[24 November 2008]
Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity…The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.
—Captain Arthur Hastings, The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
But she is in her grave and, oh, The difference to me!
—Roddy Winter (Rupert Penry-Jones) in Sad Cypress quoting William Wordsworth from “She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways”
As a plot that is distinctly odd.
— Ariadne Oliver (Zoë Wanamaker), Cards on the Table
What is it with our obsession with fictional renditions of murder most foul? Why is it we share a desire to play detective from the comfort of our armchairs, taking perverse pleasure in one brutality after another, exercising our own mental muscle before being invariably bested by a maverick detector who pulls together the threads of a cunning deception to dramatically unveil the nefarious assailant?
On a slow day in the implausibly murderous fictional county of Midsomer say, or the truly incomprehensible universe of Diagnosis Murder, the villain could be unmasked as the seemingly mild old duck from the local shop with an inconsistent squint, plastic hip and unlikely agility who clears a fence to evade capture; or the most famous actor in the cast sporting a fake nose determined to escape from their face; or that gentleman, technically an extra, who had 15 seconds of screen time and was briefly glimpsed in the background of one scene.
In a league of his own, the most popular of the blood hounds is inarguably the petit Belgian brainbox Hercule Poirot, master sleuth of Agatha Christie’s sophisticated and ingeniously plotted whodunit novels; and the only fictional character ever to have been granted an obituary on the front cover of The New York Times. He is generally pitted against a superior class of criminal which at least has the decency to provide a bit of a challenge. On screen Poirot has famously but inadequately been portrayed by such esteemed actors as Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov.
In After the Funeral (published in 1953) Christie writes “Two elderly men sat together in a room whose furnishings were of the most modern kind. There were no curves in the room. Everything was square. Almost the only exception was Hercule Poirot himself who was full of curves. His stomach was pleasantly rounded, his head resembled an egg in shape, and his moustaches curved upwards in a flamboyant flourish.”
The actor behind the quintessential Hercule Poirot, David Suchet, stands at a modest but hardly diminutive 5’7, is in natural possession of the oft mentioned egg-shaped head, adorned with the artificially blackened hair, the moustache greased and twizzled to perfection and the requisite portly physique; in part attributable to the stone Suchet puts on in preparation for his performances, then enhanced by additional stomach padding. But more than being the physical embodiment of Christie’s detective, he nails Poirot’s mannerisms; his delightful tics, his delicate nature, fragile constitution, and his arrogance (in Cards on the Table he comments “Always I am right. It is so invariable that it surprises me.”).
Testimony to his dedication, Suchet famously prepared for the role by reading every Poirot story Christie wrote, taking down each description of Poirot; creating a bundle of notes which still informs his characterisations. In an interview with ITV.com, Suchet ascribes his success to his technique of approaching the part afresh each time, “When I’m on set I pretend there’s one person who has never seen Poirot before. I act in the moment and pretend it’s the first time I’ve ever done it.” His commitment and great respect for the character and source material pays dividends and he rewards the audience with one masterful performance after another.
The Chambers Dictionary entry under “definitive” is “final; most authoritative, expert or complete.” This box-set of the television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot erroneously justifies its ‘definitive’ status by boasting that it contains all 12 A&E feature-length Poirot ‘films’. However, it’s hardly a test of one’s “little grey cells” (as Poirot himself would have it) to deduce that this, by some margin, is hardly a complete collection of all the David Suchet-fronted Poirots.
In total some 36 of Christie’s short stories and 25 novels have been filmed with Suchet filling Hercule’s pristinely polished shoes. In this context, the package of 12 features looks pretty meagre and its ‘definitive’ tag decidedly spurious. Those seeking a truly definitive collection will find all the episodes available on Region 2. But for those still with me, let’s move on from this part of the investigation and consider the package itself.
The episodes included in this attractively designed fold-out set, in order of original air date, are as follows: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; Lord Edgware Dies; Evil Under the Sun; Murder in Mesopotamia; Five Little Pigs; Sad Cypress; Death on the Nile; The Hollow; The Mystery of the Blue Train; Cards on the Table; After the Funeral; and, LTaken at the Flood. Most have been modernised with alterations deemed to better fit the medium. This collection of Poirot adventures contains some of the most well-known stories and several of the best.
Cards on the Table is one of the most remarkable of Christie’s wonderful plots and it is brought to vivid life here. A collector of murderers, the thrillingly enigmatic Mr Shaitana (Alexander Siddig), invites four people he suspects of this most serious of crime, along with four experts in detection (including Poirot), for dinner and a game of cards. During this feast of the macabre the host is silently slain by an unobserved member of the party. The solution to this dastardly crime, which the victim himself seems to have facilitated, hinges on bringing to light the murders that have come before.
In this adaptation, Zoë Wanamaker makes her debut screen appearance as the recurring character, mystery writer Ariadne Oliver. Like Suchet as Poirot and Phillip Jackson as Hastings, Wanamaker is an extremely apposite choice for the role and she is well supported in her spirited efforts by imaginative costume and set design which collaborate to bring to life Mrs Oliver’s colourful character and eccentric tastes. In the novel Third Girl, Poirot makes the following observations of his capricious friend:
“He looked over his cup with faint surprise at Mrs. Oliver’s coiffure and also at her new wallpaper. Both were new to him. The last time he had seen Mrs. Oliver, her hair style had been plain and severe. It now displayed a richness of coils and twists arranged in intricate patterns all over her head. Its prolific luxury was, he suspected, largely artificial. He debated in his mind how many switches of hair might unexpectedly fall off if Mrs. Oliver was to get suddenly excited, as was her wont. As for the wallpaper…”
Also a great success is Five Little Pigs which utilises an exceptional cast including Marc Warren (State of Play), Aiden Gillen (The Wire), Toby Stephens (Perfect Strangers) and Rachael Stirling (Tipping the Velvet); the latter plays Caroline Crale, a convicted murderess executed for poisoning her philandering husband. Poirot is called in to ascertain the safety of the conviction and thus the story proceeds in flashback as he elicits from each of the alternative suspects their recollection of events. It is an ambitious stylistic modernisation, imaginatively visually interpreted considering its challenging structure, and has a real poignancy.
Possibly Christie’s most famous and acclaimed novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, concerns the murder of the eponymous “captain of industry” in Kings Abbot, a village where Poirot has chosen to retire. The book won praise for its imaginative structure and solution, to which it’s impossible to make any reference here for fear of giving the game away. This brave attempt at adapting for screen what appears an unfilmable book is unfortunately very disappointing and loses much in the translation, including any possibility of a surprise ending.
Death on the Nile – another famous title, due in part to a successful but unremarkable film adaptation – contains one of the box-set’s most recognisable casts, with the formidable Frances De La Tour and Emily Blunt amongst them. It brings together comedic and dramatic actors with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately marred by a trio of dreadful American accents, it’s a jolly fine wheeze nevertheless and certainly an improvement on the film version.
Its story of betrayal and jealousy sees a scorned woman, Jacqueline De Bellefort (Emma Malin), ceaselessly pursuing and haranguing her former friend and lover—now an item—with ultimately fatal consequences. It benefits from high production values and is beautifully shot, with glamorous locations and a sartorially magnificent cast; and is probably the most aesthetically pleasing of all the productions.
Sad Cypress strikes an appropriate tone and is the most moving of the set, bolstered by a touching performance from Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh as Elinor Carlisle, an heiress robbed of her fiancée and accused of murder. It’s also interesting to observe that Poirot has a more emotional and immediate response to the events that take place; he appears more visibly conflicted. Its reduced number of suspects and pared-down plot allow room for characters to develop beyond the standard twitchy upper-class rogues’ gallery types. The impressive line-up also includes Rupert Penry-Jones (Spooks), Paul McGann (Withnail and I) and Kelly Reilly (Eden Lake).
Of the lesser adaptations, The Mystery of the Blue Train was described by Christie as “easily the worst book I ever wrote” and this version, unfortunately, has little to recommend it, either. The requisite starry ensemble, which includes the mighty Lindsey Duncan and internationally recognisable Eliot Gould, is criminally squandered and the solution disappointingly obscure; conforming rather too exactingly to the formula expounded by Poirot that “the least likely suspect is most probably guilty”.
Lord Edgware Dies suffers from a weak central performance from Helen Grace, playing Jane Wilkinson, an actress whose wealthy overbearing husband is, rather conveniently for her, murdered. The solution is too far-fetched, and its implausibility stands exposed by its transition to the screen. Evil Under the Sun, set during Poirot’s island health retreat, is barely an improvement on the feeble big-screen version, though the story on which is it based is strong enough to survive pretty much any bastardisation and it is one of only three in this set to feature Hastings and Inspector Japp (played marvellously by Phillip Jackson and Hugh Fraser respectively).
Taken at the Flood is a prurient adaptation which strays severely from the more sombre tone of the excellent book. In it a cash-strapped family pursue a nervous young woman for hand-outs—to the chagrin of her aggressively protective brother—after she is left with the entirety of her husband’s fortune. When it emerges that her husband by a previous marriage may be alive, thus rendering her second union a sham and claim to the fortune void, several key players reveal a sinister side. Being a rather hysterical interpretation, it delights in pouring lashings of sex and scandal into the mix. It tumbles into the same trap as the recent Marples in that it treats its source material with such irreverence that it effectively becomes a farce.
After the Funeral is well cast, with Geraldine James and rising screen star Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Eden Lake) amongst the savvy choices. It opens during the funeral of Richard Abernethie after which his eccentric and simple-minded sister Cora (Monica Dolan) gives voice to the suspicion that her brother was murdered, thereby sealing her own fate. It also manages to just about pull off the book’s ambitious twist.
The Hollow is another of Christie’s many country house set murders where Poirot initially mistakes a real crime (the murder of a serially unfaithful husband) for a staged scene from a game. It’s a hit and miss affair; Megan Dodds, playing the dead man’s lover Henrietta Savernake, makes a feisty, modern and sympathetic lead and Edward Fox is amusing in his role as the butler Gudgeon; however, the guilty party is apparent long before the reveal and Lysette Anthony is reliably irritating, hamming it up as an actress Veronica Cray.
Murder in Mesopotamia is a reasonably diverting interpretation, though hampered by a weak, hardly credible conclusion. It takes place on an archaeological dig in Iraq where the head archaeologist’s wife, Mrs Leidner (Barbara Barnes) finds herself in fear for her life.
This collection is a solid introduction for those unfamiliar with Poirot’s investigative super powers, and would make perfect viewing spread over a few leisurely weekends. There are a few gems, enough stars to shake a stick at, and only a couple of stinkers. Above all, the peerless Suchet makes for consistently stimulating, avuncular company and it’ll have you donning your detective hat throughout.
The dismal extras consist of insubstantial biographies of Christie, Suchet, and Hercule Poirot himself. In addition, a handful of the synopses provided within the case are inexcusably inaccurate.