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Granada Television and the PBS Mystery! series' Marple episodes continue to delight with such distinctive vitality, wit, and stylishness one may never again think of tea rooms in the English countryside as "quaint" settings. Geraldine McEwan (Vanity Fair) returns as Agatha Christie's Miss Jane Marple, elderly sleuth with a keenly discerning eye and sweet smile that takes the sting out of her blunt observations of friends and murder suspects alike. As with series 1, the quartet of mysteries in series 2, set shortly after World War II, are ensemble affairs filled out by such familiar faces as Timothy Dalton, Charles Dance, Greta Scacchi, Anthony Andrews, Patricia Hodge, and Imogen Stubbs. Rather than pound out a certain visual and tonal sameness over all four stories, each 90-minute episode seems to be approached as a stand-alone affair, giving writers, directors, and production teams a lot of leeway to give each story a unique stamp.
"Sleeping Murder" stars Sophia Myles as Gwenda Halliday, a young woman haunted by flashbacks of the memory of a killing she observed as a little girl in a stately British house. Problem is, Gwenda has only recently moved to Britain for the first time in her life, after growing up in India. Dawn French, Martin Kemp, and Geraldine Chaplin also star in the tale, which involves an old troupe of actors, a jewelry theft, and a very surprising conclusion. "By the Pricking of My Thumbs" concerns the disappearance of a doddering old woman who leaves behind a strange, spooky painting of a cottage in the woods, an unnerving figure lurking in the structure's window. Miss Marple is on the trail, but she allows the lonely, alcoholic wife (Scacchi) of a government investigator (Andrews) to take the leada boost to the younger woman's self-esteem.
The ambitious "The Moving Finger" is the most singular episode in series 2, a cheeky--almost subversive--vision of a rosy, picture-postcard village whose tranquility is undone by a series of hateful letters mailed to individuals in the community. Miss Marple, observing the tragic effects of these missives on relationships and reputations, is practically in the background in this story, watching closely as a nihilistic young man (James D'Arcy) comes out of his cynical, alcohol-laced haze to investigate the source of so much misery. (Bonus: director Ken Russell appears as the local, red-cheeked vicar.) Finally, "The Sittaford Mystery" finds Timothy Dalton playing a likely prospect to become prime minister, until he's stabbed to death following a séance. Set in a rundown hotel during a severe winter storm, the episode co-stars James Murray, Rita Tushingham, and comic-actor-director Mel Smith, the latter as the late, great man's touchingly loyal, right-hand man. --Tom Keogh