Welcome back, dear readers. David Suchet has returned for the final series of Poirot films, which will be released infrequently over the next several months. Let’s take a look at the first of the five, Elephants Can Remember.
“And love it may usually turn to hate. And it is easier to hate where you have once loved than to remain indifferent.”
— Hercule Poirot
Agatha Christie’s Poirot
13.01 Elephants Can Remember
written by Nick Dear
directed by John Strickland
Elephants Can Remember is undeniably one of Agatha Christie’s least successful novels. The last of the Poirot novels written (Curtain having been prepared in the 1940s to ensure an ending to the series), it echoes several of Christie’s late ’60s and ’70s novels in displacing our heroes from the world they live in, to the point where Poirot and Mrs. Oliver can barely comprehend the era around them. While this ties in with the novel’s focus on memory and oral testimony, it also becomes clear that this was a predisposition of the author at her stage in life, and ultimately, the “cold case” format renders a novel that is anodyne and rambling. Nick Dear’s script, tasked with trimming and taming the beast, manages to do so with reasonable panache, although I find myself lamenting a couple of the changes made and – more importantly – some of the changes not made.
(Let’s start by getting this out of the way: I utterly adore the Christie canon, and I’m beyond excited to be getting five new Poirot stories and three new Marples over the rest of this year. Such consistently well-acted, neatly-constructed pieces are joyful additions to the filmed works of Dame Christie, and it’s blissful to see Suchet’s impeccable performance back on our screens!)
After seeing David Suchet’s work recently in The Hollow Crown, it’s a fantastic reminder of just how good he is at playing Hercule Poirot, a man so different from himself. Poirot doesn’t often get big show boating moments in the series (although notable exceptions like Murder on the Orient Express stand out all the more because of this), so much of Suchet’s performance relies on the subtleties in his vocal delivery, the exactness of his movement, and the minute adjustments to the character as his “little grey cells” work overtime. Unlike much of season 12, Elephants dials back on Poirot’s loneliness and nostalgia (with the exception of one quiet scene with Celia which obliquely hints at his past romantic connections, and perhaps looks forward to this year’s The Labours of Hercules – spoilers!) shifting the focus instead to the mystery itself, and our guest detective, Ariadne Oliver. Zoë Wanamaker brings her usual panache to the character’s sharp dialogue, although – as per the book – leaving the character to spend so much time on solo investigating robs Ariadne of some of her sterling ability for charcater interaction.
To bulk up the slim story, Dear introduces a second mystery into the proceedings: Poirot begins the film investigating the death of an elderly psychiatrist, with the only viable suspect being the man’s son, Dr. Willoughby (Iain Glen, playing a disgraceful character in a wonderfully sincere way). John Strickland’s direction should be particularly commended. It doesn’t call attention to itself the way that many of the Poirot and Marple instalments have done on late, but the masterful character work and the grim chiaroscuro of Willoughby’s basement are just a couple of the neat touches evident here. Alexandra Dowling stands out as the coy Bostonian clerk Marie: it’s a tough role with various emotional shadings (not all of which I enjoyed) but Dowling makes it seem natural. (Dowling recently made a tiny appearance as Roslin Frey on Game of Thrones and here’s hoping she’ll be back for season 4.)
Elsewhere, Ariadne investigates the decade-old death of a couple whose daughter (Vanessa Kirby) she knows distantly. Like some other Christie cold cases – Sleeping Murder, Postern of Fate – it’s not the most invigorating of tales, but the game cast provide some delights. Highlights include Greta Scacchi as a money-grubbing social climber, Caroline Blakiston perfectly cast as an old biddy (“in this part of the world, one hunts or one has affairs”), and Wanamaker herself, most memorably trying to maintain her composure as an old nanny (Hazel Douglas) babbles on about the past.
So, let’s have the good before the bad. Aside from the talents of the director, screenwriter, and cast, Elephants Can Remember opens well, quickly initiating us into both mysteries. Some of the more well-known Christie tales have warranted long stretches before the first death; there’s no excuse here, and so they quickly throw us into the action. The characterisation of Poirot is subtle here – more akin to an early episode than one of the “final five” – but neatly examines him in little ways, like how the playing of Bach’s Goldberg Variations enables the detective’s mind to process facts, and how, unlike his youthful self, Poirot isn’t simply drawn in by a puzzle, he’s only drawn in by a puzzle once he suspects the solution is possible. The denouement‘s flashbacks are also particularly strong, with Adrian Lukis particularly affecting as General Ravenscroft. The solution is arguably drawn from cheap melodramas, but the characterisation just about makes it work.
I’m not about to argue that this is the greatest installment of the series, but everyone involved brings their A-game, and I certainly expect the remaining four will be more exciting works. All in all, Elephants Can Remember is another slick achievement in the series, even it lacks perhaps the utter sumptuousness of seasons 11 and 12.
(Okay, so that’s my actual review. Below are a few Christie nerd ramblings about what I didn’t adore so much.)
Some of the alterations to the book are completely justifiable; regular readers will know that I support alterations wherever the screenwriter deems them necessary, since I think slavish adherence to the original source is ludicrous when adapting from one medium (and era) to another. So little details like substituting the existing recurring character of Superintendent Spence for another, played by Vincent Regan, don’t worry me – and may even have been scheduling necessities. The choice to bring Poirot out of what seemed like retirement in season 12 is an odd one, particularly as we enter the home stretch where at least two of the remaining novels take their importance from the fact that he considers himself retired. So perhaps we should assume that the series is airing these episodes not necessarily in chronological order? Maybe this story should be set back in season 8?
This is perhaps the only reason I can justify the series remaining in the 1930s. Little touches like Mrs. Oliver forgetting her goddaughter may have seemed more relevant if the characters were older. As it stands, Poirot suggests almost the entire 13 seasons to this point have taken place in about four years! It’s somewhat disappointing to me, particularly as Suchet’s portrayal in recent seasons has suggested someone much more world-weary than the effervescent, culturally-confused detective of the early years. While it’s true that Poirot’s aging in the books is impossible: as the books move forward in real time, Poirot becomes some kind of ageless James Bond. Yet it’s been 24 years since the first episode aired, so surely one could justify moving things past WWII (an admittedly difficult time to set books – although Taken at the Flood suggested we were entering the War), and move towards 1950 at least. Perhaps there are perils of having a doddering old man as your lead. Perhaps the series really is attempting a non-linear pattern, and we’ll see a younger Poirot in The Big Four and an old one in Dead Man’s Folly. Or perhaps we should be looking at this series from a slightly meta-textual point of view: sure, they’re all (excluding flashback episodes) visually set between 1935 and 1939, but the narrative could be any time? Seems a bit much, true. Still, I can’t help but feel that this novel’s natural setting – the bedrooms and homes of old, decaying people – may have been livened up a bit if the outside world was moving into an era that neither Poirot nor Ariadne can understand.
Meanwhile, the introduction of the Willoughby subplot is bonkers but probably smart. The new plot of past mistakes and double identities is very in keeping with early Christie, and it allows Poirot to have far more agency in the plot. Plus, by obscuring the importance of the psychiatric institution, the plot allows us to take close stabs at the truth without quite grasping it. The fact that Willoughby’s murderer had a very personal, reasonably small-time plan makes the conceit seem legitimate, so I’m fine with that. What I do take issue with is the final twist of one extra presence on the day of the Ravenscrofts’ deaths. Given both the Willoughby and Ravenscroft murderers had well-constructed motives and plots, why force one final link between them? It seems not only unnecessary and oblique, but places far too much assumption on the 13-year plan of someone who probably would’ve spoken up much sooner. I know, I know, I shouldn’t review on the “if I’d written it” principle, and I’m sure in time Elephants Can Remember will have as hallowed a place on my bookshelf as every other episode of this fantastic series. Still, it niggles.
Next week: Julia McKenzie is back to begin her three latest films as Miss Marple.
Poirot will return… someday soon.