Review: “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” – series 10 – 11 (2006 – 2008)
with David Suchet (Hercule Poirot), Zoë Wanamaker (Ariadne Oliver), David Yelland (George) and Richard Hope (Superintendent Harold Spence)
written by Guy Andrews, Philomena McDonagh, Mark Gattis, Peter Flannery & Nick Dear
After the darkness of Series Nine, it’s no surprise that Series Ten – while still utilising this palate, and adapting a couple of WWII novels – is a little more opulent, with each episode being somewhat more relaxed in tone. The Mystery of the Blue Train was a novel that Christie herself disliked, and the adaptation is apt, but not much more. Lindsay Duncan is a standout performer, as ever, and the script finds some strengths in Poirot’s personal connection with the victim and the suspects, but it wasn’t a standout. Taken at the Flood fares little better, with the plot’s inherent contrivances coming to the fore, and not enough for the talented cast – including Jenny Agutter, Celia Imrie and Tim Pigott-Smith – to do. On the other hand, this is a core movie for continuity buffs: aside from confirming that we’re now on the cusp of the 1940s, Taken at the Flood introduces two recurring characters: Superintendent Spence, played by Richard Hope, is a stoic but maudlin man who is well-characterised in spite of a script that does little to distinguish him. Poirot’s valet, George, meanwhile is a smaller role but David Yelland‘s kind, wry performance speaks volumes. Poirot is a gentleman now, and he appears to have given up his practice, edging into something approaching retirement. (For the most part in Series Ten, he stumbles upon crimes.)
After the Funeral is a very strong adaptation of a strong novel, concealing all the novel’s twists well. I felt, however, that the denouement was a little traditional, with all of the characters acting rather unrealistically, just sitting still while their part in the complex plot was explained. The favourite, however, is definitely Cards on the Table for oh, so many reasons. Most notably, of course, there’s Mrs. Oliver, played to the hilt by Zoë Wanamaker. Wanamaker is one of those actresses who captures your attention in everything that she does, and she was the perfect choice for Mrs. Oliver, who here proves a vital foil to Poirot. Mrs. O – or Ariadne – possesses a dry wit and a keen insight, but is also filled with arrogance, and – most wonderfully – writes books which are clearly not ‘literature’, and which Poirot cannot really stomach. Their investigative pairing is pitch-perfect. (Sadly, Agatha Christie’s Marple recently adapted The Pale Horse – in which Mrs. Oliver makes an appearance – and wrote her out! I know it may have been strange to have Mrs. Oliver meet Marple, but it’s a shame Wanamaker couldn’t have dropped by for a cameo…)
It’s a pity they couldn’t get James Fox back as Colonel Race but perhaps he would’ve been overshadowed anyway. Any Christie fan will have to get a kick out of Mr. Shaitana’s bridge party, which is surely one of Christie’s most iconic set pieces. It’s not perfect, perhaps: some of the motives and plans are changed for reasons I’m not sure of, but Cards on the Table still works as a lively adaptation of a very good novel.
Series Ten was, at times, positively uproarious. Series Eleven, then, finds perhaps the perfect balance: using a variety of palates – the greys of pre-War England, the yellows of the desert, the greens and blacks of a boarding school – each movie is drawn with vivacious characters while also being almost Gothic.
Suchet is reunited with Yelland, Hope and Wanamaker for Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, featuring – among others – the amazing Sian Phillips. It’s a strong adaptation, particularly where Mrs. Oliver is concerned, and it’s nice to see more and more of Poirot’s daily life incorporated into the stories. This is the final appearance to date of Hope’s Spence, which is rather understandable, since the character never emerged from Christie’s pen with quite the same panache as many of her other detectives. Yelland, meanwhile, has simply added so much cleverness to a very small part, and I hope we get to see him continue in the role right up to Curtain.
Third Girl also features Mrs. Oliver, and continues to showcase the strongest element of the recent seasons: Poirot’s personal relationships. As someone who is practically retired, Poirot both relies upon and loathes Mrs. Oliver’s constant incursions, and her own matter-of-factness is very refreshing. If there’s a flaw with the more recent adaptations, it’s not – for me – the perceived ‘darkness’, or needless changing of character motives, alibis or sexuality. It’s that the actual investigation is taking up less and less of the running time. Generally, the first quarter now sets up character and situation, and the final quarter – often as much as twenty-five minutes! – is devoted to denouement, and the characters dealing with the aftermath. Of course, this is not inherently bad: many Christie books take a while to reach the murder, and one of the joys of seeing these movies cast with such strong actors is in witnessing sketchily-drawn book characters become real-life people. But particularly in Season Eleven (culminating, unfortunately, in Appointment with Death), we’re given very limited time to actually pick up on clues – and so is Poirot.
Appointment with Death is possibly the most lavish film to date, with impressive performances by a vast array of actors including Mark Gatiss (who also wrote Cat Among the Pigeons), Tim Curry, John Hannah, Elizabeth McGovern and Cheryl Campbell as the monstrous Lady Boynton. It is perfectly rendered, looks stunning, and has some powerful moments for all the cast. Yet, when Poirot turned assembled all the suspects and began his denouement, my jaw literally dropped. The detective had barely had time to talk to any of the suspects; in fact, some he hadn’t spoken to at all! Yet somehow Poirot figured it out. I know he’s one of history’s most respected fictional detectives, but this was getting ridiculous. I found Appointment with Death to be very affecting, but I can only fault the writer for devoting so much time to setting up the characters, and spending so much time on the (admittedly complicated) denouement that there was so little time left for investigation.
Beyond that, Appointment with Death is possibly the most meddled-with adaptation to date. New characters, including the heartbreaking Sister Agnieszka, a whole lot of slave traders, different motives for everyone – including the killer – and a new setting are just some of the additions. They all add up to a very emotionally affecting piece, but one that feels crammed full of subplots which border on melodrama. At the end of the day, I accept that some of the characters – and particularly the grotesque Mrs. Boynton – are rendered even more powerful, but I think the “everything-and-the-kitchen-sink” result was just too much.
Appointment with Death is also this series’ religious excursion, although many of the movies now have been tied in – at least tangentially – to the gradual theme of Poirot’s religion. I’ll talk more about this next time, when we look at Murder on the Orient Express, but I’m fascinated by this direction with Poirot: a man who is relying ever more on his faith in a changing world. I know a part of this is David Suchet’s own influence, but I think this will lead to a wonderful culmination, should the series be allowed to reach its natural conclusion with Poirot’s biggest moral challenge in Curtain.
Finally, there’s Cat Among the Pigeons, written by actor and Doctor Who scribe Mark Gatiss. I felt this to be the strongest film of these two seasons, particularly given that the book isn’t very good at all. Harriet Walter is stunning in the lead role of the school’s principal, torn apart as her domain becomes host to a variety of brutal acts. Her friendship with Poirot is quite affecting, and Walter’s performance is amazingly nuanced, as we see both why she had become such a powerful confidante for the entire school body, and how she must battle the decisions of finding a successor amongst a host of faces she can’t quite trust. The lush colours of the school are startling rendered and, unlike the other three sories this year, it feels like the investigation lasts for a substantial time period even as time is spent on individual characters and their storylines, leading to a denouement that is a revelation rather than a set piece for a third of the movie’s running length. The story is no less ludicrous than the book (how all these people ended up at this one girls’ school is beyond me!) but everything else makes up for it. Incidentally, Katie Leung – of Harry Potter fame – gets an upfront credit and had a character created for her, but gets all of three lines. It’s most peculiar.
All in all, these two series were a solid outing for Poirot. By 2008, period drama was again on the rise. Agatha Christie’s Marple was entering its fourth year – now with Julia McKenzie replacing Geraldine McEwan – and soon enough we’d see announcements about manor dramas being commissioned, such as Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs. Next time, we’ll take a look at the twelfth series, and consider the options for the series’ future.