It would be easy to think that there is little new to discover in a character like Poirot. The star of dozens of Christie’s most famous mystery novels, Hercule Poirot, he of the little grey cells and the meticulously arranged breakfast table, Poirot has been around for nearly a century. He has been brought to the screen by no lesser actors than Alfred Molina, Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney, and lest we forget, a criminally miscast Tony Randall.
Perhaps no performer has had the insight into this enormously complicated character that David Suchet brings to the role, and to especially to his powerhouse performance in Murder on the Orient Express. Thoroughly at home in a character he has played for more than two decades, Suchet is a force on screen, bringing an uncharacteristic tension and smoldering intensity to the role that reveals a decidedly different side of a character who runs the risk of seeming well tread.
Make no mistake – in this collection of the latest Agatha Christie mysteries, everything is worth seeing. However, the series’ admittedly unorthodox adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express stands head and shoulders above the other – still quite good – films collected here. In Appointment With Death, a terrific supporting cast includes Tim Curry in a turn that sees a performer having more fun that one is accustomed to on the too-often dowdy Mystery productions. The Third Girl, meanwhile, is a thoroughly workman-like if unremarkable whodunnit that won’t disappoint fans of the series.
The adaptation of what is certainly Christie’s most well-known work, and arguably her defining one, is alone worth the price of admission. David Suchet, indelibly the face of Christie’s brilliant, neurotic Belgian detective to a generation, gives the performance of a lifetime.
As with any adaptation, the writers of Murder on the Orient Express have taken their liberties, and embellishments and departures from the novel are not infrequent. This will no doubt strike a sour chord with some viewers, especially Christie purists. But it also opens new doors into a story that frankly, could use a fresh coat of paint after many decades and countless interpretations. The latest iteration, the crown jewel of this collection, offers viewers an original take on a classic character, providing some intriguing new twists on a well-known character.
While sticklers may grumble, it’s intriguing to see an exploration of sides of Poirot rarely explored. On the heels of a grim episode and thrown into close, unfamiliar quarters with a group of strangers, the Poirot of Orient Express seems for perhaps the first time on screen, genuinely vulnerable. Rather than the logical, often icy detective of the past 20 years, we see a man at odds with himself and struggling with his own ideals, a detective who does not have all the answers. The result is a performance punctuated by emotional outbursts that explode onto the screen, rendered especially jarring when expressed by the famously collected private investigator.
Also included in the collection is a mini-documentary on the history of the Orient Express which plays like equal parts celebrity history lesson and lifestyles of the rich and famous on a train, though the section on Christie’s connection with the storied train does bear watching. Suchet makes an entertaining tour guide, even if hearing him speak without the prim Belgian accent we’ve grown to love is a bit strange, and it certainly beats out the rest of the collection’s special features, which amount to little more than slideshows.
The other two works collected here are about what we’ve come to expect from the series, which is far from a slight. Both The Third Girl and Appointment With Death are visually splendid period pieces built around Christie’s Poirot stories, which age surprisingly well and remain thoroughly compelling in their own right. One of the most charming things about this series, now entering its third decade, is the consistency it brings to the table. These films make for what is arguably the ultimate in television comfort food, perpetually satisfying and predictable without being boring, a standby that seems impervious to time or trend.
That’s exactly what The Third Girl and Appointment With Death represent: attractive, workmanlike mysteries that work the trick of simultaneously providing a spark of mental stimulation and the proper degree of pre-bedtime relaxation. They might not often be works that reach the impressive heights of Murder on the Orient Express, but these are always pleasant, engaging, worthwhile pieces of entertainment to come home to, and make excellent companions for a cup of evening tea.