You’re Not Terrifying After All: Agatha Christie’s Marple and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Aesthetics of Justice

Movies Features Nicolas Winding Refn
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You&#8217;re Not Terrifying After All: <i>Agatha Christie&#8217;s Marple</i> and Nicolas Winding Refn&#8217;s Aesthetics of Justice

Primed to be the arbiter of equity, an old woman with a crocheted nighty hanging from her frail body emerges from the shadows, illuminated by the moonlight pouring through the narrow church windows. Her face is lined with sorrow, but also a stolid, stony confidence that reveals itself in the moon’s glow. A nun kneels before a statue of the Virgin Mary. Others join from behind the elderly lady, ready to watch her demonstrate righteousness, solving three murders. It’s Miss Marple’s (Geraldine McEwan) theater of justice. But it’s Nicolas Winding Refn’s stage, too.

The Danish filmmaker and quasi-von Trier rival best known for films like Drive, The Neon Demon and Bronson—neon-infused genre implosions sprayed with gallows irony—also saw himself behind the curtain of a murder-mystery TV movie series probably most adored by the older PBS crowd (and young homosexuals raised on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre). In 2007, deep enough into his career that his Pusher Trilogy got solid play in arthouse circles but not yet marked as an enfant terrible, Refn directed an episode of ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Marple entitled Nemesis, loosely based on the iconic crime writer’s 1971 novel of the same name. In it, the octogenarian amateur detective has the name “Nemesis” bestowed upon her by an old friend, referring to the Greek goddess of retribution. The wages of good and evil, and life and death, have long been a preoccupation of Refn’s, and though this episode of not-quite-prestige TV remains a relative anomaly on his directorial resume, Agatha Christie’s Marple: Nemesis finds itself slotted in just as Refn’s interrogations of these moral, spiritual and ethical scales got tipped into the wildly sublime.

Miss Marple debuted in a short story called “The Tuesday Night Club” penned by Christie for The Royal Magazine in 1927, a spritely and shrewd elder who was also just, as many characters would come to describe her in later stories and novels, a spinster, an old biddy, a gossip. Could she ever be more than that? Early screen adaptations of Miss Marple displeased her creator, and it wasn’t until Joan Hickson took the role for the 1984 BBC series Miss Marple that a closer approximation to both the coziness and wry thoughtfulness of the novels became a priority in the adaptation process. ITV would sweep up the rights in the early 2000s, and what could qualify as a reboot of the gossiping detective debuted in 2004: Agatha Christie’s Marple, with veteran actor Geraldine McEwan wielding the knitting needles. A bigger budget, more ambitious production design, occasionally more adventurous cinematography and an infant salaciousness defined these new episodes (much to credit was the ongoing series Agatha Christie’s Poirot with David Suchet, which, since its debut in 1989, had passed production and distribution hands a number of times, and thus been rebooted and recamped to be darker and sexier in the process).

But, as impressive as Miss Marple’s cultural legacy may or may not be, even during the publication of the novels in which she featured, the character is perhaps taken less seriously as a torch-holder for good than, say, Poirot. The New York Times review reduced her debut to “click-clack.” The unassuming nature of the St. Mary’s Mead resident is exactly to her advantage in the universe of the books; no one expects her to be a serious sleuth. It’s Nemesis, particularly this adaptation, that seeks to subvert the literary figure’s status as a harmless old lady, and instate her as someone whose gaze casts one’s soul into Heaven or Hell.

Or maybe neither at all, left to prune in purgatory’s deep waters. This note of ambiguity was perhaps appetizing to Refn. If his Pusher trilogy reveled in the pageantry that accompanies a descent into depravity, his future filmography would make the concept of justice itself the spectacle.

In Bronson, Britain’s most violent prisoner Charles Bronson (a bestial Tom Hardy) gives the audience a show, addressing the viewer under white-hot lights in a foppish tuxedo, his face slathered in white paint. Refn’s biopic splinters persona and form, bouncing between a Brechtian direct address on stage, a confessional seemingly behind bars and events from his life, winkingly depicted. Hardy’s Bronson is at once clownish and queer, a man-boy too big and angry for his body and too in love with the thought of being watched, his frame vacillating between cinderblock solidness and gummy flexibility. His auto-mythology is unreliable, so we assume: A man who’s always wanted to be famous, and, through decades of incarceration and a handful of bare-knuckle brawls in between, got his wish.

But, even as Bronson smashes heads or turns them with his paradoxically terrifying and yet fey figure and presence—his voice eager to both seduce and destroy—Refn complicates the character and the audience’s notions of what is right. Yes, Bronson is extremely violent, ever a ticking time bomb from scene to scene. But the criminal justice system and prison institution he’s found himself can go tete a tete in cruelty, drugging him up at a psychiatric ward and keeping him in solitary confinement for most of his life. Although he was first convicted in 1974 under Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Bronson’s caustic wit and mix of grime and glossy artifice to articulate the complicated relationship between criminality and theatricality—and legal/moral fairness and commodification—gives it a distinct post-Thatcher nihilism. It’s one thing to watch people more conventionally innocent be destroyed by the system, but what about the people who we’re taught are bad? Should they be broken down by the institution too?

If not the institution, then there’s always the knotty, unpleasant alternative of taking it into your own hands. Over a decade since its proliferation on Tumblr moodboards across college campuses, Drive, the film that gave Refn and star Ryan Gosling an even larger stage, remains striking especially for its lingering uncertainty about goodness and badness. Gosling’s stunt/getaway driver has a pleasant vacantness for much of the film, a nouveau-Le Samouraï of sorts, and the camera catches every hint of wistful frown and yearning stare. His blankness, which looks unthreatening at first, is just that, an emptiness in search of something. Even while embroiled in a robbery that eventually leads to the death of the recently incarcerated husband (Oscar Isaac) of a neighbor (Carey Mulligan) he’s falling for, goodness—as opposed to the easy whim of self-interest—is both the thing that drives him, gives him a sense of wholeness, and the concept whose meaning is voided amongst the gangster responsible and within the genre-inflected world the film exists within. The film constantly prods at cinematic good/bad binary, from its music cues, like College and Electric Youth’s “A Real Hero,” to the Driver’s question: “There’s no good sharks?” Though the film aestheticizes a certain amount of its brutality, it remains at a distance, less inclined to romanticize the ferocity he inflicts than other noir and crime films of its ilk, chiefly given the film’s self-reflexivity. Can someone “good” be capable of the bloodletting that comes so easily to the Driver?

The savagery in Nemesis, freely adapted by Stephen Churchett, is left off-screen for the most part, but pervades the episode conceptually; the question of cruelty and virtue, and who has the capacity for which, embedded within it. But it is elusive, the exact mystery not revealed until nearly halfway through the episode. Sent by her late friend Jason Rafiel on a mystery tour to solve something, Miss Marple is confronted with two possibilities: A crime that has already happened or one that has yet to happen. She arrives already as a watchdog for goodness, yet at the beginning has reticence. She wavers on whether she’s entitled to the code name “Nemesis.”

On a formal level, while Refn adheres to the show’s neoclassical house style, the director gets to show off with a oner here and a jolting use of expressionistic shadow there. But it’s the finale where Refn indulges, his indigos and crimsons inching towards giallo territory. The nun stands, asking who the figure stepping out from the dark is. Miss Marple replies, her voice a gentle, entrancing buzz of a timbre, “I am Nemesis, and justice will roll down like waters.”

“And righteousness, the everlasting stream,” Sister Clotilde (Amanda Burton) replies, finishing the quote from Amos 5:24. The victim returns as a surreal vision to the murderer, bathed in a pale blue making her white habit shimmer. Sister Clotilde’s lit face is cross-sectioned by a quartered window. Marpe’s eyes glint and sparkle an icy color, more sure than ever that she is a goddess of retribution.

The theatrical framework of the murder-mystery’s finale is no longer entirely novel on its own terms (even Christie’s Three Act Tragedy literalized the performance aspects of the genre, and a character in the novel quips, “I see you are an actress, Miss Marple, as well as an avenger”), but it fits neatly within the context of Refn’s corpus, a continually growing body of work that deliberately reaches and uses genre pastiche to deconstruct the aesthetics of justice in cinema, whether institutional and systematic or vigilante and outlaw.

Nemesis refuses the usual British period mystery aesthetic hermetics, its flourishes deepening its text while also drawing from the visual language of work like Black Narcissus and The Devils. With its insinuations of lesbianism, it skirts on the edge of nunsploitation. In the episode’s final moments, Refn cements its artificiality as a conduit to examine the precarity of depictions of on-screen punishment. Miss Marple is so sure, until she isn’t.

For Refn, moral certainty is where the danger is. The intersection of justice and revenge, and genre filmmaking, and how concept and form can make objects of us all, have been continued fascinations for the director, who’s gone on to make films like Valhalla Rising and The Neon Demon.

Nemesis was the penultimate Miss Marple novel, and the last episode of the series to feature McEwan, who would retire and be replaced by Julia McKenzie. But Refn, well, he’d persist in his preoccupations, even having Gosling go head to head with God. But maybe Miss Marple laid the groundwork for him to do that. The nun whimpers, “I can never forgive myself.” Miss Marple, Nemesis herself, with those cerulean pools of light flickering, tells her, “It’s God who forgives.”