As the nights draw in, Hercule Poirot is back – for the penultimate time – in yet another fascinating take on a Christie book.
(I’m having a little problem with my screenshots at the moment, so please forgive the text-heavy review…)
“Better not to be a detective at all than a detective who has failed.”
— Hercule Poirot
Poirot: 13.04 “The Labours of Hercules”
written by Guy Andrews
directed by Andy Wilson
I feel as if I have a lot to say, and no particularly logical way to do it. So, in the spirit of the thing, let’s proceed in 12 parts, shall we?
01. The Performance of Poirot. Let’s just pause and say: how good is David Suchet in this role? I mean, the actor gets his fair share of plaudits for the role (which he inhabited for 24 years, which is damned impressive) but the very nature of the series means that episodes are rarely about Poirot. Sure, he gets to be the star of most of the climactic speeches, but he’s primarily an observer. The greatness of Suchet’s performance is how naturally he can linger in the background of much larger dramas. The Labours of Hercules is not one such piece. From the haunted look on his face after the brutal murder of Lucinda Le Mesurier (Lorna Nickson-Brown), we’re aware that Andrews’ script is going to focus on an analysis of the Belgian. My favourite little moment is probably his first meeting with the driver Ted Williams (Tom Austen), where we get the heartbreaking realisation that Poirot has consciously – on some level – given up on a personal life. Instead, he exists to help others, and it’s a realisation that he lives up to at film’s end. There’s a lot of small character moments, from his probing conversations with the ballerina Katrina Samoushanka (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) to the moment when he responds to an aggrieved complaint about his habit of speaking in the third person with the simple retort, “it helps Poirot achieve a healthy distance from his genius”. Lovely stuff. At the top of their form, long-running television series offer great boons for actors – think James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano or Kelsey Grammer as Frasier Crane – in that their emotions really do evolve over time. Suchet’s Poirot remains the same man he was in 1989, but the decades have taken their toll both inside and out. At film’s end, it’s painfully clear Poirot cannot be Vera’s love. He is Poirot. Who he is trumps who he wants to be.
02. The Adaptation of Andrews. In the opening moments of The Labours of Hercules, Sir Anthony Morgan (Patrick Ryecart) utters the ominous words, “let’s get this ruddy thing over with, shall we?”. I went into the film with the same attitude. Given that The Big Four had struggled by being condensed and tweaked to the writer’s own ends, there was no way this 12-story collection could be satisfyingly absorbed into 90 minutes. In some ways, the screenwriter doesn’t even try (as we’ll see below), but instead takes his own tack. There’s no Miss Lemon or George or Japp. Indeed, there’s no overt mention of Poirot’s desire to retire (a quirk that Christie mostly included to parody her own impatience with the character’s continued existence, rather than a logical follow-up of his psyche). In some ways, it renders the producers’ decision to leave this to the end a bit irrelevant, since this film could really have taken place at any point in the series’ run. However, given that there was no way the series would ever get funding to do 12 individual episodes, I think they made the right choice. Better to make something tangible out of the book rather than give us a dozen tiny vignettes, or comically race through the bulk of the short stories.
03. The Ominous Opening. The film’s opening is reminiscent of The Big Four and last season’s The Clocks, more spy-based than case-based. Lucinda’s death is distressingly brutal, justified by its long-term effects on Monsieur Poirot. Wilson’s direction is tight, and the scene packs a great deal in, although in retrospect the crime is so audacious as to be almost improbable – did the killer’s plan really rest on catching sight of the secret knock, and did they really know where every police officer would be stationed?
04. The Lost Labours. Christie purists will undoubtedly bristle at Suchet’s claim that he has adapted every Christie work. And, finances aside, it is a shame that – while most of the Poirot short stories received 55 minutes to spread their wings – several from this collection had to get missed completely. The short stories The Nemean Lion, The Lernaean Hydra, The Cretan Bull, The Horses of Diomedes, The Flock of Geyron, and The Apples of Hesperides are not included in the adaptation. Anyone think we should start a Kickstarter campaign to get Suchet back in the moustaches?
05. The Invisible Inheritance. On that same note, the short story The Lemesurier Inheritance (from Poirot’s Early Cases) was never adapted either. Despite some talk that it would be incorporated into the story of Labours, it doesn’t appear this actually came true. It’s an odd little story, more Sherlock Holmes than Poirot, but it’s still a shame it doesn’t get a mention.
06. The Stable of Suspects. Anyhow, back to the review proper. Andrews has effectively combined six short stories, their characters and plots, and isolated them at the hotel Olympus at Rochers Nieges, Switzerland. After sleeping on it, I’m quite happy with his decision. We didn’t need another overarching conspiracy (so slyly deflated in The Big Four) so it makes sense to turn this into a “bottle episode”, forcing the suspects to a claustrophobic climax. The plot indulges in a fair dose of melodrama, and Wilson’s direction has a tough task to keep things tense throughout. I think if there had been so much as one joke, the inherent silliness of the plot may have shone through. Instead, I felt consistently involved in this story that is one part And Then There Were None and one part Murder on the Orient Express, with a side of The Secret of Chimneys. But it really does help that the cast is very strong. Tom Wlaschiha gives a dynamic performance as the mysterious Mr. Schwartz, Simon Callow is strong (if under-utilised) as an eerie German doctor, Austen is particularly good in the small role of the driver Williams, and young Eleanor Tomlinson really stands out as Alice Cunningham, a fierce-eyed criminologist with a surprising connection to Poirot. Tomlinson is strong throughout, but her final climactic confrontation really raises the acting stakes for the season – even alongside such recent luminaries as Iain Glen and Sinead Cusack. There are no weak links in the cast and – unlike Suchet’s recent Murder on the Orient Express – every character at the resort feels like they are quite developed, probably because of their short-story origins.
“The threshold is the place to pause.”
07. The Tapestry of Tales. Andrews’ script combines six stories. From The Arcadian Deer, we get the tale of the driver and the ballerina’s maid, a sweet romance which is adapted quite faithfully but with many of the story’s red herrings removed. The Stymphalean Birds gives us the story of government servant Harold Waring (Rupert Evans) who comes across a former lover (Morven Christie) and her controlling mother-in-law (Sandy McDade), who themselves are hiding a secret. Rather intriguingly, this tale is solved at the one-hour mark, leaving the characters to wander around somewhat aimlessly for the remainder of the film (that’s the trouble with setting your tale in an isolated location: it’s rather hard to remove the characters from the piece… well, without killing them). The Augean Stables – in which a public servant’s life is exposed in the tabloids – and The Girdle of Hyppolita – in which a missing painting is found in the unlikeliest of places – provide crucial details for Poirot’s final revelations. Probably most important is The Erymanthian Boar, from which we get the setting, the character of Dr. Lutz, and much of the film’s ambience. At the same time, while I quite enjoyed this film, one could argue that the addition of the thief Marrascaud – whose haul of jewels and paintings is central to the crime and the tension – feels the most out-of-place here. The brutal violence of Marrascaud’s methods doesn’t have a huge impact on the innocent characters, who are able to go about their schemes with a minimum of fuss (and the servants are too easily dismissed “to their bedrooms” for the final half-hour). And finally, there’s one last short story, The Capture of Cerberus…
08. The Rossakoff Romance. Countess Vera Rossakoff remains one of the most intriguing recurring characters in the Poirot canon. She appears only three times, and we know she and Poirot can never be, but she is the only woman to rattle the great detective – at least of his own age. The Countess was played wonderfully by Kika Markham back in The Double Clue, and was omitted (wisely) from The Big Four, so this is her final appearance, recast as Orla Brady but clearly intended to be a continuation of the same character. In the short story, they are reunited going opposite ways on escalators at Piccadilly Circus; here, it is adorably on the funicular. The reunion of Poirot and Vera could have been reduced to a number of gloomy, self-pitying, romantic conversations – particularly with the addition of Alice, her daughter and potential protege. Instead, neither the script nor the direction nor the performances are willing to let this be the case. Between his conversations with Alice, the ballerina, and Dr. Lutz, Poirot is more analysed in these 90 minutes than ever before, and Vera’s return adds to the dimensions of the picture. Because the tourists are snowbound, the pair’s interactions transpire quite naturally, at various times of day, and there’s a relaxed nature to their conversations that feels earned. At the same time, we’re aware – like Poirot – that once a con artist, always a con artist. Vera is always just a little bit on show for Poirot, always with her guard up. She knows they can never be together but likes to keep the dream of what Hercule Poirot could mean. That is, ultimately, Countess Rossakoff’s role in the script: to provide our hero with that glimpse of another way of being, a way he will never quite achieve.
09. The Haunting of Hotel Olympus. Is The Labours of Hercules a melodrama? Absolutely. The series has trafficked in pulp ever since the first season (and our illustrious author certainly started out writing The Big Four and its ilk nearly 100 years ago), but there’s no denying that the snowbound band of criminals is a thoroughly pulpy idea. Still, Wilson and his creative team do an impressive job of making the Hotel feel foreboding and yet beautiful. As the guests settle in, Wilson’s direction artfully explores the noises rippling from one room to another, making us all feel that something very bad is happening here. As horrific deaths start occurring, Suchet perfectly telegraphs Poirot’s desperation. (And at least some of the melodrama is – per Christie – merely a front for con artists.)
10. The Investigation of Hercule. What I’ve enjoyed about the adaptations of short stories – Marple has now done two – is that the criminals are less likely to be known by me. Coming into a story cold allows the cast to have a lot of fun. Looking at my notes while watching The Labours of Hercules for the first time, my suspicions lingered on almost every character for at least a few minutes. By this point, Andrews is aware that we know the most trustworthy characters are often the killers, so he’s sure to implicate Waring and the hotel’s loopy concierge (Nigel Lindsay) as much as anyone else. It’s only tiny moments, but tiny scenes are what define the film’s first half. It’s about getting to know the characters, and gradually link them together. By and large, it works.
11. The Dog-gone Denouement. Dogs feature prominently in the source text, between the yapping terriers of The Nemean Lion to the awe-inspiring hound, Cerberus. Here, we get a delightful in-between, and the grumpy self-awareness of Alice’s dog is one of many moments where the film does an unusual level of “fan service”. It’s not parody – the creatives are looking for a much more straight-faced approach to the work than The Big Four, but it’s certainly a script fully aware of what the audiences expect from a Poirot episode. When there’s any chance we’ll misinterpret the information, it’s quickly cleared up (in the short story, Alice is Rossakoff’s daughter-in-law, but by making her a daughter, the script quickly absolves Poirot of her parentage). At the other extreme, this is definitely “a Poirot”. The detective gets a solid 25 minutes for revelations and wrap-ups, which must almost be a record. Of course, the denouement also involves almost every character in a gun-crazy standoff, so it’s not entirely what we think of as a Poirot…
“It cannot end this way!”
— Hercule Poirot
12. The Rolling of the Credits. So, sixty-nine episodes of Poirot down, what do we think of The Labours of Hercules? It’s melodramatic. It’s another case of coincidence on coincidence. It requires an unlikely (if psychologically plausible) audacity on the part of the killer. Its bundle-of-stories approach leaves some characters to wander aimlessly for parts of the script. And it daringly omits more than half of the source text. Yet… it’s really quite good, I thought. Suchet’s performance is flawless, and his interactions with the cast – particularly Tomlinson and Brady – are touching and layered. With such experienced writers and directors at the helm, even the silliest moments are very tactfully done, and there’s a thematic cohesion to these tales of forgery and false identities, lost loves and found loves, broken dreams and fading illusions, that pays off at film’s end. It’s also one of the few adaptations that – given the circumstances – justifies its drastically changed approach. I don’t regard this as a five-star Poirot, but I certainly think it’s a smart and fearless approach to the work. Here’s hoping they can bring things home with a rousing Curtain next week.