The Fun Is In the Details: 'Agatha Christie's Poirot, Series 3'

He's a Belgian in England; he's short, wears glasses, and is an immaculate dresser with delicate sensibilities. Which is to say, Poirot is about as far from the stock hard-boiled detective as he could possibly be.

Agatha Christie's Poirot

Director: Ross Devenish, Brian Farnham, Andrew Grieve
Cast: David Suchet, Hugh Fraser, Philip Jackson, Pauline Moran
Distributor: Acorn
Studio: BBC
Release date: 2012-03-06

Agatha Christie, BBC period dramas, waxed mustaches—when it comes to some things in life, you’re either in or you’re out. I’m in, with bells on, as long as it’s Hercule Poirot wearing the mustache and David Suchet playing him.

Still, even an avid fan must recognize that not all of Dame Agatha’s work was top-drawer, not all BBC adaptations do justice to their sources, and even the Belgian detective and his famous little grey cells could have an off day, now and then. Fortunately, the third series of Poirot episodes released by Acorn (they originally aired in 1990-1991) has substantially more hits than misses, including one episode ("The Mysterious Affair at Styles") that stands out as a particularly fine example of what the BBC could do with a good Christie story.

People enjoy mysteries for different reasons. While Agatha Christie is admired by many as a master of plotting, I’ve always been more interested in her ability to communicate the character of a place and time—in my days as a straphanger (subway commuter) in New York City, reading her books was like taking a trip to the English countryside of a far calmer era. To be fair, the settings of Christie stories are set an England that existed primary in her imagination and should not be equated with any real time and place, but that's part of the fun of fiction—it doesn't have to stick to reality as commonly understood.

Aside from "The Mysterious Affair at Styles", these episodes follow a common formula: a cast of stock characters are introduced, something goes wrong, Poirot is brought on the case, he makes observations and conducts interviews (thoughtfully cueing the audience as to what they should pay attention to), and finally delivers his verdict as if lecturing in a college hall. That's not a criticism but merely a description—genre fiction relies on sturdy formats, and as these episodes are less than an hour apiece, one could hardly expect the adaptations to communicate all the necessary information for the story to make sense and be wildly inventive as well.

The fun comes in the details—both the production details (from the usual gorgeous costumes and sets to scene-setting details like exterior shots of Broadcasting House) and the story elements which are part of what keep readers and viewers coming back. Most of the stories in this collection are set in the 1930s, and taken as a group they include most of the elements associated with Christie's brand of fictional Englishness—gorgeous country houses and rain swept London streets, bicycles and trains, bowler hats, Egyptologists and visiting royalty, the decadent rich and the sturdy working class, and lots of murders by poisoning.

"The Mysterious Affair at Styles" stands out from the others by its length (two hours) and period (late World War I, the period of the Christie novel) and is really a television movie rather than an episode of the series. It's based on her first novel (published in 1916 in the UK), which introduced Poirot, Lieutenant Hastings, and Inspector Japp to the world, and gives you Poirot's back story while also presenting a clever locked-room murder that takes place on a country estate. "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" was aired on the BBC to honor the 100th anniversary of Christie's birth, and would be a good choice to recommend a friend who’s a Poirot virgin and is wondering what all the fuss is about.

The ambiance of these episodes make them half-cozies—they're often set in the English countryside; have a minimum of violence, a maximum of ratiocination, and little to no sex; the criminals belong to the same world as the victims and are motivated by the most human of failings (often jealousy or greed); and everything is set to rights by the time the credits roll. Granted, the detective is male and Belgian, but he's a great fan of his adopted country, and he solves the cases using psychology and reasoning. He's also short, wears glasses, and is an immaculate dresser with delicate sensibilities—which is to say, he's about as far from the stock hard-boiled detective as he could possibly be.

Agatha Christie's Poirot: Series 3 include 11 episodes (628 min.) on three discs. The episodes included, besides "The Mysterious Affair at Styles", are "How Does Your Garden Grow?", "The Million Dollar Bond Robbery", "The Plymouth Express", "Wasp's Nest", "The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor", "The Double Clue", "The Mystery of the Spanish Chest", "The Theft of the Royal Ruby", "The Affair at the Victory Ball" and "The Mystery of Hunger's Lodge".

The visuals look good, but not great, in this release; according to the press materials, the episodes have been restored and remastered, but they still suffer from some noticeable flaws, mainly a softness of image in many shots, and a washing out of some of the exterior scenes. The sound is quite good, for both dialogue and the soundtrack.

Alas, there are no extras in this collection, which is a missed opportunity—perhaps someone at Acorn will get ambitious and release a collector's edition with commentary tracks and "making of" features. After all, Christie fans would enjoy those features (personally, I want to know the location of every exterior shot), and students of film and television could learn a lot from them about how to effectively translate books to the screen.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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