Starring Helen Hayes, Bette Davis, John Mills, and Tim Roth
My rating: ★ 1/2 stars
Dull adaptation of weak Christie novel.
After three successful all-star theatrical adaptations of Agatha Christie novels (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and Evil Under the Sun) and one not-quite-as-successful one (The Mirror Crack’d) in the 1970s and early 1980s, CBS broadcast eight adaptations updated for the 1980s, two of which starred Helen Hayes as Miss Marple. Murder with Mirrors is the second of those two, and Hayes’s last appearance on screen.
Hayes’s casting as Miss Marple was, perhaps, inspired by her appearance with Mildred Natwick in the short-lived series The Snoop Sisters (1974-75) about two elderly amateur sleuths. In the CBS series of adaptations, Peter Ustinov reprised his role as Hercule Poirot, which he played in Nile and Evil for the big screen. However, Angela Lansbury had played Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack’d, but she was replaced by Hayes. The future Mrs. Jessica Fletcher surprisingly seemed ill-fitted to the role of Miss Marple. Hayes, despite being American, proves a much better fit. Her Marple shares the twinkle of Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal in the later British television series Marple and shows less of the gravity than that of Joan Hickson in the British Miss Marple television series that was just beginning when Hayes appeared in the role on American television.
These American television adaptations lack the care and glamour of the big screen adaptations but attempt to recreate some of the star power. Murder with Mirrors features the great Bette Davis, who had a featured role in Death on the Nile, as Carrie Louise Serrocold, the central figure (though neither victim nor killer) in the mystery. Her casting in the film seems more an attempt to fill the role with a major star than any particular affinity she had for the role. Carrie Louise is a gentle, trusting creature, always looking at the world in the best possible light and seeing the best in everyone around her. Her innocence draws people to try and shelter her from the harshness of the world. None of this description fits the Davis persona at all. In her prime, Davis would roll over Carrie Louise with a steamroller. By 1985, Davis is frail and wizened, her presence diminished, but with this character, she is deprived of her tools of sharpness and cynicism. While Carrie Louise is on the screen, Bette Davis just isn’t there. That’s not to say that Davis is bad in the role; she just doesn’t get the opportunity to show the qualities that make her great. In the Joan Hickson (1991) adaptation, Carrie Louise is played by Jean Simmons, who is more suited to portraying the character’s fragility and gentleness. The Marple adaptation (2010, which features Julia McKenzie who had taken over the role when Geraldine McEwan was unable to continue) casts Penelope Wilton as Carrie Louise, in a radically different take on the character, one in which Carrie Louise is more with-it and take-charge, a characterization, ironically, better in line with the Bette Davis persona.
Murder with Mirrors is based on Christie’s 1953 novel They Do It with Mirrors, taking the novel’s American title. (Christie’s American publisher often changed the titles to add more sensationalism, usually words like “Murder” and “Death.”) The story is set in the estate of Carrie Louise Serrocold. Her husband, Louis (John Mills), has transformed the estate into a home for juvenile delinquents. Louis believes in a radical form of criminal incarceration that emphasizes rehabilitation and the integration of the offender into society. This is one area where the adaptation suffers for being updated to the 1980s. While Louis’s ideas may have been radical in 1953, by 1985 they were mainstream. It’s odd to see characters criticizing Louis for having eccentric, radical ideas that are not at all eccentric or radical.
The original novel suffers from having overly complex familial relationships and all three of the adaptations wisely simplify these relationships. We are introduced to Carrie Louise; Louis; Mildred (Dorothy Tutin), Carrie Louise’s daughter from her first marriage; Gina (Liane Langland), Carrie Louise’s granddaughter through her deceased adopted daughter; Wally (John Laughlin, who I remember primarily as the hot guy from Footloose), Gina’s American husband; Christian Gulbranson (John Woodvine), Carrie Louise’s stepson from her first marriage; Dr. Hargrove (Anton Rodgers), a psychiatrist who works with the juvenile delinquents; Steven Restarick (James Coombes), a theatrical director who supposedly puts on productions with the juvenile delinquents but who spends most of his time trying to get between Gina and Wally; Miss Bellaver (Frances de la Tour of Harry Potter fame), Carrie Louise’s assistant; and the disconcerting paranoiac delinquent Edgar Lawson (Tim Roth in an early role). Such is the cast of colorful characters that populate Agatha Christie’s novels. When Gulbranson is murdered, Miss Marple must figure out who could have done it when nobody with a motive appears to have had an opportunity and those with opportunity lack a motive.
They Do It with Mirrors is lesser Christie. The mystery is filled with the requisite elements of a Christie mystery—eclectic suspects, a tightly constructed puzzle, a crotchety police inspector (Leo McKern, Rumpole of the Bailey) who must put up with a meddling Miss Marple, a solution both natural and surprising—but it all seems a little paint by numbers. None of the adaptations is particularly good because the source material lacks vigor, but Murder with Mirrors is particularly weak. It drags. Once the viewer knows the identity of the murderer or murderers, there’s nothing in the film to grab the interest. The adaptation eliminates two subsequent murders, increasing the tedium of the second act. Then, the film adds a car explosion. I suppose the goal was to add excitement, but it is out of place narratively and tonally and comes far too late to engage the viewer in the story.
The character of Edgar Lawson is one of Christie’s most interesting and unsettling creations. Unfortunately, Murder with Mirrors gives him precious little screen time. The filmmakers must not have recognized what a commodity they had with Roth. Instead, far too much screen time is given to the character of Gina and her romantic troubles.
Why this novel was chosen for adaptation instead of other, stronger Marple novels mystifies me. It is of interest to Christie or Davis completists only.