"TOWARDS ZERO" (2007) Review
When it comes to the television adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple novels, I tend to stick with those that featured the late Joan Hickson as the elderly sleuth. However, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to watch a movie that starred Geraldine McEwan as Miss Jane Marple. And this movie is the 2007 adaptation of Christie’s 1944 novel called "Towards Zero".
The adaptation of Christie’s novel has drawn a good deal of criticism from purists. First of all, the novel is not a Jane Marple mystery. Instead, the main investigator in "Towards Zero" turned out to be Superintendant Battle, who had been featured in a few other Christie novels, including one Hercule Poirot tale - ”Cards on the Table”. However, Battle did not appear in the 2007 adaptation. Jane Marple replaced him as the story’s main detective, with the police represented by Alan Davies as one Superintendant Mallard. Since ”Towards Zero” has always been one of my favorite Christie novels, I decided to give the movie a chance.
In ”TOWARDS ZERO”, Jane Marple is invited to a house party hosted by an old school friend named Lady Camilla Tressilian. Also included in the party are the following:
*Neville Strange – Professional tennis star and Lady Tressilian’s ward
*Kay Strange – Neville’s younger second wife
*Audrey Strange - Neville’s reserved ex-wife
*Thomas Royce – Owner of a Malaysian plantation and Audrey’s distant cousin
*Mary Aldin – Lady Tressilian’s companion
*Ted Latimer – Kay’s childhood friend
*Mr. Treves- Lady Tressilian’s friend and solicitor
The house party turned out to be a tense affair, due to emotions running rampant between the characters. Neville discovered that he was still in love with his first wife, Audrey. She seemed to harbor emotions for him, despite her reserved behavior. Thomas seemed jealous of Neville, due to his love for Audrey. Mary seemed attracted to Thomas and a little envious of Audrey. Kay was obviously jealous of Audrey. And Ted was also jealous of Neville, due to his love for Kay.
During a supper party, Mr. Treves recalled an old murder case in which a child had made deliberate preparations to kill another and make it look like an accident. That child, according to Mr. Treves, had a peculiar physical trait. All of the suspects possessed a peculiar physical trait. And following the supper party, Mr. Treves died from a heart attack after climbing some stairs that lead to his hotel room. Someone had placed a NOT IN SERVICE sign in front of his hotel’s elevator. Another day or two later, this same person brutally murdered old Lady Tressilian with a blow to the head.
As I had earlier stated, the 1944 novel has always been a favorite of mine. Christie had crafted a complex and original mystery filled with characters of great psychological depth. By inserting another Christie creation – Jane Marple – as the story’s main investigator, I feared that this 2007 adaptation would prove to be a bust. Imagine my surprise when my fears proved to be groundless. Thanks to director David Grindley and screenwriter Kevin Elyot, I found myself surprisingly satisfied with this movie. Despite a few changes – namely the post-World War II setting, Jane Marple as the story’s main detective, the deletion of a character named Andrew MacWhirter, the addition of another character named Diana, the new police officer in charge of the case – Superintendant Mallard, and the budding romance in the story’s conclusion that did not happen in the novel. Perhaps that is why I had enjoyed it so much. Both Grindley and Elyot recognized the novel’s first-rate plot and tried to follow it as closely as possible.
The production values for ”TOWARDS ZERO” impressed me as well. Production designer Michael Pickwoad did an excellent job in re-creating Britain of the early-to-mid 1950s. And he was ably supported by Sue Gibson’s beautiful photography, which struck me as rich in color and sharp. Sheena Napier’s costumes not only captured the era perfectly, but also the personality of each character. I do have one quibble – namely Saffron Burrows’ hairstyle. I am aware that some women wore their hair slightly long past the shoulders. But I got the impression that the hairdresser could not decide whether to give Burrows a 1950s hairstyle or a modern one. Her hair struck me as a confusing mixture of the mid 20th century and the early 21st century.
The cast turned out better than I had expected. If I must be honest, I could not spot a bad performance amongst the entire cast . . . even from Julian Sands, whom I have never been that impressed by in the past. But there were a handful that really impressed me. One came from Saffron Burrows, who gave one of the most enigmatic and intense performances I have ever encountered in a Christie film. I could never tell whether her character was guilty of the two murders or not. And Burrows did a superb job in conveying this ambiguity of the Audrey Strange character with very little dialogue. I was also impressed by Zoe Tapper’s portrayal of the more extroverted Kay Strange. Tapper could have easily given an over-the-top performance, considering the type of character she had portrayed. But the actress conveyed Kay’s passionate nature without turning the character into a one-note scream fest. I also enjoyed Alan Davies as Superintendant Mallard, the new police investigator in this mystery. I not only enjoyed his wit, but also his transformation from his contempt toward Jane Marple’s investigative skills to a full partnership with the elderly amateur sleuth. And Eileen Atkins provided a great deal of comic relief as the second victim, Lady Camilla Tressilian. Not only did she provide much of the story’s sharp humor, Atkins also captured the character’s bombastic and arrogant nature. Her Lady Tressilian struck me as a modern day Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but with a stronger moral center.
But I believe the two best performances came from Greg Wise and Geraldine McEwan as Jane Marple. I found myself completely surprised by Wise’s impressive portrayal of the tennis pro with the two wives, Neville Strange. His performance perfectly portrayed Neville as the complex force of nature that had a major impact upon the other characters in ”TOWARDS ZERO”, without indulging in any hammy acting. But I was more than impressed by Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of Jane Marple. I had seen McEwan’s portrayal of Miss Marple in ”THE SITFORD MYSTERY”, and found her performance ridiculously mannered and annoying. No such exaggerated mannerisms marred McEwan’s performance in ”TOWARDS ZERO”. The actress gave a subtle performance laced with subtle humor and her character’s intelligence. One of McEwan’s best moments featured very little dialogue on her part in a scene between Miss Marple and the verbose Lady Tressilian, inside the latter’s bedroom.
Most Agatha Christie purists might automatically dismiss this adaptation of ”TOWARDS ZERO”. Especially since the script changed the main investigator from the literary Superintendant Battle to a cinematic Jane Marple. But despite this major change, along with another that included a romance that emerged in the film’s final scene; David Grindley’s direction and Kevin Elyot’s script remained surprisingly faithful to Agatha Christie’s novel. Normally, I would care less about changes in an adaptation of a novel. But in the case of ”TOWARDS ZERO”, this close adherence ended up working in the movie’s favor.