The reign of David Suchet as the quirky yet brilliant detective Hercule Poirot continues in this latest series of movie adaptations of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novels. He has played this role for over twenty years, and few would argue that there is a modern actor who knows Poirot better than Suchet. However, as any fan will tell you, the screenwriters, directors, and producers of the television series have a significant influence on how the character is portrayed, and there is only so much one actor can do.
The Movie Collection, Set 5 contains three new productions, as well as a few special features, which are a rare treat, as most of the Agatha Christie TV/movie sets contain very little beyond the original content.
Murder on the Orient Express (screenplay by Stewart Harcourt, directed by Philip Martin)
The story begins with several poignant scenes showing an older, more solitary, and more rigid Poirot. He is famous and is respected by many people, but he travels alone and does not appear to even desire the company of others as he contemplates his Catholic faith and drive to seek out the truth.
On his way home to London from Istanbul on the Orient Express, he encounters an unpleasant American businessman who tries to hire him to protect him against some unknown danger, but Poirot refuses. Later, the man is found stabbed to death in his compartment, and everyone is a suspect. The train is stuck for several days in the snowy Serbian mountains, leaving Poirot just enough time to suss out the truth. As this is one of Christie’s most famous stories, I won’t go into too much detail about who or how.
What is different about this adaptation of the story is that the emphasis is not placed on the mystery of who and how, but rather on the morality of the story, with Poirot’s Catholicism playing a much larger role in his ethics and logic than I ever recall reading in the many stories Christie wrote. He seems strangely focused on legal systems as a form of justice, rather than looking at the whole picture to see where justice is occasionally being served outside of the law.
While I appreciate what the creators of this adaptation were attempting to do, the execution was a bit lacking. The pacing is very slow and plodding, with too many dramatic close-ups of furrowed brows.
Third Girl (screenplay by Peter Flannery, directed by Dan Reed)
This is an adaptation of one of Christie’s more convoluted and red herring filled novels, and features both Poirot and Ariadne Oliver (Zoë Wanamaker), a mystery author Christie wrote as a parody of herself. As I sat down to watch this, my only hope was that it would be easier to follow than the original text. Thankfully, it is.
While retaining the motives of the killer and the accomplice, several of the other characters are altered slightly or merged together to simplify the cast and the subplots. This was done gracefully and logically, and as a result, I found it much easier to follow the action. Unfortunately, I cannot say much more about it without giving away too much.
One significant change involved shifting the story from the original 1960s setting to the 1930s. Poirot seems younger than he appeared in Murder on the Orient Express, and less sternly rigid. Having a slightly bumbling co-sleuth in the form of Mrs. Oliver certainly helped with that, but also the whole thing seemed to reflect the mood of the episodic series in the 1990s when Suchet was joined by Hugh Frasier, Phillip Jackson, and Pauline Moran in their roles of Captain Hastings, Chief Inspector Japp, and Miss Lemon. From the art deco setting of Poirot’s apartment to the hints of the old theme music in the opening, I had the distinct impression that the creative directors of this production were interested in modernizing the cinematography and story without loosing the essence of what makes this series shine.
Appointment With Death (screenplay by Guy Andrews, directed by Ashley Pearce)
I disliked this story when I first read it, mostly because I dislike people like Mrs. Boynton, who derive such pleasure from emotionally tormenting others. There are few things that push my rage buttons more than people like her, so I was not particularly looking forward to this adaptation. The one thing that prompted me to finally watch it, aside from being an Agatha Christie junkie, is the addition of the character Mr. Boynton, played by none other than Tim Curry.
John Hannah, who previously appeared as Inspector Campbell in the 2004 production of What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw (a.k.a. 4:50 to Paddington), plays the light-hearted and unflappable Dr. Gerard, who, along with Poirot and several other interested folk join Mr. Boynton’s archaeological dig in Syria for the head of John the Baptist. Boynton’s family are also there, and we quickly see how utterly dysfunctional they are, and how utterly oblivious he is.
Mrs. Boyton’s children fear and hate her, and while they are adults and she is no longer able to exact physical abuse upon them, she still abuses them emotionally. Her stepson dislikes her, particularly for the way she ignores his existence and takes his father away from him. And, as we discover, just about anyone who knows her has reason to kill her, which complicates Poirot’s investigation when she is discovered to have been murdered in broad daylight in full sight of just about everyone at the archaeological dig.
The story has been altered significantly from the original, along with several of the characters and motivations. However, in typical Christie fashion, evil deeds are revenged with everyone getting their due, and at no point is Poirot faced with the decision of whether or not to accept the hand of God outside of the law, unlike the situation on the Orient Express. In that, this stays true to the original story.
One of my favorite aspects of Poirot that Suchet plays brilliantly is the tender and protective way he behaves towards young women in distress. “Papa Poirot” makes an appearance several times in Appointment With Death and in Third Girl, but is notably absent in Murder on the Orient Express, which I think is another reason why I did not enjoy it as much. There were many opportunities for “Papa Poirot” to appear, and yet he did not.
The pacing, acting, and sensitive adaptations of Appointment With Death and Third Girl go a long way towards making up for the flaws of Murder on the Orient Express, but that one is keenly disappointing given the significance and acclaim of the original text. I hope that Suchet is provided another opportunity to bring Poirot to life in that story, but I fear that I will have to wait for the next Poirot and the next adaptation for the potential of something better.
Bonus Feature: David Suchet on the Orient Express
As one might assume from the title, this is a documentary of a trip taken by Suchet on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express from Calais to Venice to Prague. He shares bits of historical information about the restored cars on the train, the history of the train route, and the events related to the train that may have inspired Christie to write Murder on the Orient Express. I enjoyed watching Suchet enjoy himself so much on that trip, and reveled in the bits where he talked about Poirot and his own fascination with the background of the story he was about to bring to life on the small screen.
Despite my quibbles, it really comes down to the fact that ITV continues to produce high-quality films adapted from Christies books, and that Suchet continues to portray the quirky Belgian sleuth. For those things, I am thankful and eagerly await the next installment of Poirot stories.