Welcome back, mes amis, as we head to the beautiful surrounds of Agatha Christie’s real-life Greenway Estate for a new adaptation of her late novel, Dead Man’s Folly.
“It’s better to be rich, isn’t it?”
— Lady Hattie Stubbs
Poirot 13.03 “Dead Man’s Folly”
written by Nick Dear
directed by Tom Vaughan
Playwright Nick Dear seems to be a smart choice to call in for Christie works that have a defined literary structure that needs to translate well on to the small screen. His previous series credits include The Hollow, Cards on the Table, and Three Act Tragedy. He hits another winner this week with a reasonably faithful adaptation defined by some strong performances. And, if nothing else, it’s certainly better than the last adaptation of this book!
Called out to Nasse House, Devon, by a concerned Ariadne Oliver, Poirot hangs around long enough to attend a county fete and adjacent murder mystery game which turns frighteningly real. It’s Zoë Wanamaker‘s final appearance as Mrs. Oliver, and hasn’t she just been a treat? Her chemistry with Suchet is laudable and her appearances – if, occasionally, underutilised due to Wanamaker’s busy schedule – have created a very firm sense of the character. Here, Mrs. Oliver disappears from the middle third of the film, but this is okay since many of the suspects are quite intriguing folk.
Although the book is not one of Christie’s best, it’s a competent mix of misdirection and bucolic charm that Dear and director Vaughan manage to capture quite well. Was bloodthirsty girl guide Marlene (Ella Geraghty) killed for something she did? Or accidentally? And what has happened to Lady Stubbs (played by Stephanie Leonidas with the perfect mix of petulance and arrogance). Like the book, the film is perhaps overstuffed with characters, meaning that some of them – including Captain Warburton (the great Martin Jarvis) and enigmatic, handsome architect Michael Weyman (James Anderson) don’t really get time to make an impression. At the same time, Dear’s script is wonderfully dense, to the point where the half-hour it takes to lead to the murder is more than justified by how much is packed in to the next half-hour. Particular stand-outs in the cast are Emma Hamilton as a villager around whom much of the drama centres, Rebecca Front as a disdainful housekeeper, the lovely Tom Ellis as the leading investigator, an old adversary of Poirot, and Sean Pertwee creating a complex character in the home’s owner Sir George. Still, the MVP is unsurprisingly acting luminary Sinéad Cusack as Amy Folliatt, an old lady who lost everything but has managed to cling on to a life in the grounds of the house she once ruled over. Cusack’s face is phenomenally expressive, and she manoeuvres every inch of the melodrama with poignance and ease.
Of course, while we fans think of Poirot as a series, it still has to exist as part of an independent collection of episodes. As such, Mrs. Oliver and Poirot don’t get any final moment together, and the lingering sense of Poirot’s regret and rumination is largely absent here (aside from a brief moment of connection with Sally Legge (Hamilton). Still, Dear manages to squeeze in a few moments that make clear how disconnected Ariadne and Hercule are from the younger generations, which is an aspect of the character we’ll undoubtedly experience more of in The Labours of Hercules. And it’s all very well-conceived. By the time Poirot effectively gives up on the case (with half an hour to go), we’re privy to so many secrets and allegations, that it’s clear this is a complex crime, not simply one act of misdirection like some of Christie’s mysteries.
Vaughan’s direction helps matters immensely. The eponymous folly is really quite haunting, and there are a few intensely directed scenes during the main section of the investigation. When DI Bland does his rounds, the scenes spiral out in a non-linear fashion, while Suchet gets to flex his muscles during a wordless sequence of investigation – reminding me of nothing so much as the great “fuck” scene on The Wire – bolstered by a beautiful musical score. No expense was spared, clearly, to allow this film to be made at Greenway with a large cast of extras, but Vaughan doesn’t allow this to get in the way of creating the relationships between the characters. With the arrival of Hattie’s mysterious, dark-skinned cousin Etienne de Sousa (Elliot Barnes-Worrell), the feeling of difference between the white English folk is kept smartly below the surface but is painfully evident nonetheless, creating a slightly more complex approach to the crime than Christie perhaps allowed.
Ultimately, Dead Man’s Folly is quite a success. The denouement – as with many – relies perhaps a bit too much on coincidence (including how close Poirot gets to the secret before the mystery has even begun!), and also relies on a very public figure somehow remaining unrecognised, but we can’t have everything. It’s perhaps a shame as well that Mrs. Oliver doesn’t get to participate in the investigation as much as I would like, but this is a script stuffed to the brim as is. This is surely the strongest Poirot of the season thus far, a season which – based on three unpopular novels and two that are hardly the most well-known – was always facing an uphill climb. I for one think that Suchet and the cast and crew have made a very strong job of it thus far! The climax of Dead Man’s Folly is very, very well done. During the revelation scene, Vaughan pulls riveting performances from the killer(s). (If there’s a complaint here, it’s that I won’t forget the killer’s identity any time soon, making it less rewatchable than the short stories!) The final moment is really quite dark, but it gibes well with Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot – particularly in recent episodes like Hallowe’en Party and Murder on the Orient Express – and definitely foreshadows Curtain. Very nicely done.
- One nice directorial touch is Nicholas Woodeson as the quiet but powerful Sergeant Hoskins, lingering in the background of many scenes. He reminds me of Ilyn Payne from Game of Thrones.
- The fact that there have always been Folliats at Tudor house is hammered over our head perhaps a bit too much. It’s clearly An Important Fact (TM).
- While he plays a vital role, the ferryman played by Sam Kelly, who’s seen things ‘e ‘as, is a trifle overdrawn.
Next week: the series somehow squeezes twelve short stories (plus, allegedly, a thirteenth – “The Lemesurier Inheritance”) into one film: The Labours of Hercules.