Review: “Agatha Christie’s Poirot”  – series 9 (2003 – 2004)

with David Suchet (Hercule Poirot)

written by Kevan Elyot, David Pirie and Nick Dear

Series Seven and Eight of Agatha Christie’s Poirot had done their job of reuniting the core cast of the earlier years while also proving that the series – and adaptations of Christie’s works – could still be relevant in an era where less period drama was being made. In 2003, with his supporting cast no longer required, David Suchet – now associate producer – continued his long-running portrayal with these four movies. And I have to say, I think it’s an unqualified success.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

The Hollow and Sad Cypress are very strong adaptations of their respective books, with the expected powerful cast and lovely visuals. The usual strong period detail shines here, with the increased quality of the film, and – assumedly – more money per episode. From here on out, even the worst of the adaptations will look and feel exquisite.

Death on the Nile is the weakest of the four, but I blame that primarily on the novel. Despite a very strong cast – Emily Blunt, James Fox, Frances de la Tour, Judy Parfitt and so on – there are just too many characters. The Ustinov film deleted a few of the extraneous ones, but here, everyone’s on board. As I said in my review of the novel, Death on the Nile fails for exactly the opposite reason that Murder on the Orient Express succeeds: in the train novel, all the characters avoid each other, so we wonder which of them might be connected. Here, none of the supporting cast really are connected, but they’re all prying into each other’s lives, and all living their own stories. Unfortunately, with the tightly packed running time, the combined effect of everyone’s dramatic interplay just feels like overkill. It’s not a failure – as usual, it looks stunning, and the mystery remains intriguing – but Death on the Nile just didn’t make much of an impression on me. (Preparing for the premiere of Murder on the Orient Express six years later, the writers stated that the biggest trouble was adpating the ‘huge’ Poirot novels; how do you do a new adaptation without it being compared to the old, and possibly seeming lesser just because it’s not done with Hollywood’s grandeur?)

The runaway success, however, and one of the highlights of the entire Suchet cycle, is Five Little Pigs. A difficult book to adapt – with its conflicting stories of a long-forgotten murder – it was a bold choice to open the ninth series. The cast are impeccable, with particular note of Julie Cox as the ice-cold Elsa, and Gemma Jones, who stands out in the underwritten part of Miss Williams. It’s languid, but never dull, as Poirot dutifully questions the five suspects in a murder for which an innocent woman has already died. The production is simply beautiful, with a palate of autumnal colours that brings to life the differences between past and present, utilising haunting music and powerhouse performances for an emotionally charged film. If there’s a weakness, it’s only that Miss Williams is underwritten, making it seem more like Four and a Half Little Pigs (and perhaps with Jones’ strong performance, the writers felt this was acceptable).

This year, the series also introduces three elements which will become prominent throughout the series, and which – separately – some fans take issue with. First, there’s the darkness. Yes, we open with a woman being hanged, but I’ve never understood anyone’s opposition to this colder look at death. No one could deny that the book itself is quite bleak, and – beyond this – I would argue this is necessary. We’re dealing with a murder that happened years ago, and which could easily become a nostalgia case, like Sleeping Murder (the weakest of the Joan Hickson Marple adaptations). Caroline Crale’s execution significantly ups the emotional ante, allowing us to understand just how painful these last years have been.  The absence of Lemon, Japp and Hastings – in keeping with the books that are now being adapted – certainly ties in to the fact that Series Nine is the show’s darkest to date. Five Little Pigs and Sad Cypress, particularly, have a tone in keeping with the books they cover. Still, it’s perhaps not surprising that an element of humour returns infrequently from Series Ten. Agatha Christie’s Marple (which premiered in between Poirot‘s ninth and tenth series) took a slightly more lighter-hearted approach, probably more in keeping for a period show in the 2000s trying to reach a wide audience, the younger of whom may only know Poirot and Marple by name.

The Crale family in "Five Little Pigs"

The second factor is that elephant in the room: homosexuality. There are homosexuals in Agatha Christie’s novels; in fact, Miss Marple’s two best – A Murder is Announced and The Moving Finger – feature a lesbian couple and a gay man respectively. But, as with any major changes to character motivation, the incorporation of homosexuality into Christie’s film adaptations has been the cause of much debate in the last decade. The objections tend to be based in three reasonable areas: 1) changing the identity of the murderer in Christie is never a good idea; 2) too many surprise gay subplots and you become as unlikely as the equivalent problem over on Doctor Who; and 3) the anachronism issue. Period works of the 2000s – the new Pride and Prejudice comes to mind – seem to sacrifice authenticity for visuals, resulting in near-shirtless Mr. Darcy, as if he’s just wandered off the set of a music video. Truthfully, it strikes me as a great challenge of adapting novels like Christie: many of her secondary suspects often lack dimensions, as they don’t require them on the page. However, the screenwriter must create these levels to please both viewer and actor. Homosexuality is no different, in this respect, to unrequited love, social climbing or hiding Jewish girls in the attic, as a means of evolving the character. I’ll probably have better-formed opinions on the issue when we review Agatha Christie’s Marple, but – again – it works so well in Five Little Pigs because it plays against all the aforementioned problems. There is at least one – possibly two, but that’s open to interpretation – gay character among the suspects and the situation is so skillfully underplayed. The issue of unrequited love, and the feelings of being an outcast in such a time period, add immense weight to the character while never appearing anachronistically upfront about it, and without affecting the emotional or literal denouement.

Finally, an issue that has been mentioned less in the media is Poirot’s growing faith. Well, okay, we have no idea how religious he was in the early series, but these episodes plant the seeds that will blossom in Series Eleven and Twelve, as Poirot becomes sterner toward murderers, and as his Catholicism becomes much harsher. This is no doubt influenced by Suchet’s increased control over the series, as he himself is quite religious. At first, being the staunch atheist that I am, I was put off by this element – which we’ll discuss in greater detail down the track – but I actually think it’s one of the most fascinating aspects of Poirot as a character. Seeing so much of the downside of humanity, it is only natural that his beliefs would come to the fore, and it allows for some great depth of character for this middle-era Poirot, the man who – on some level – wishes he could retire, but who knows how much he is needed. While it can’t be denied that the 1930s looks of the series is sublime, I only wish that the series’ timeframe could have realistically aged with Suchet, so that the full weight of this character evolution could be felt.

Next time: Suchet tackles some of Poirot’s best and worst novels, and is joined by a whole new group of friends, when we hit series ten and eleven.