are rather crass and unecessarilly sexed up to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

    Joan Hickson's portrayal can never be bettered in my opinion. Likewise with David Suchet as Poirot

  6. Yvette,

    _Nemesis_ is my favorite Miss Marple film and novel. And, I read/view it regularly.

    I have tried to watch the two replacements for Joan Hickson and like neither of them.

    Joan Hickson IS Miss Marple.

  7. This was directed by "Drive" director Nicolas Winding Refn. From cozy to HB!


  8. Lucy Nation: We Miss Marple 'purists' have to stick together. :)

    Though of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion and welcome to express it on my blog. We don't frown upon it. :)

    I simply adore Joan Hickson.

  9. No argument from me, Fred. There's just something about Nemesis that makes it truly memorable. And to think - this was Christie's last Marple novel. She still had the power.

  10. Michael, not according to imdb. That's the source for my info.

    David Tucker is specifically listed as director.

    What is your source?

  11. Yvette,

    I didn't know that _Nemesis_ was the last Miss Marple novel. She not only "still had the power," but she was getting stronger!

  12. Yvette, I have neither read NEMESIS, which is sitting on my bookshelf, nor seen this film. A shame and an embarrassment, isn't it?! I'll definitely have to see this film because I can't get Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple out of my mind.

  13. Fred: Yes, I do wonder when she actually wrote and finished it. It might have been a couple of years before. Of that I'm not at all sure.
    But it showed she still could put a good story together.

    I wonder what she would say if she knew that her work was still loved and admired by millions of readers.

  14. Prashant: Well, then you'll have to get to it immediately if not sooner. :)

    The Joan Hickson episodes are available on dvd. I would recommend NEMESIS and A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED.
    THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY is wonderful too. Three excellent adaptations. But stay away from the new Miss Marples.

  15. Yvette, I thought I watches most Christe movies, have to see this one. Here's a few you might just love.
    The Enchanted cottage (Robert Montgomery and McQuire)

    A Portrate of Jenny ( Jennifer Jones-Joseph Cotton)

    Star a great story about Broadway

    The Ghost and Mrs Muir
    (Teirney and Rex Harrison)

  16. I agree that the McEwan version of Nemesis was absolutely horrible, but I'd say I'm a "true Christie fan" and I have to say she's my favourite Marple by a mile, even if I do have to pretend that half of the episodes don't exist. I think the new version of The Body in the Library is sublime, change of murderer and all! A Murder is Announced is also particularly good.

    The Hickson series doesn't have any real clunkers, but in general I find them twee and actually quite dull.

    Also the mysteries are sometimes very badly explained, which to me defeats the whole point of adapting a Christie.

    But I agree that Nemesis is quite good, and I'd say it's even better than the book, which isn't one of Agatha's finest.

    I think the BBC Radio adaptation with June Whitfield is also worth a listen.

    I will say this, though: Hickson is the absolute best when it comes to reading the original novels and stories for audiobook. Much better than David Suchet reading the Poirot shorts, surprisingly.

  17. I've seen them all, Yvonne except, I think, STAR. Thanks for the reminder though, maybe I'll watch them all again. I loved THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE and THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR.

    Wait, wasn't it Robert Young in THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE?

  18. rich: Can't agree with your assessment of McEwan, but we can still be Chrisite fans. :)

    Far as I'm concerned, Joan Hickson can do no wrong.

    I loved the original version of A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED with Joan Hickson, it's my second favorite of the early Marple PBS episodes. But I also loved the early version of THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY. I mean, why change the murderer? To what purpose?

    Why not just write a new story? And call it something else?
    I'm afraid I'm sounding like a purist when it comes to Christie...Well, I guess that's because I am.

    I kind of like Suchet's reading of the Poirot stories also the actor who plays Hastings (whose name I can never remember) is a wonderful narrator as well.

    I'll have to check out the Hickson readings of the Miss Marple stories on your high recommendation. For sure.

  19. I JUST finished watching this over the weekend. I was in a Miss Marple mood and I just adore Joan Hickson. I guess I was in the mood for country houses and tea shops. I'm always in the mood for those, though. Anyway, Nemesis was a perfect fit. I haven't seen the Geraldine McEwan one, but now I want to watch it just to see how bad it is!

  20. Lauren: When are we not in the mood for country houses and tea shops!? Ha.Know what you mean.

    Let us know what you think of the McEwan version for sure. If you have the nerve to watch it. Ha!

  21. I too came along with the McEwan adaptations, which I generally liked not having read the source materials. But I have soon discovered that their adaptations were a bit dubious when compared to the Joan Hickson Marple.

    The other Marple I know of is the Margaret Rutherford, which I liked on the basis of them being a mystery but did not like in it characterization of Miss Marple.

  22. Well. I think the change of murderer in the McEwan version of Body in the Library achieves a few things:

    1. It's a surprise. I'm not saying everyone will be pleased with the change, but in general mystery lovers like to be surprised.

    2. It establishes something about this particular Marple's character, which is handy when setting up a new version. This Marple is far more tolerant than Christie's. She doesn't bat an eyelid at the relationship between the villains, and has no trouble making the leap. But the inspector (whoever it is, Simon Callow played him) doesn't even consider the possibility. Even when Marple tells him he can't quite believe it.

    3. It's a gentle dig at Dame Christie. There's no reason why the solution from the McEwan episode couldn't be the solution to the book, up until the final chapters. There are no alibis. The only reason it isn't considered is because Christie didn't consider it herself. Of course Miss Marple's visit to Somerset House proves it beyond a doubt, but from the READER's point of view, there's not enough information to go on until towards the end. Which means it's not actually a very fair mystery.

    In the TV episode, the murderer from the book has an alibi, so there really is only one possible solution. It's much fairer.

    Of course this could have been fixed by keeping the murderer and giving the other suspect an alibi, but that wouldn't have highlighted the inconsistency in the book so well.

    I'm sorry if that's a bit vague, I'm not sure what the spoiler policy on your blog is. I intend to do a Marple post covering this quite soon on my blog, so I'll be able to go into proper details. I think you might be interested, even if you don't agree.

    Re: Hickson. I think the best Hickson audiobook is her reading of The Thirteen Problems (Possibly called the Tuesday Club Murders in the US). But those are some of my favourite Marple stories anyway, so I might be biased!

  23. Oh. One other thing I meant to say. Some (possibly all) of the PBS episodes of both the Hickson and McEwan Marples (and the Poirot episodes, actually) seem to be shorter when compared with the original British versions.

    I think this works in favour of the Hickson versions, but affects the McEwan ones quite badly: they're much more tautly paced, so cutting out even a few minutes can badly damage the sense.

  24. Iba: I'm glad you've realized that there may be more to the Miss Marple characterizations than meets the eye with McEwan and the cheesey adaptations currently on display.

    Oh I loved Margaret Rutherford. I just pretended that the Miss Marple she was playing had nothing to do with the Miss Marple Christie created. It works for me even if most of those films were really terrible. I love the first one though: MURDER SHE SAID.

  25. Rich: Thanks for elucidating your thinking on the McEwan BODY IN THE LIBRARY. This is a great discussion and I look forward to seeing your post.

    For me, changing the identity of the murderer is just basic tampering with the original story, no matter if you think it makes the story better. If you're going so far then simply take Agatha Christie's name off the thing and we can evaluate it on a different level.

    In the original BODY IN THE LIBRARY, it's the characterizations more than anything else that clue Miss Marple in to what is really going on. The nail polish clue and the dressing up clues are two very important aspects of this particular case. (Also in the book, the interview of the young girl guides or girl scouts.) Miss Marple's view of young people of a certain class, her experience with various types in St. Mary Mead are particularly important.

    NOTHING shocked Miss Marple simply because she had been raised to believe that a 'lady' is never shocked by anything. It was a leftover Victorian thing.

    Much as I love Simon Callow, the cast of characters in the orignal BODY IN THE LIBRARY with Joan Hickson is just SUPERB. Not a dud in the bunch.

    I will add though, that I do not care very much whether a mystery is 'fair' or not as long as it's intelligent and clever and the ending takes me my surprise.

    Though you may not agree, the original ending of BODY IN THE LIBRARY took me by surprise when I first read it many MANY years ago.

    All of Christie's own endings took me very much by surprise. I simply have trouble imagining (or accepting) that anyone can better them.

  26. In general I'd agree with you Re: changing the murderer. I think Body in the Library is a special case, though. Functionally there's nothing to really separate the two characters who could have been the accomplice. I think the principle point is the involvement of the OTHER villain, and as such the solution is fundamentally unchanged.

    As a sort of thought experiment: imagine And Then There Were None but with all the names changed and genders reversed, but with them all having the same backstory and motivations. Although it would be a different (and doubtless worse) STORY, I'd say it was exactly the same MYSTERY. And I think it's the mystery that matters when you're doing an adaptation.

    New Body in the Library isn't quite the same as that. But I think it's within spitting distance.

    The cast in the Hickson version is good, but I think the script is weak. There's a lot of meandering and fluff. (It's the stuff that's been added. Both versions share A LOT of dialogue with each other and the original book. So much so that I think you might be surprised at the amount of overlap.) I think stretching it to three parts was a mistake.

    Also - and it's a tiny point I admit - I find the score in the Hickson version really offputting. All those weird synthesised instruments! I don't know what they were thinking. They don't come back for any other episodes. I think the sound for the new Marples is top notch.

    I don't think I articulated myself very well about Miss Marple not being shocked (it's having to tiptoe round all these spoilers!). The best I can think of is an example from The Tuesday Club Murders, where Miss Marple is described as "growing delicately pink" when she's talking about pregnancy testing. McEwan's Marple would never grow delicately pink over anything! She's a very different character. I think the way the solution of the new version of Body in the Library pans out is a good shorthand for establishing some of these differences. The backstory stuff in new Murder at the Vicarage (which I also love) does the same thing.

    It's odd about the endings. I think I must have the same sort of mind as Christie, because I've never been fooled by more than a few of her books, and when I write I always have to discount ideas which are too similar to ones she's already done. Some other mystery authors always trick me, though.

  27. Yeah, but you know, Rich, I enjoy the 'meandering' aspect of my version of NEMESIS. :)

    You will never convince me of the value of newer adaptations and I think I know why:

    I am much older and began reading Christie when I was a teenager. That's a lot of sacred ground, m'dear.

    P.S. I kind of like the score. When I hear it I immediately think of Hickson as Marple. I'm like Pavlov's dog in that respect. :)

  28. oh i absolutely love geraldine mcewan, she is my favorite by a long shot.

  29. ["It is this son, Michael, who had been accused of Verity Hunt's murder but was never brought to trial. The son has since refused his inheritance and become a homeless vagabond, leaving the Rafiel family mansion sitting empty and decaying."]

    This was a major misstep in this version of Christie's novel. In the latter, Michael Rafael ended up in prison for Verity's murder. And although the McEwan version avoided this fate for Michael as well, I found its handling of Michael's character and fate a lot more interesting than having him become a derelict and advocate for London's other homeless derelicts.


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