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By the Pricking of my Thumbs (which is a line from Shakespeare play Macbeth) is an Agatha Christie novel made into a TV film starring Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple with Anthony Andrews and Greta Scacchi as Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.
Tommy and Tuppence Beresford visit Tommy's aging aunt Ada at a retirement home and whilst she's happy to see Tommy, she pretty much tells Tuppence to leave them alone. Tuppence waits in the communal living area downstairs where she gets into conversation with the mysterious Mrs Lancaster who claims there's a child's body behind the fireplace and asks if the child is Tuppence's. Tommy, who works for MI5 goes away on business when Tuppence receives a call from the home to say Aunt Ada has passed away in the night and her belongings will be forwarded to the Beresfords as her only relatives. Amongst the belongings is a portrait of a cottage which Tuppence is sure didn't belong to Ada and hidden behind it is a letter saying there has been a murder and that "Mrs Lancaster isn't safe." Tuppence finds that Mrs Lancaster was taken away from the home the same night that Ada died and meets Miss Marple during her visit to the home, who decides to help her find out what's going on.
I've read a couple of Tommy and Tuppence novels and was rather confused to find Miss Marple appearing in this film. So I looked up the original book (which I haven't yet read) and sure enough Miss Marple was not in it! As this was part of the Miss Marple TV series starring Geraldine McEwan, Miss Marple's character was included in the story with Tommy Beresford being away for a large part of the story on MI5 business. The novel was published in 1968 yet the film seems to be set in the 1950s!
I was rather saddened to see the liberties taken with some of the characters having read other Tommy and Tuppence stories including one set in a time before they were married. Tuppence was a vivacious young girl and Tommy was crazy about her, they solved crimes together. In By the Pricking of my Thumbs Tommy is portrayed to be a rather pompous individual who doesn't seem to have much time for his wife whereas Tuppence is shown to have a drinking problem with a husband who forgets that they used to solve crimes together. I would also add here that in the Miss Marple and Poirot stories which were written for decades the main characters never aged but in the Tommy and Tuppence stories (which were obviously not as famous as Marple and Poirot due to far fewer stories being penned with them) the characters aged, being in their 20s in their first book together and in their 60s in this story I'm discussing.
Notwithstanding the differences between the main characters in the film and in the books, this was an enjoyable film. The elderly aunt at the home seemed typical of a doting mother happy to see her son and not interested in making small talk with the daughter-in-law, except she's the aunt in this case. Greta Scacchi plays the role of Tuppence quite well, displaying the right amount of polite indifference to the aunt who's openly nasty to her and portraying ably a hurt mother trying to get in contact with her various children away at school and college who don't seem to have time to speak with her or if they do with derision asking if she's drinking again.
When the aunt passes away and Tuppence finds the note in the back of the painting directing her back to the home when Ada died, she's only too happy to share her suspicions with Miss Marple who dissuades her from going to the police about the woman who runs the home. She saw her transferring something from a bottle to the resident's tonic and she assumed it was poison, Miss Marple puts her straight saying it was just the tonic being watered down to make it last longer as she knew for a fact the woman has a kind heart as she kept on a resident free of charge who unable to pay for her keep anymore. Miss Marple and Tuppence travel down to the village of Farrell St Edmund together in Tuppence's sports car which is an eventful journey as Tuppence doesn't seem to be too good a driver and their banter on the journey was quite amusing with Miss Marple claiming to be a good navigator and Tuppence claiming to be an able driver, neither of which seems to be true! McEwan and Scacchi had a good on screen rapport throughout the film.
There are quite famous actors in the film such as the charming Josie Lawrence playing the jolly landlady of the pub where Miss Marple and Tuppence stay whilst in a village where there seem to be many secrets from the past and present. Charles Dance plays the vicar, Septimus Bligh (now there's an interesting name), who also has a drinking problem. His character was unbelievably rude, which I'm pretty sure would be unacceptable behaviour for any vicar - imagine saying someone's child is evil to visitors to your village and then saying he really likes her in his next breath!
Bonnie Langford and Brian Conley play the annoying but bearable Mr & Mrs Johnson who run the village shop (with Langford as squeaky and annoying as I've ever found her) with their precocious daughter Nora played by the very cute Eliza Bennett. Leslie Phillips plays the local squire Sir Phillip Starke who dotes on young Nora as he never had children of his own.
It's interesting that Anthony Andrews is shown before Greta Scacchi in the credits considering he didn't have a lot of screen time; his character is abroad on business for a large part of the film. I've always had a soft spot for Andrews but found his character rather too pompous to be amicable although I assume this is how he was supposed to come across. In one scene he barges into a solicitor's office demanding information in such an arrogant manner it was totally unbelievable of a character as decent as Tommy Beresford was supposed to be.
The story itself runs quite well although it seems somehow too coincidental that Miss Marple was visiting the home twice at the same time to see an old neighbour as when Tuppence was there. Obviously they needed to meet so they could investigate together but as this was cobbled together to include Miss Marple in a story in which she didn't originally appear I guess they couldn't make it any more logical as I'm sure Agatha Christie could have done had this happened in the book!
Overall I'm giving By the Pricking of my Thumbs a decent 4 out of 5. Although I was verging on giving it a 3, I did find this an entertaining watch regardless of inconsistencies of two of the main characters, namely Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. As a standalone film without prior knowledge of the characters written by Agatha Christie, the film can hold its own!
Cast: Geraldine McEwan, Greta Scacchi, Anthony Andrews, June Whitfield, Leslie Phillips, Brian Conley, Bonnie Langford, Michelle Ryan, Stephen Berkhoff, Josie Lawrence, Charles Dance, O T Fagbenie
Director: Peter Medak
Writer: Agatha Christie
Screenplay: Stewart Harcourt
Producer: Matthew Read
Release date: 2006
Duration: 93 minutes