Helen Hayes as Miss Marple

Film Review: “Murder with Mirrors” (1985)

with Helen Hayes (Miss Jane Marple), Bette Davis (Carrie Louise Serrocold), John Mills (Lewis Serrocold), Leo McKern (Inspector Curry)

written by George Eckstein

directed by Dick Lowry

“I think not being killed raises one’s spirits.”

— Miss Marple

Murder with Mirrors is the second of two films starring Helen Hayes as Miss Marple, but as I haven’t been able to find the first – A Caribbean Mystery – I’ll review this instead.

Miss Marple is asked by Christian Gulbransen (John Woodvine) to visit Stonygates, the home of his step-mother and her old friend Carrie Louise (Bette Davis) who he suspects is in danger. Marple shows up to find a fractious household, all of whom assist Carrie Louise’s husband Lewis (John Mills) in running a sort of halfway home/institution for troubled youths. But when murder does strike, it isn’t Carrie Louise who falls…

As one of her final film roles, Hayes – the ‘First Lady’ of American theatre – is still in fine form here. Certainly, her performance is quite simple and benign, but Marple comes across here as plucky and droll but also lovely. As this is set in the ’80s, Marple comes across as more ‘modern’ than Joan Hickson – the scene where she stands alone on a stage and acts out various Shakespeare monologues is a great showcase for Hayes – yet still suitably ‘old lady’. Hayes is particularly good in her interactions with Inspector Curry (Leo McKern) as she tries to play down her own intelligence, before being caught out, as he’s already heard all about her!

It’s a good thing that Hayes and McKern are on the scene: not only do they have great chemistry, but McKern is all energy as the passionate Inspector, while Hayes’ heart comes through, showing Marple’s genuine concern the whole way. But mostly, it’s a good thing because no-one else is trying very hard… and that includes the director. To be honest, Dick Lowry‘s direction is half-hearted at best: a lot of the moments, from actors who are usually reliable, are underplayed to the point of indifferences, such as when Miss Bellaver (Frances de la Tour) announces that she’s just found the murdered body. Indeed there are two scenes in which one character threatens another with a gun and in neither does anyone except Hayes seem concerned. (In the second instance, it’s Marple herself who is threatened with a gun, but the film itself doesn’t really seem to care.)

On the other hand, people keep inexplicably overacting in certain sequences: twice, Marple witnesses private confrontations which border on the melodramatic, and one of these times, she’s literally standing fifteen metres away completely visible. (I tried to be charitable and connect this to the theme of theatre and subterfuge, but to be honest, the film gives us no reason to assume this.) George Eckstein’s script certainly doesn’t help: Marple almost never uses her trademark wiles to extract information using gossip and her ‘innocent old biddy’ image, while the early exposition sequences – particularly one in which Gina (Liane Langland) drives Marple to Stonygates – simply throw too much information in at once. (Langland, however, is quite good in the early scenes as the vibrant redhead, although she’s given less and less to do as the film goes on.)

Helen Hayes as Marple and Bette Davis as Carrie Louise in "Murder with Mirrors"

As Carrie Louise, Bette Davis has seen better days. In her defense, Davis had had a mastectomy and suffered four strokes only 18 months before filming this, so it’s to her credit that she even considered tackling a role. Thankfully, the script largely works around her, so Davis can bring her star power to the film without having to carry much of the burden. But – while no one could deny the strength of her younger performances – Davis comes across as a little confused, and rarely achieves the fear or sorrow required in certain scenes. However, that’s a minor complaint, and I can’t fault the grande dame given all her health issues; still, at least Hayes manages to buoy their scenes together with some genuine emotion, and Davis manages to look every bit the well-travelled, oft-married matriarch she’s playing.

Other than that, Murder with Mirrors is a somewhat uneventful outing: the central clue is far more obvious here than in the recent Julia McKenzie adaptation (although, as this is the third such adaptation I’ve watched in the last year, I might no longer be objective to such things) and the direction is underwhelming and often just plain poor. The atmosphere of Stonygates – which was poorly portrayed in Christie’s novel, and rather average in the Hickson film – isn’t bad, with Hayes having some great reaction moments as she interacts with the delinquents (although it’s nowhere near as vibrant as McKenzie’s film). Murder with Mirrors is certainly not a notable film,  but Hayes and McKern have a great time, and Hayes is pleasant and emotive as Marple, even if she’s not given much of a script to work with. Should I ever track down A Caribbean Mystery, I’ll be sure to review, but I don’t think either of the Marple TV series have anything to fear from this version.

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