Miss Marple: Nemesis

(Check out my previous Refn essay on his 2008 film Bronson HERE)

In the early 2000s, British broadcasting company ITV was producing a series of feature-length made-for-TV films based loosely upon the Miss Marple novel series by acclaimed mystery writer Agatha Christie. Somehow, Nicolas Winding Refn signed onto the production of one of these films in 2007 for the third series of films, which began release in that year. His work on the third series’ final episode would not be seen for two years as the release schedule for the works was truncated into one every six months or so, and as such, Nemesis gained a release date of January 1st 2009. This makes the TV film fit his filmography later than Bronson although it was created prior to that film.

The production seems to have been a gambit and an opportunity for Refn. Although his last two Pusher films from 2004 and 2005 made enough money to potentially pay back Refn’s debts in full, he hid away some of the money he made in the hopes of self-financing a future film. Knowing Refn, this project most likely fell through and he needed to find a way to generate income and to continue paying back his debts. Miss Marple was this opportunity, but it served a second function for Refn as well. It gave him the connections in the U.K. that he needed to later pull together production financing for Bronson and permission to work in the country with British locations and British actors.

The film was based on one of Christie’s twelve Miss Marple or Marple-related novels, but diverts from the story in many ways. The plot and order of events as well as the murder itself and the manner of its execution differ from the source novel. The identities of characters and motives for actions are significantly different too. This Miss Marple series seems to be generally disliked by Marple purists, but the films work as films for those uninitiated into the world of Miss Marple. This film is no exception to that rule and I found it to be a strong, well-scripted, enthralling, though minor, mystery work. And with a post-WWII Britain with ex-Nazi airmen, scheming nuns, MI5, detectives, look-alikes, and man without a memory of his past all orchestrated and brought together from beyond the grave by one Jason Rafiel to find out who committed a murder some years ago, who could go away from the film anything but pleased?

This Miss Marple was played by the talented Geraldine McEwan. She was Miss Marple for the first three series of this production and retired after this episode. In 2008, she provided the voice for Miss Thripp in the Wallace and Gromit short ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death.’ In 2011, she would provide the voice of Haru in the English dub of Studio Ghibli’s Arriety. But Nemesis was her final role as a physical presence in any TV or Film medium and the series proved a strong ending to a career spanning more than half a century. To my mind, she is the face of Miss Marple until a new production with a different legendary actress comes along to displace her, but for a time she will remain that face in the cultural consciousness.

Though definitely a minor work within Refn’s oeuvre and an odd one, it shows Refn’s ability to shoot on a small budget and on time. The cinematography is by no means stylistic or atmospheric like previous films with Larry Smith (the cinematographer on Fear X and Bronson, who reprised his role on this film), nor gritty and reminiscent of the Dogme 95 movement like the work of Morten Soborg, but it shows a mastery of conventional film technique in the style of chamber drama, as well as a willingness on Refn’s part to adapt to different modes of work. By creating this TV film, Refn showed that he could deliver a commercial product and thereby cemented his career as a filmmaker for good. After all, if his personal vision films ever falter and he is again crushed by immense debts, he can always point to this gem as evidence of his ability and willingness to work for TV or even as a pick-up director on films and stories not of his own making.

 

Cody Ward

[Next up: Valhalla Rising]

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