A remarkably faithful adaptation brings David Suchet’s reign as Hercule Poirot to an end after almost 25 years (24 years and 10 months, to be precise!). This is far from the end of Agatha Christie on screen, but it certainly feels like a sad, sad day.
“Shots in the dark, Poirot. Shots in the dark.”
— Stephen Norton
Review: Poirot 13×05 “Curtain”
written by Kevin Elyot
directed by Hettie Macdonald
Having never before been adapted, Curtain was an unknown element going in to the final series, and I was captured from the first moment, as the strains of Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude play over a range of seemingly disconnected scenes. While I bemoaned that recent adaptations like Elephants Can Remember and The Labours of Hercules did not make enough of Poirot as an aged, disconnected figure, the delay pays off with the strong effect of seeing our beloved Belgian an emaciated, wheelchair-bound old man. I don’t know if Suchet slimmed down or if it was simply the consequence of dropping the fat suit, but Curtain creates Poirot afresh.
Kevin Elyot gave us reliable adaptations of Five Little Pigs and Death on the Nile, and this is one of the most direct adaptations of Poirot of late. It’s probably for the best, even if the “group of interconnected people stuck in the one location” format has loomed large this series. At Styles, the location of the first murder Poirot and Hastings ever investigated together, the two old friends are reunited, along with the widowed Hastings’ daughter Judith (Alice Orr-Ewing). The script combines two of Christie’s favourite plots. There are distant murders and deaths which Poirot suspects, yet also an increasing air of tension throughout the house.
The murder mystery itself is well-played by all, with very strong turns from Shaun Dingwall, Aidan McArdle and Anna Madeley (Dingwall is particularly fascinating in a role that is somehow both villainous and sympathetic), although some of the cast – John Standing, Anne Reid, Philip Glenister – don’t get much time to shine. Helen Baxendale, in particular, functions more symbolically as a figure of constant pathos, but she does it very well. The reason for this, however, is that the story has greater demons to exorcise. Hastings in particular is explored very thoroughly (as per the book), inching closer than ever to a character in one of Christie’s Mary Westmacott novels. (She had grown tired of the character within a decade of writing him, and hastily dispatched him to South America, so it’s no surprise that the author tried a different tack when she brought him back.) Not only does he get to be eyes and ears for the incapacitated Poirot, but deals with his own family issues. The chilly relationship Hastings shares with Judith is never fully explained (and his love for his late wife rings clear throughout) but it seems that grief, generational differences, and simple geographical separation are in large part to blame. In some ways, it’s an interesting lacuna for the series to provide us in the last 90 minutes of its run, but is ultimately necessary to justify the darker turn Hastings takes… at least for a moment.
On first release, some reviews of the novel discussed how contrived the scenario was, and I certainly agree. The complexities of the murderer are like a jigsaw puzzle already, but the other deaths that occur are notable as much for their inventiveness as for their, dare I say overly clever approach. However, it must be admitted that the pieces fit together damn near perfectly, explaining little aspects such as why Poirot is compelled to lie at a trial, and why the duplicitous characters act so bizarrely throughout, and getting them just right. (Perhaps Claire Keelan‘s Nurse Craven could have merited one further scene to explain her character, as she fits into so many places in the solution to the point where she almost seems like a catch-all plot solver!) And Macdonald’s direction creates a group of people who feel like a real group. This isn’t just a body of people who happen to be in the one location and occasionally interact (as lesser scripts have shown) but a jumble of people with inter-relationships, who can interact with one another as we would in a similar situation in the real world. The fireworks scene that culminates in death is the strongest example of such, with them all doing crossword puzzles and exchanging bon mots. And the circa-WWII setting contributes greatly to this, adding layers to characters such as Matthew McNulty‘s resident lothario, Major Allerton, that may not otherwise have existed in the rococo world of the early series.
But, of course, Curtain is very much about Poirot. From the first moment they lay eyes on one another, Suchet and Hugh Fraser have a great deal to tell us. The meeting is so layered with kindness and sorrow (just look into Fraser’s eyes!) and the way these two men range from warmth to outright frustration fits perfectly. The arguments Poirot and Hastings share sting as well they should, really conveying the sense of two people who have known one another for decades. It’s lovely to see George again late in the piece, although something I’ve always found annoying is that Hastings remains completely oblivious until he receives Poirot’s final letter. That is, not to say that I expect him to suddenly become a genius detective, but it would’ve been nice for Hastings to get at least one deduction right in the final innings!
For the last few years, critics and fans have sometimes expressed concern over the overtly Catholic approach the lead character has taken. Certainly, the emphasis on Poirot’s religious morality has been a surprising element, and there’s no denying this has been strongly influenced by Suchet’s own faith. While an avowed atheist like myself can certainly empathise with those critics, I feel the series would have been worse off without it. On paper, if we’re being honest, novels like Murder on the Orient Express can be glorified games of Cluedo, in which murder is a confection, something to be created in the most baroque manner possible and then forgotten about once the villain is out of the way. I have been rewatching the first two series of late, and have been thoroughly impressed of the sincerity that Suchet imbued even when he was playing the character as a recent immigrant of considerable quirkiness. Simply put, the moral man who would pursue justice in Sad Cypress or Five Little Pigs or Taken at the Flood takes a very different approach to the waddling Belgian who steps into murders as if they were children’s games, sorts them out by finding the incorrect piece of the puzzle, and then lets the rest of the world keep revolving (as in Murder in Mesopotamia, Cards on the Table, etc.). Even less so can he be rationalised with the defining endings of both Orient Express and Curtain. Regardless of the behind-the-scenes justification for exploring Poirot’s spirituality, I find it perfectly acceptable that the series would endeavour to explain what would drive a man to do those things, beyond just some kind of freakish desire for order and justice. Poirot is not the lead character in a CSI spin-off. And, thankfully, the religious aspect is subtly played here, being reserved merely for the character’s moments of greatest desperation.
Suchet does damn good work here, despite being confined to a bed or a chair for most of the film’s running time. He’s heartbreaking in his meekness, unsettling as he panics over God’s forgiveness, and yet strong and defiant in his final confrontation with the killer. It’s perhaps a shame that – in both the book and the film – much of Poirot’s deduction has occurred before the film begins, since it deprives us of the chance to really see him using those little grey cells (although the 25-minute denouement gives us a bit of this). Still, we now have 70 episodes in which to experience the delights of this character and his fantastic world. It’s been an intriguing ride, full of strange detours, but one that I hope rewards viewers for some time to come (and, of course, leads them back to the source material). Whatever lies ahead for the world of Agatha Christie adaptations, I’m very thankful to have experienced this journey with Mr. Suchet and all of his talented collaborators on both sides of the camera.
Miscellaneous thoughts (spoilers!):
- Poirot does not wear a wig in the later years of the show, as he does in the later books, but this is probably for the best, as I have a feeling the audience would see through the “there were no other short men in the house” gambit the book goes in for. Still, even though I’m very familiar with him as an actor elsewhere, it was still quite odd to see David Suchet play Poirot without a moustache, however briefly.
- That final confrontation really is fabulous, isn’t it? The way that Suchet and McArdle exchange power (as theatrical terms would have it) and the way each character is trying to retain their mystique yet being genuinely surprised by what the other brings out of their bag of tricks. My favourite moment is after Norton reveals his mummy’s-boy act was a fake; I got the impression he realised that Poirot had also known it was a game, but I’m not quite sure.
- And, particularly impressive, it’s a neat touch that Norton’s stutter is real and not feigned. You’d expect the killer to drop it at episode’s end.
- Poirot having a duplicate key is a simple answer (explained further in the book) but, you know, sometimes a key is just a key.