Sunday, 4 April 2010

The Judas Tree - a Jonathan Creek review


The Judas Tree was both written and directed by David Renwick, and for me, it was ninety minutes of TV heaven. A marvellously entertaining Jonathan Creek story, with that combination of wit and ingenious plotting which has become Renwick’s hallmark. John Dickson Carr would surely have loved it, and I think that any fan of classic ‘impossible crime’ mysteries would love it.

The opening is gripping – in 1988, two young women are driving in the windswept countryside, when one of them, Emily, sees a strange house in the fields. The house suddently disappears, and when she goes to investigate, she is almost seized by a mysterious old man who emerges from the undergrowth. But she fights him off and escapes.

Fast forward to the present day, and Emily takes a job in the household of a detective story writer with a glamorous wife and an enigmatic housekeeper. The wife tells her a story about a seemingly impossible crime, committed in the grounds of their house, Green Lanterns, in the nineteenth century. The timing of the victim’s death was foretold, to the very minute. And soon the wife receives a message, apparently in Emily’s hand, warning of her forthcoming death….

Jonathan investigates with his customary mixture of bewilderment and brilliance, aided by Sheridan Smith, from whom Emily has sought help. The initial mystery of the vanishing house is easily explained, but the crimes at Green Lantern, both ancient and modern, prove rather more complex. Quite a bit of information is concealed from the viewer until a late stage, which might have some purists shaking their heads. I was left with one or two unanswered questions (a second viewing might resolve them) but, most of all, with renewed admiration for Renwick’s gifts.

Alan Davies is excellent, as ever, as Jonathan Creek, while Sheridan Smith, Paul McGann and Ian McNiece (who has appeared in countless TV mysteries over the years) are also well cast. Natalie Walter, who plays Emily, is so very attractive that she can’t possibly be guilty – can she? And a special word for Doreen Mantle, who plays a key part in the story-line as the housekeeper at Green Lanterns. She appeared regularly as Mrs Worboys in Renwick’s One Foot in the Grave, and her interaction with McNiece is one of the many joys of this terrific mystery.

How does it compare to last year's enjoyable special, The Grinning Man? My instant reaction is - even better.




15 comments:

Simon said...

I was delighted to hear Alan Davies and co were making another Jonathan Creek special - and I loved every minute of it! However I was really dissapointed that the BBC didn't put more effort into promoting it - I saw only one advert for it, and had it not been for me scanning the net for when it would be aired, I would not have known it was on. They seemed more interested in promoting the new Doctor Who (of which, the less said the better, in my opinion) and seeing as Jonathan Creek consistantly got up to 10 million viewers when it was on regularly as a series, there was clearly a JC fan base who needed informing! I really really hope tonight's JC got more viewers than the new Doctor Who, that'll show the Beeb!!
Got an unanswered question though - how did Hugo and Harriet manage to get Harriet's death-prediction-note written in Emily's hand writing without Emily having a recollection of writing it???!

Myfanwy Denman-Rees said...

I wish I could agree! I found this even more disappointing than last year’s special, and for most of the same reasons – the main one being that longer does not mean better. The original episodes ran for only an hour, indeed for only 50 minutes in two of the series. This meant that there was very little room for anything other than the storyline set in motion by the initial impossible situation. By keeping us baffled (and entertained) without the aid of distracting subplots, David Renwick gave us a weekly master-class in close-up magic; virtually every episode left me delighted with how skilfully he had misdirected us. And there was plenty of variation in the type of, and setting for, the crime itself. In contrast, both the recent feature-length specials seem to me to have replaced the tight focus of the originals with over-the-top Gothick melodrama (screeching music, a superfluity of storm-tossed trees and grass, and all too similar ‘girls-in-peril-in-Houses-Where-Nasty-Things-Happen’ plots). And definitely too much of Adam Klaus, a character who is funnier the less you see of him.
I’m sure I’ll be in a minority in this!

Rich said...

I'm going to have to be one of the head shaking purists (and I think John Dickson Carr would have been too) - there just aren't any clues to the motive at all. And there was plenty of opportunity for them. I assumed that when I watched it again the initial conversation between the two girls would have been riddled with hidden meanings but there were absolutely no hints to the truth at all.


And the risk! I know you have to accept some impausibilities and coincidences in your impossible crimes but it only worked because Renwick wrote it that way. As far as they're aware the girl is still in the house, the exit of which leads right up to the back of the gate. If she'd not been out at the bins she would have seen everything when she came out to investigate.

And the crime in the past was laughable. It managed to be simultaneously obvious and ridiculous.

Disappointing.

BooksPlease said...

I'm glad you were left with one or two unanswered questions because I was too.

An excellent story, although I'm not too keen on the Adam Klaus character.

Bernadette in Australia said...

Sounds great Martin. I love the Jonathan Creek TV movies too - looks like we'll be seeing this one in a few weeks here in Oz so not long to wait. I adore Alan Davies in anything he does but he is particularly good in this series.

Hannah Stoneham said...

Sounds super - I am looking forward to catching up with it eventually! Thanks for sharing

and Happy Monday

Hannah

Ann Elle Altman said...

OH, I can't wait to watch it. I have been so busy this weekend but I have it saved on my must watch.

ann

Martin Edwards said...

A fascinating range of comments - thank you all!
My take is that the impossible crime sub-genre is inherently artificial and unrealistic. The skill of the writer lies in carrying off the trickery in such a way that enjoyment is not stifled by the sheer improbability of it all. To some extent, this is true of most whodunits, but it's certainly true of impossible crime stories - and it's the challenge I've set myself in the few impossible crimes that I've written over the years. I do agree that there were some issues with the plot, though I'd also like to watch again to get a better handle on some of the story elements. Overall, though, it kept me hooked from start to finish - and amused, as well as baffled.
Simon - I think the note was a forgery, not written by Emily. But I stand to be corrected...

Juxtabook said...

Right, off to watch on iplayer right now! Thanks for the pointer!

Spirit of Maddie said...

I'm sorry but it was complete and utter tosh. Embarrassingly bad.

The first series was good but it's been downhill from there and I think with 'Judas Tree' they've finally reached rock bottom (surely it can't get worse than that...).

Still, the only way is up tho', eh.

Janet O'Kane said...

I don't usually disagree with your verdicts, Martin, but I fear I have to with this one. I was pretty underwhelmed by the whole thing (although, I agree, the resolution was ingenious). I felt the husband's role was both underwritten and underplayed, in direct contrast to Creek's really irritating sidekick. And I didn't feel Renwick played fair with the viewer - as one of your other commentators says, there was no hint of the reason for the crime.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Janet - I think it's fair to say that this show has polarised opinion! It's also the case, I think, that very many Golden Age mysteries, especially impossible crime stories, would not stand up to scrutiny, let alone TV adaptation. But for sheer enjoyability, I think David Renwick's writing really is hard to beat.

Brown Boy said...

I was never a big fan when the series was originally on TV, I was probably a bit young. However I thoughroughly enjoyed the special last year with the painting, it was truly macabre and spooky. With the Judas tree, it seems obvious that JC has succumbed to much BBC spending cuts. the footage at times looked like it was shot with a camcorder, the art department - equally shoddy, we can see they wanted a period '80s' feel to the initial sequence, however a stamping the date on the bottom of a can is a little heavy fisted. Yet the car radio looked really new. it just didnt work. All the flashbacks looked equally hammy. It all just looked so digital. Then the casting - that blonde bimbo character just couldnt pull any lines out that didnt sound like a school play, the same could be said of Alan Davies' sidekick, who is equally inept at delivering lines. The ending was a kop out, there was hardly any build up, the special effects were also equally terrible. it just seemed to be dead on its feet. But the thing that annoyed me most about this episode was the script. really truly awful. I really wanted to sit down and be mystified, but instead I just found it embarrassing to watch. Please can the BBC just dedicate more money to these kinds of projects, or not do them at all.

Nik said...

Even after such a lengthy episode, the ending was rushed; it was not made clear whether the murderers were brought to book. Agree, couldn't fault the acting, though I was suspicious as soon as McGann's 'dying' wife pointed the finger and her husband didn't get up and attempt to throttle the woman 'accused' of his wife's murder...

Anonymous said...

well i just watched this on new years eve 2010. I haven't read your work so I have to sit on the fence as to your ability. But the fact you are an author and you actually thought this was good is incredulous to me, and this is why.

The story had no plausible start middle or end. The many plot holes started to become laughable during the middle and when we finally had the truth revealed it just didn't tie in. As an author yourself you must be well aware of the need to give your main main characters depth, history and personality. This wasn't done with any of the characters.

But here is my main problem. Creek as we all love him is supposed to have morals and ethics. He's a straight cut character and by letting the pair off at the end he had become no better than a murderer himself. The girls were acquitted of the murder of the boy, but Jonathan decides to play judge and jury and believe the boys brother and wife and so maybe let an innocent woman spend many years in jail. The girls may have been guilty but that's besides the point. There was no evidence either way. we either have 2 teenage murderers and two grown up murderers or both. I have lost all respect for the creek character. his moral compass was spinning in all directions and thats not the way to forward a much loved character