Who are the big four?

Who are the big four?

Well, mes amis, we are getting ever closer to the end of David Suchet’s glorious run as Hercule Poirot. Here, we delve into one of this year’s more unusual entries: The Big Four.

“You attract mayhem. Always have done.”

— Assistant Commissioner James Japp, to Poirot

Agatha Christie’s Poirot

13.02 “The Big Four”

written by Mark Gatiss

directed by Peter Lydon

In my review of the book, I wrote “It’s not very good… but it’s great fun”. It’s an action-adventure novel, like something from a B-movie serial, as Poirot and a temporarily-back-in-England Hastings hunt out four uber-criminals hellbent on world domination. This aspect, combined with the return of the three ’90s main cast members, means that The Big Four – despite being the least familiar of all the books adapted this year – has probably been the most publicised. So, how does the adaptation live up? Quite well, I think, but very differently (for obvious reasons). There’s no secret mountain lair, no mysterious brother of Poirot, and a healthily sceptical approach to the whole notion of a “big four”. The series hasn’t always been faithful to Christie’s works in the past, but this is surely the first time the bulk of a novel has been jettisoned in favour of a revisionist approach.

Poirot and JappMark Gatiss‘ script is set in the dying days of the 1930s, with the prospect of war looming ever further. I’ve expressed my disappointment that the series hasn’t migrated to the ’40s or even ’50s for these final installments, but here this decision makes sense. England – like much of the world – is poised on the brink of an international crisis, and when a young conspiracy theorist and journalist, Lawrence Tysoe (Tom Brooke), his suspicions are treated with caution, sure, but also with a very real fear. Peter Lydon‘s direction creates a very realistic world within the first 10 minutes, as Poirot journeys to a meeting of the new Peace Party, where he runs into his old friend Japp, now Assistant Police Commissioner. It’s wonderful to have Philip Jackson‘s presence back in the series: he always perfectly conveyed the “everyman”, balancing the seriousness of his job with a comic sensibility, yet still being smart enough to recognise Poirot’s worth. (Indeed, it was only at the halfway mark that it really hit me we haven’t seen Japp since 2001 – he fits in so effortlessly to the film’s world!) I have my issues with Gatiss as a writer (see below) but he’s a very talented craftsman, and the party scene smartly introduces us to the main participants of the action, among them a Russian grand master (Michael Culkin) who dies inexplicably during the midst of a chess match with American financier and would-be politician Abe Ryland (James Carroll Jordan).

What makes The Big Four an enjoyable film, at least for the first two-thirds of its running time, is a series of crimes and scenes which are all clearly connected, but where the exact connection remains intangible. First, there’s murder by chess bishop.  Then, an elderly Sinophile (Peter Symonds) and biographer of the Peace Party’s semi-deity, Li Chang Yen, is found dead. A filthy man in a rented suit attempts to contact Tysoe and is himself stabbed. Then, one of the Peace Party’s functionaries (Steven Pacey) is grotesquely murdered in his own bed. Each murder has a seemingly obvious motive and killer, yet nothing quite adds up. Perhaps most intriguingly, we periodically check in on a down-on-her-luck actress, played with panache by Sarah Parish (that most Gatiss-ian of actors), who has been receiving mysterious Valentines during a run of Romeo and Juliet. What on Earth does it all mean?

There’s a lot to recommend in this film, although much of it is atypical to the series. Lydon’s direction is stellar throughout. The chess game is particularly intriguing, as is the uncomfortable family atmosphere at the Paynter household. Some of the deaths – particularly the drugged death-by-fire death of Paynter – are positively brutal. This is something we don’t see every day on Poirot, and it’s all the more affecting because of it. And the climax in an abandoned theatre is utterly gorgeous. The cast are uniformly impressive, with particular marks to Patricia Hodge as a French medical researcher, Nicholas Burns as a cocky young beat cop, and Jack Farthing as Gerald Paynter, although he seems to be specialising in this kind of young toff character after Blandings. Small roles are also very well filled, with Nicholas Day as a member of British intelligence, Lou Broadbent as a young ingenue in Flossie’s cast, and Barbara Kirby as housekeeper Betsy Andrews – perhaps the only typical Christie character in the whole film!

At the same time, my recurring issues with Gatiss as a scriptwriter emerge here. He’s probably best known for his work on Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes, and both times has shown himself adept at pastiche. His scripts always feature lively characters and intriguing situations, but at the same time I’ve always felt as if Gatiss takes much of his inspiration from the source text, to the point where his characters rarely have lives beyond whatever text they’ve emerged from. (His previous two credits for Poirot are the other spy drama about ludicrous interconnections – Cat Among the Pigeons – and the fittingly grim but garish Halloween Party, which I very much enjoyed.) This is not in itself a problem – after all, that’s how most of the Christie adaptations of the early ’80s got by – but it does lend itself to characters merely appearing for their scenes as well-played plot functionaries. Unlike the best of writers for this series, I rarely feel connected to Gatiss’ characters on anything but a surface level. Perhaps that’s why only two actors stand out, one of them being Parish, whose performance is mannered almost to the point of absurdity, but somewhat justified by her character’s constant desire to keep up a facade.

Tom Brooke as Lawrence Tysoe

Tom Brooke as Lawrence Tysoe

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the film’s ending. Simon Lowe gives a dynamite performance in the revelation scene, and it’s an example of a plot twist that seems ludicrous on face value being given some merit by a probing character analysis. No wonder the film gives Poirot a solid 15 minutes to explain the plot. The fact that the Big Four themselves are ultimately a laughable storybook idea is a loaded concept for the series. Gatiss is on record as regarding the book as a mess and he’s not wrong, so I suppose it was for the best that the series completely ignore its approach to world politics. Indeed, the explanation of how the crimes were committed is a good one, and Poirot explaining the sickening, tortured history of “the disappearing man” ultimately sells me on the conceit. It remains a bit silly, don’t get me wrong, but the concept of everything as mere theatre that got completely out of hand is an enjoyable tack for the script to take. I don’t think any of us expected The Big Four to be a highlight of the series, so I guess I would rather see a well-made film that attempts to salvage something rather than an escapist political B-movie just to be loyal to Christie’s text. (But, even more than usual, I’d love to hear dissenting opinions.)

And finally, of course, there’s the most heavily-publicised aspect of the film: the return of Hercule Poirot’s entourage. Alongside Japp and David Yelland‘s George, we are at last reunited with Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon, who have spent the last decade living their own lives. Whereas Jackson has remained working very steadily in film and television, Hugh Fraser is semi-retired and Pauline Moran has been focusing on non-television related passions, so it really was a neat surprise to see their aged-but-graceful faces after all these years. In the novel The Big Four, Hastings functions as the sidekick, but it makes far more sense for Japp to do so here, and allows Jackson a wonderful swan song, since we’ll be seeing Fraser again in Curtain in a few weeks’ time. After the exciting flash-forward, we don’t get to see the group together until the final reels, but it’s well worth it. Hastings’ passionate determination to follow in the seemingly-deceased Poirot’s footsteps is brilliant, and it made me wish we could’ve seen a whole episode of this gang using the skills Poirot taught them. I guess we’ll just have to imagine it. The omission of the characters from recent years is completely in keeping with the novels, and it’s certainly very good to see the old gang back together very briefly. At the same time, I hope it will remind people to return to the origins of the series, and enjoy the entire story over again.

Well, it’s now been announced that the remaining three Poirot films will air over the next three weeks. I can’t wait to journey again with Poirot, Hastings, George, and Mrs. Oliver into three final mysteries (two of which have never before been adapted for the screen). I hope to see you then.

Further observations:

    • I couldn’t help wondering, where did Poirot get those cut-out set-design figures of the Big Four? Does George have a side-job as a model maker?
    • What a lovely directorial touch to have a tear rolling down the silent, drugged face of Mme. Olivier.
    • It’s a shame to omit the character of Countess Vera Rossakoff – who previously appeared in the third season’s The Double Clue played by Kika Markham – but we’ll see her again in the character’s third and final book appearance, The Labours of Hercules. She’ll be played by a different actress, and it sounds like the approach is going to be very different.
    • On the other hand, while I was excited for Achilles Poirot, I think it’s probably for the best not to do so.
    • What with my talk above of characters sometimes being merely cardboard functionaries, I’m a little concerned for what they’re planning to do with adapting the twelve Labours of Hercules into one 90-minute film.
    • The master-servant relationship of early 20th century Britain was just bizarre, wasn’t it?
    • I think Gatiss missed a trick in not giving us a comic ending, in which it was revealed Hastings had been off pursuing Poirot’s killers around the world. Or were we supposed to assume he finally figured it out?
    • She didn’t get much to do, but Pauline Moran’s “we thought you were dead, you bastard” face is priceless.
Miss Lemon: not currently impressed

Miss Lemon: not currently impressed