Welcome back, Christie fans, as we revisit Julia McKenzie‘s most recent outing as Jane Marple.
“Some are born to sweet delight,
some are born to endless night.”
Miss Marple 6.03: “Endless Night”
written by Kevin Elyot
directed by David Moore
Endless Night is one of my personal favourite novels in the Christie canon: an eerie, perpetually sombre tale of two star-crossed lovers whose relationship takes a dark turn. Narrated by an perverted take on a Dickens character – he’s risen from rags to riches, overcome seemingly hostile parenting, and achieved his dreams after years of toil – we gradually realise our narrator is as bitter as the world around him. It’s a novel that lingers long on the details before the death hits us long after the halfway point. Endless Night is not to everyone’s taste, that’s for sure, but even those who argue Christie was far past the height of her powers when writing, there’s little doubt she created a tightly atmospheric world and a genuinely neat twist at the end. The 1972 film – made just four years after the book’s release – boasts some very strong performances and a wonderfully macabre feel. It’s not perfect, particularly in that it has that very ’70s approach to twists: almost pretending they don’t exist. Still, while I don’t intend to spend the bulk of the review making comparisons, they will inevitably appear as I look at how successful screenwriter Kevin Elyot is at transforming this non-Marple novel into a Marple TV film.
I was concerned in the first few frames when we get the usual quirky Marple music, but for the most part, this Endless Night creates its own unsettled atmosphere. Taking his cue from the novel’s first-person narration, Elyot’s screenplay allows Michael to be the centre of the story, and there’s some startlingly beautiful narration here from the first moment. As Michael, Tom Hughes is perfectly cast. He’s a very pretty man, but has a dark and brooding quality that – in character – almost overrides that beauty. Whereas the 1972 film and the original novel both take pains to slowly set up Michael’s relationship with rich girl Ellie (Joanna Vanderham), this screenplay skips over a lot of that, giving us the basics and letting Michael’s narration do the heavy lifting. In some ways it’s a very smart move, although once the film is over the audience is left to put a lot of pieces together. Still, it does mean that everything is a little less artificial in the Mike/Ellie relationship, and we’re spared a lot of tricky writing that may have been needed to tell the story without spoiling everything. Kicking off, the first act of Endless Night is full of life, with a bunch of intriguing characters including Tamzin Outhwaite as Mike’s sour mother (director David Moore creates a great deal of subtext between Outhwaite and Hughes, which is great), talented Aneurin Barnard as Mike’s boyhood friend who promises to build the young lovers their dream house, and the perfectly-cast Janet Henfry as a superstitious gypsy crone who begins warning Ellie that her life is in danger.
The novel is interesting for how aformulaic it is, and this film is no exception. For a start, although we meet some odd folk before the couple wed, none of them is really suspicious except perhaps Robbie (Barnard) who is clearly in love with his best friend. The film makes it clear that Ellie is the one who will eventually die, but at no point is she in danger. And even Mike is a character whose motivations are ambiguous at best. For the first half of the film, Marple herself is a side character – which is to be expected, given she’s not in the book – but it’s particularly noticeable in this case, as Mike and Ellie’s story is quite nomadic. Marple and her talkative friend Marjorie (Wendy Craig, having a lot of fun) run into them a couple of times and, you know what? I really like that. So many Marple and Poirot stories open with them meeting old friends or acquaintances. For once, we see those early snapshots that later explain why Marple is willing to help her old acquaintance Mike. Beyond which, allowing her to meet him at stages of his development – from down-on-his-luck driver to oppressive newlywed – lets us explore Mike in a way we can’t in the book, where he himself is the narrator and drives the point-of-view.
While I think this film’s first act trumps 1972 hands down, the second act is a mixed bag. On the one hand, life at Gypsy’s Acre proves to be ominous and beautifully shot, with a very strong cast. On the other hand, the sheer number of characters introduced at this point makes us feel like they’re all living their lives out in deleted scenes. (In the film, Ellie’s extended family are shorn down in numbers a little, but also they really only appear in a couple of key scenes without much introduction.) Now that we know Ellie is going to die, everyone becomes a suspect, but half the time it seems like the characters are introduced in an off-the-cuff manner that makes it a little hard to get a handle on them. Glynis Barber stands out the most as Ellie’s “evil stepmother”, and then there’s the family lawyer Lippincott (William Hope), Ellie’s trustee Frank (Michael McKell) and his young wife Claudia Hardcastle (Rosalind Halstead), a bit character about whom much later. Perhaps most disappointingly, I feel like the film lessens the presence of Ellie’s best friend/companion Greta (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen). She’s the crucial figure in the drama, entering at the midpoint after much hype (most of it negative). I don’t know if it’s the actress’ performance or the script not wanting to play its cards too early, but Greta feels underutilised. I understand why – as in the novel – we can’t ever just see Greta and Ellie together, but the film never quite captures that “Chinese whispers” feeling of so many different impressions.
After the gypsy woman disappears, Ellie finally meets her death (with only 35 minutes left in the film) in what appears to be a horse-riding accident on the moor. Marple is with Mike at the time, leading to the pair becoming detectives together, and it’s here that the screenplay largely gets a hold of itself again. As Mike deals with suddenly coming into millions of pounds, Lippincott and Greta circle around him, each heaping allegations upon the other. “Uncle Andrew”, as Lippincott is known, does get to develop a character in this final act. We’ve seen enough of Mike and Ellie together to know that Mike is far from perfect, and so we completely understand where Andrew is coming from. At the same time, we’re aware that anyone giving advice to a new-made millionaire in the family is unlikely to be completely objective. In my mind, the direction in Endless Night is uniformly excellent, with the flashback to the death of the old gypsy particularly gut-wrenching. The only moment that let me down was that of Mike seeing Ellie’s spirit on the moor. It’s perhaps the iconic image from the book, and was so perfectly rendered in the 1972 film, with Hayley Mills a smiling zombie. With the addition of a musical score, perhaps it was inevitable that this moment would pale in comparison here. Alas it does.
Overall, I’d definitely give a thumbs-up to this adaptation of Endless Night, and I don’t even mind the addition of Marple. She never takes over the story, but her presence is seeded enough in the opening reels that we can believe she would pick up on the suspicious elements involved. And there are enough clues laced throughout for her to uncover the truth. The denouement is far from perfect, however. The unique nature of the book allows Ellie’s death to be almost the perfect crime (if it weren’t for greed to enter in at the final hurdle). Here, so much of Marple’s investigation rests on her finding a capsule on a couch, overhearing an argument because she just happened to be walking by, being the person to stumble upon another body. They’re acts of detection – sure – but coincidental acts for the most part. And the additional death of Claudia is necessary, I’ll concede, but she’s so minimal that it really muddies the waters. Sure, we learn that Ellie was far from the only person the murderer has taken out; still, it feels like a bunch of accidents that lead to everything getting revealed. Not unrealistic, perhaps, but not Murder on the Orient Express either.
Still, that’s all being churlish. I enjoyed this adaptation a great deal. It was full of spectacular visuals – beginning with ice and ending with fire – and managed to capture, for much of its running time, an uncomfortable mix of the macabre and the traditional Marple style. While Jane Marple herself wasn’t strictly necessary, the script wisely kept her on the bench for the most part, before making the spinster a genuinely affecting part of the final scenes. Julia McKenzie has perhaps never been better in the role than when she finally confronts the killer, a mix of complex psychological analysis and attempts at understanding true monstrosity. I really, really hope this isn’t the end of Agatha Christie’s Marple. Times have changed, and so have budgets, but it would be really lovely to see some of the Marple short stories given the same strong treatment we’ve seen on rare occasions the last couple of years, and maybe even throw in other non-series adaptations too? Here’s hoping.
A few spoiler-y observations below:
- So, did Marple really go to the house on her own to confront the killer? Unless we want to assume that she wasn’t certain until she arrived, but even so… this seems disturbingly reckless. She knew he wouldn’t waste time in killing her.
- Smart move to remove some of the Mike/Ellie courtship (e.g. we never see the moment when she tells him she is rich) but nevertheless I removing this misdirection and still not introducing most of the characters for 25 minutes, suspicion still ends up on Mike anyway. But maybe I’m wrong?
- The only moment of almost-unfair narration I caught was when Mike talks about Greta being in a terrible state after learning about Ellie’s death. I guess we could say he was actively lying to the audience but still… seems fishy.
- I couldn’t really say it above but how great was Tom Hughes? Really navigated every angle of the role – from the downtrodden to the sexual – without giving away too much. I didn’t think either of the women lived up to those in the 1972 film, but Hughes was a standout. That final moment, with Marple struggling to process all she’s learned and Mike almost unable to understand what he’s done but completely broken inside, was exquisitely acted.
- By giving Mike such an ironclad alibi – Jane Marple herself – things diverge from the book somewhat. By directing our attention to Uncle Andrew and the money, the script is able to show us Mike setting up roadblocks to the investigation quite blatantly. Which is nice.
- I still think the shock is underplayed when we find out what really happened, but I guess I’m in the minority given that’s two adaptations now!
- And finally, as much as Robbie finding the watch on the very night everything unravels is… a little pat, I really appreciate the addition of their backstory. After all, Robbie built the house specifically in response to what he didn’t realise was a murder Mike committed. Now, many years later, the house – the actual setting of all of Mike’s lies – is one big lie itself.