And so, more than twenty years after he began in the role, David Suchet returns for four more Poirot films: Three Act Tragedy, The Clocks, Hallowe’en Party and Murder on the Orient Express. Below, I’ll look at each of them in detail, as well as considering the dramatic evolution of the series. Tomorrow, I’ll mull through some hopes and prayers for the program’s final series, which is currently in the midst of negotiation. (Update: as of January 2012, the series has been renewed.)

(For previous posts, see: series 1 – 6, series 7 – 8, series 9, series 10 – 11).

Review: “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” – series 12 (2009 – 10)

with David Suchet (Hercule Poirot), Zoë Wanamaker (Ariadne Oliver), David Yelland (George) 

written by Stewart Harcourt, Mark Gatiss & Nick Dear

Three Act Tragedy is not my favourite Poirot book, not by a long shot, but it hangs on a clever contrivance which allows for some genuinely confusing (and contradictory) clues, and a great opportunity for a supporting role in Poirot’s companion figure, the actor Sir Charles Cartwright (played by Tony Curtis in the Ustinov movie, played here by Martin Shaw). This adaptation – like Ustinov’s – plays things very similar to the novel, meaning that the pair of films are an interesting case study, and meaning that – while it’s not the greatest installment in the series – Three Act Tragedy uses Christie’s own construction, as Poirot becomes increasingly baffled by a series of murders taking place at separate dinner parties, with scattered suspects, but with no one who could be the killer in all occasions.

It’s lovely to see the series addressing Poirot’s ‘change of life’: his arrogance has gone from mere pomposity in the early years to genuine self-reverence, while he is very much retired now, falling into crimes only accidentally. This 20-something year span has been a godsend for the series, as we’re truly able to chart the rise and rise of Hercule Poirot. As we’ll see in the following installments, this can lead to some particularly bleak moments for our detective, but here he’s staying on the arrogant (and opulent) side of things.

Tom Wisdom as Oliver Manders in "Three Act Tragedy"

Three Act Tragedy looks utterly gorgeous from start to finish, with the female cast members standing out particularly – Jane Asher, Kate Ashfield, Anna Carteret and Kimberley Nixon as ‘Egg’ Lytton-Gore, who becomes something of our surrogate as the film progresses. Shaw puts in a charismatic turn as Sir Charles, very much akin to the book’s portrayal, but it’s interesting to compare him to Tony Curtis’ take on the character, who is a far more showy actor. Tom Wisdom either isn’t particularly impressive or just doesn’t have much to work with, but my word is he pretty. Thankfully, most of the character exposition is carried out very early on, meaning we can spend plenty of time on the murders and subsequent examination. (Even if this ends up being another one of those stories in which 90% of information is a red herring. You can tell because – due to their ‘puzzle’ nature – they’re always the ones Ustinov adapted.)

Inspired by the theatrical structure and themes, Three Act Tragedy gets a lot of mileage out of lavish stages, free-flowing camera movement, and some very well-blocked group scenes. However, dare I say it’s all a little overdirected? The whole ‘dramatis personae’ opening sequence fits the theme, sure, and I guess it makes for an entertaining film, but I just found things to get more garish after that, particular when – during the denouement – we’re shown pictures of props and clues like at an auction house. I get the conceit; to an extent, I even admire it. I just don’t think it works. But, let it never be said that I don’t praise boldness: better to try and fail than give in to meek mimicry (as we learnt with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or for that matter the Ustinov TV films.)

The film’s ending is suitably surprising, and well sold by all involved. I do think that the denouement is a little extravagant, even for Poirot, with him literally appearing from behind the curtains onstage. And the final joke – the same, incidentally, as in the Ustinov film – is one moment where I accept the critics of this series who scorn it for being bleak. Poirot’s “it could have been me” is played deadpan here, with mournful closing music following. It’s one of those times I think the series could have lightened up just a little bit, no?

(Incidentally, in a lovely bit of loyalty to the book – and, by coincidence, the Ustinov film – Poirot creates a house of cards while he ponders the crime. Only, because he had to go to the train station to buy some, he ends up with a pack of Happy Families instead of your typical deck. Here, at least, he doesn’t recognise them, as opposed to Ustinov’s Poirot who was, it seems, a very big Happy Families fanboy.)

Of course, sometimes it’s clear that I’m a hypocrite. While I wasn’t sold on the overt theatrical nature of Three Act Tragedy, I’m a sucker for all the little touches that create the ambience of Hallowe’en Party, in which Mrs. Oliver calls Poirot in after a young girl is drowned in the apple-bobbing tub at said party. It’s a surprisingly sadistic death for Dame Agatha, and the film wrings every last drop of horror and sympathy out of the situation, to great effect. The party is sheathed in reds and golds, showcasing the true horror of the children’s games, and the fact that the spectre of death lurks behind this seemingly benign holiday. The divine Zoë Wanamaker is back as Ariadne Oliver, renowned – if slightly pulpy – mystery novelist, although she’s somewhat sidelined for a large part of the proceedings due to a cold. While Wanamaker is very good at acting like she has the flu, I suspect the impetus for this was Wanamaker’s famed limited availability – damn this series for hiring actors in hot demand! Don’t get me wrong, the character is well used, and Wanamaker commands the screen even when prone. But you can certainly tell that a large bulk of her scenes were able to be filmed separately, to ensure her availability.

David Yelland as George in "Agatha Christie's Poirot"

While Superintendent Spence does not return, I can’t say I’m surprised, since his part in the novel was limited and, truthfully, we don’t need another investigator, what with Poirot, Mrs. Oliver and the police on the case. It’s actually a bit odd to see Poirot so at odds with the police, who here are not interested in his ‘psychological whatnots’: I daresay it’s also a bit of a shock to him, after years of commanding Japp or whichever local constabulary he stumbles across. Still, this isn’t Marple, and so Poirot manages to bend the law to his will relatively easily regardless. On the subject of returning characters, David Yelland pops up again as Poirot’s faithful valet George, which is a nice piece of continuity. He doesn’t get a lot to do (then again, he doesn’t get much to do in the books), but Yelland has exactly the right, knowing smile, and a calm demeanour that perfectly suits our aging detective. As I’ll discuss tomorrow, I hope he returns to the fold along with the rest of the cast for the fabled thirteenth and final series.

Clearly, everyone involved in Hallowe’en Party had a lot of fun, from the actors to the writer, Mark Gatiss, and the feeling is palpable. Fenella Wolgar is wonderfully subtle as Elizabeth Whittaker, whose big secret may have a few tongues wagging but is, in fact, very touching. Timothy West puts in a good show as the vicar, Paola Dionisotti is wonderful as the crone who claims to know everything about the town, and there are equally solid turns from Phyllida Law (in a cameo), Georgia King, Amelia Bullmore and young Mary Higgins, who takes a challenging role at quite a young age and runs with it. Julian Rhind-Tutt – last seen by me in a much more mannered performance in Marple‘s Ordeal by Innocence – gets to be far more relaxed and open here as the mysterious drifter, and works very well.

Top marks, though, must go to Deborah Findlay – an old pro on the period drama circuit – as the ‘one-woman force of nature’ Rowena Drake. Not only does she prove a worthy adversary for Mrs. Oliver (few people can say that!) but she becomes something of a tragic figure as time goes on. And, of course, I would be remiss to omit David Suchet from my praises: he’s simply exquisite here, having tailored his performance as Poirot down to the tiniest detail. By turns hilarious, heartbreaking, remorseful and warm, I think it’s fair to say that Suchet has created one of the most fully-realised, genuine human beings ever seen on television…. and all that from a portly Belgian man with a liking for his eggs to be the same size, and a fondness for creme de cassis!

The solution to Hallowe’en Party is, perhaps, a little on the soapy side, but it’s nice that – for once – the murderers’ identity seems somewhat natural, without seeming like a letdown. The monstrosity of the crimes is made evident, but at the same time there is a sincere, logical reason behind the actions which makes things both creepier and also more true to life. A lovely little gothic murder mystery, and yet another episode I’ll cherish for many years to come. (The nicest thing I like about being “one of those young people” is how I can accumulate those works that I hope to be able to revisit every now and then over the decades. Or maybe I’m just foreshadowing my own life as a crazy cat person?)

Third on our list (but first in most people’s hearts) is the inevitable: Murder on the Orient Express. The producers had talked at length about how they left this one until late in the proceedings – what would be the point, after all, of trying to mimic the landmark Albert Finney film? With a novel so perfectly structured and a very faithful, all-star film in existence, it would be fighting a losing battle to recreate it. By leaving Orient Express until the series’ twelfth volume, they found a way to create their own niche with an accepted classic. And can I just say: what an achievement.

Toby Jones as Samuel Ratchett in "Murder on the Orient Express"

The film adds two opening scenes in which we gain a fascinating and mournful insight into Poirot’s psyche: the first, in which his revelation of a criminal’s identity leads to that man – a soldier – taking his own life in front of the stunned Belgian; the second, in which Poirot and a couple of his future fellow passengers witness a stoning in the streets of Istanbul. I’ve seen others cite these scenes as unnecessary or creating the wrong atmosphere, and I certainly understand that point of view: this is the bleakest Poirot has yet been, outdoing even Five Little Pigs (which at least had an autumnal beauty to its flashback scenes). Yet, for me, that’s part of what makes this film work as it does. The first scene allows us to drop any pretense of Poirot simply being a ‘white knight’, as he is asked to question his own intractable belief that the truth, and a narrow view of justice, is all that matters. The stoning sequence – which will be recalled by Mary Debenham in two scenes onboard the train – is the logical next threat to Poirot’s belief: why is it okay for one culture to barbarically kill someone for something that, in other cultures, amounts to hushed-up dinner table gossip? How does one qualify the rule of law in the cases of truly horrific acts? And – tying in both of these scenes – what is the point of justice if the perpetrator is already repentant, and if more lives will be destroyed in the process? These, after all, are the questions that Poirot will face on that long, long night in the film’s final scenes, and writer Stewart Harcourt (writer, incidentally, of some of the best Marple episodes) prepares him admirably.

Breaking away, for a moment, from such questions, let’s look at the fun stuff! We’re certainly a far cry from the 1970s film here. The hotel and the train look gorgeous, of course, but – deliberately – it’s a far more wintry landscape, with the snowdrift scenes truly seeming like the end of the world, which teems nicely with the idea that – should the Yugoslav police arrive to solve the case, instead of Poirot – the people on the train are in for a lot more trouble than just a few hours’ inconvenience.

As with any adaptation (and, indeed, the novel itself), the large cast of characters means some unequal screentime, and it’s easy to lose a few faces in the crowd (the Count and Countess, and Foscarelli, pop out of nowhere for their tiny scenes). But Orient Express is brimming with startling performances. Eileen Atkins has great fun tackling the grotesque Princess Dragomiroff; Marie-Josee Croze gives Ingrid Bergman a run for her money as Greta Ohlsson (well, okay, that’s a lie: they’re very different performances and takes on the character, but it works!); Hugh Bonneville proves why he’s so lovable as Masterman; and other standouts include Samuel West as Dr. Constantine, Brian J. Smith as McQueen and Serge Hazanavicius as Monsieur Bouc. Toby Jones – an actor who has only appeared on my radar recently – is both memorably vile and captivating as Samuel Ratchett, the paranoid millionaire whose actions set the plot in motion. It’s common with the ITV films that my favourite actor of the bunch is inevitably the one who gets killed, and that’s no surprise here! But Jones gives a powerful performance that allows Ratchett to be a fully-realised character even before we understand the extent of his past.

The gold medal this week must go to Jessica Chastain as Mary Debenham. Not only is she stunningly beautiful, but Chastain delivers a knock-out, understated, beautifully nuanced performance that she commands the screen even in large group scenes where she is up against all the names mentioned above, and more! I hope she goes far.

As the investigation pushes on – over the course of just the one day, I believe – we get a true sense of claustrophobia inside the train carriage. I believe in my review of the 1974 film, I remarked how that movie makes such great use of space in spite of such a small locale. While I still agree, I apologise for chiding this film, as director Philip Martin utilises the close confines of the Calais Coach to great effect too. The interviews are even briefer than the earlier film (and, of course, greatly truncated from the novel), which saddens me, but the performances are so good, and the writing so subtle, that we glean so much information from each conversation regardless. If there’s a flaw, it’s simply that so many of the clues are glossed over to the point of lunacy! Don’t get me wrong, I prefer subtlety – I’ve chided both Ustinov’s Dead Man’s Folly, and even Three Act Tragedy above as trumpeting every clue just so we know we’re in a MURDER MYSTERY – but a few of the elements, such as the grease spot on the passport, were almost incomprehensible to me, and I know the book by heart! I’ve watched this twice with newbies, and both of them occasionally had trouble following the proceedings, which is a bit of a shame. Yet they were both left reeling from the power of the film overall, so I won’t scold the writer and director too much, given they did have to deal with bringing 16 characters to life in a rather compressed period of time.

The cast of "Murder on the Orient Express": (from left) Barbara Hershey (Caroline Hubbard), Marie-Josée Croze (Greta Ohlsson), Denis Menochet (Pierre Michel), Samuel West (Dr. Constantine), Jessica Chastain (Mary Debenham), Hugh Bonneville (Edward Masterman), Susanne Lothar (Hildegarde Schmidt), David Morrissey (John Arbuthnot), David Suchet (Hercule Poirot), Joseph Mawle (Antonio Foscarelli), Eileen Atkins (Princess Dragomiroff), Brian J Smith (Hector MacQueen), Elena Satine (Countess Andrenyi), Serge Hazanavicus (Xavier Bouc) and Stanley Weber (Count Andrenyi)

What’s great about this adaptation is the way that everything feels more, for lack of a better word, gritty. Like the book itself, the first movie feels oh so perfect: this really would be the perfectly executed crime if it weren’t for Poirot’s arrival, and the killer(s) would have gone to their grave chuckling to themselves about the cleverness of it. Here, instead, things quickly spiral out of control. Poirot may be their “first piece of bad luck”, but the gradual deceptions that are put into place are not all brilliantly devised pieces of subterfuge, like those villains on 24 who somehow seem to have a Plan B for every situation, even when they couldn’t have known the actions the good guys would take! Instead, we’re given the impression of people who – although intelligent – had a plan that relied upon the train reaching its destination on time. Instead, with the entrance of a snowdrift and Poirot, the misdirections and cover-ups are thrown thick and fast, to the point where it’s clearly a harried attempt at escaping blame. The greatest element is that, even as the film embraces the formula (and this is, I’d argue, the most well-constructed of all Christie’s mysteries), it allows us to fight against it. Rather than a dozen suspects who all deny having any ill will, several of them freely tell Poirot how – if they’d know the details of Ratchett – they themselves would have killed him. Atkins’ graphic description of a traditional Russian execution is particularly chilling. (And how ballsy is it to have some of those group scenes in the carriage throughout the film: certain characters exchange coded phrases which we later realise are basically “what the fuck do we do now!?” discussions in full view of Bouc! Brilliant.)

(Okay, so that I don’t sound like a crazed fanboy, I’ll find a flaw: I think that the portrayal of Hildegarde Schmidt in both films is a bit overdone. While I appreciate the fact that she unravels easier than most, I think that her key bit of information is too obvious in both examples, and could really have been portrayed more subtly by the actors in question. Yay, negativity!)

Of course, the most pertinent element of this film is Poirot’s own journey. As I’ve spoken about before, the evolution of Poirot has been fascinating and largely consistent with the books if, sadly, liable to remove most traces of his early bonhomie (indeed there are only a couple of light moments here, and none from the Belgian himself). But I’m not complaining; we’ve traced Hercule Poirot from his days as a dapper former policeman and immigrant solving crimes even as he was ostracised from many of the social graces and habits of the culture around him, to the would-be retiree, constantly chagrined by his loving team but always there to help his many friends, to the slightly embittered, rueful, loveless old man we see here, relying ever more on his religion as a crutch, and – in his retirement – stumbling unwittingly on ever more murders, like Teiresias able to see the future and yet never able to convince anyone of how to change it. The world may have moved on from Poirot, but the fact that his actions haven’t changed anything is heartbreaking. That’s not to say that he doesn’t still get that sparkle in his eyes from time to time, but our Poirot is a man who needs to be placed in that deeply conflicted moral position, so he can make the choices he’ll have to make in series thirteen, should it materialise.

While the presence of ‘God’ in the lives of both Poirot and Marple can sometimes unsettle me, Poirot’s religious beliefs – particularly as portrayed in this episode – make complete sense with this character, and allow the finale to be both emotionally and structurally breathtaking. In spite of his own belief that the monstrosity of Ratchett’s actions doesn’t merit his brutal death, we find ourselves understanding the argument from the other side as well: why is it fair that Ratchett should go on living in luxury just because his connections had the money and power to subvert the course of justice? How can his victims go on living, haunted day after the day by the spectres of those lost at the hands of this repugnant man? (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the choice of location is in the ‘backside of Europe’, as Bouc says: a place not that far away from England or America, and yet where the idea of justice can be so radically different.) And, finally, what is to be achieved by putting away the killer, particularly if they are repentant, and if that act will simply create more woe on top of those many lives already lost? I’m so glad this film was kept until late in the series’ run, as we get to watch Poirot deal with his terrible decision, and Suchet plays it with aplomb. After that exquisite, bleak denouement scene, in which the passengers huddle in the freezing cold under dim lamplight while they discuss the truth about the murder, we get that final, sublime, nearly wordless scene as the passengers wait in the morning snow, and Poirot emerges from his cabin to hobble across the landscape – tears welling in his eyes and a rosary in his pocket – to announce his chosen identity of the killer. Murder on the Orient Express may not be as lush and invigorating as the original film but, to be honest… we already have the original film. A “conscience-lite” final decision would have been out of keeping with the depth of the character we’ve grown to love. I’ll take both of these disparate adaptations any day, as long as we can forget that Albert Molina version ever happened…

Jaime Winstone as Sheila Webb in "The Clocks"

It’s almost an anti-climax, after that lengthy essay, to talk about the final (to date) installment of Poirot: The Clocks. One of my all-time least favourite Poirot novels, I was not looking forward to this adaptation, but – by and large – this is really very strong. Secretary Sheila Webb (Jaime Winstone) is called to the home of blind Miss Pebmarsh (the recently deceased, and much missed, Anna Massey) for a job, only to find on arrival that Miss Pebmarsh is not home, but a body – and several clocks – await. Stumbling into the street, she meets Lt. Colin Race (Tom Burke), whose father – yes, that Colonel Race – is an old friend of Poirot, hence his arrival on the scene. (To my delight, Colin and Poirot meet up during the interval of an Ariadne Oliver mystery play which Poirot, of course, has already solved.)

The novel is one example where Poirot solves the crime without investigating any locations, or meeting with any suspects. This technique was demonstrated in a couple of early short story episodes of the series, so I’m glad they put the detective in the centre of the action, since things are much more dynamic as a result.In spite of all the espionage back-and-forth, the investigation at times feels very ‘Golden Age’ Christie – just that instead of a country home, we have a crescent full of neighbours who all know each other’s routines and the like. Jason Watkins and Tessa Peake-Jones give delightful performances as Mr. and Mrs. Bland (a name that sounds suspiciously fake to Poirot’s ears), while Geoffrey Palmer lands his gravitas to the role of a wearied Vice-Admiral, Ben Righton is gorgeous and earnest as Constable Jenkins, and Phil Daniels is disarmingly down-to-earth as Inspector Hardcastle, who is a clever amalgam of the police types Poirot usually deals with. Kind of like Inspector Japp before him, Hardcastle appreciates Poirot’s insights and is far from arrogant, but he knows the difference between official investigators and interlopers, and he’s determined to believe that his methods hold water. I’m consistently impressed with how the police characters are written on both this program and the equivalent Marple, as it’s an element that so many amateur/private detective shows screw up.  The strongest cast member is Lesley Sharp, known to me from her excellent turn in Doctor Who‘s “Midnight”, as the proprietor of the secretarial agency, she lends just the right amount of insecurity, nosiness and haughtiness.

Although some earlier adaptations – such as Taken at the Flood – suggested the series had moved into the ’40s, we’re squarely in pre-war territory here, with concerns of stolen blueprints and enemy agents. (Personally, I see no reason why the series has to be chronological: I’m happy to assume some of the earlier transmitted adventures take place after this one!) It’s very Sherlock Holmes (or, less impressively, very The Big Four) and unfortunately it does threaten to eclipse the character-based stories, but I think ultimately the story works. Because the murderer(s) wanted to over-complicate the crime, things feel less contrived than they so easily should have. To be honest, my first time through, I was really underwhelmed by The Clocks. But on my second viewing, I came to appreciate the structure much more. For instance, we’re given the obvious clue when Merlina Rival (Frances Barber) appears from nowhere to identify her husband’s body and casually informs us she’s an actress. We’re automatically suspicious, and assume she’s lying: obviously she is, but there are enough layers of subterfuge that, if anything, this in itself becomes a red herring. But the twists continue to subvert expectations: Poirot begins his denouement, answering some of his lingering questions, before getting sidetracked onto resolving the espionage business, while all the other issues mount to the climax. While things are a little bit soapy, The Clocks is reasonably faithful to its source material, looks great, and brings together a rather deflated book into a taut thriller. The closing scene, where Poirot finds some of his old sparkle, is just lovely, with the closing credits running to a variation on the show’s original theme tune, just to make me squee.

Geoffrey Palmer and David Suchet in "the Clocks"

At the end of the day, Poirot‘s twelfth season was a rip-roaring success, adapting the series’ format to four very different tales, with an astounding array of guest performances, some lovely business for Zoe Wanamaker, and further proof that David Suchet deserves his recent honours of Commander of the British Empire. There’s a great love of Christie’s work that pervades this series, and I hope to cherish it for years to come.

Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at the planned thirteenth season, discussing both what we can expect should contracts be finalised, and what we’d like to see.