Agatha Christie's Poirot starring David Suchet in in the title role has been a staple of British and American television since 1989. Unfortunately for those of us in the US, there is a bit of a delay in broadcasting the new episodes (TV movies, really) for the American audience. Thus, it was only last month that PBS's Masterpiece Mystery! aired "Mrs. McGinty's Dead" and "Cat Among the Pigeons," which were first shown in the UK last September. If you missed them, fear not: they are already available on DVD.
Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Movie Collection, Set 4, containing only two episodes/movies, is surprisingly a small package for something labeled as a collection. However, this is off-set by a rare treat: a bonus program entitled "Super Sleuths" that includes interviews with core Poirot cast members and others regarding the popularity of the character of Poirot. This extra feature certainly goes a long way towards compensating for not including the other two episodes that aired as a part of ITV's 11th season of Agatha Christie's Poirot last fall ("Third Girl" and "Appointment With Death").
The cast members, the producer, a director, and a writer for the series each shared new insight into how the show is produced and the behind-the-scenes decisions that are made in order to maintain the wishes of Christie's estate. I was interested to learn that while the estate approved the inclusion of secondary characters Captain Hastings, Miss Lemon, and Chief Inspector Japp when the series was drawing upon the short stories and novels that did not include Poirot or Miss Marple (or Tommy and Tuppence, for that matter), there was an agreement that the adaptations of the Poirot novels should be closer to the source material and not include the secondary characters if they were not in the book. Viewers who are only familiar with the television adaptations may be surprised to learn how infrequently those three appear in the books, considering that they were in nearly every episode for the first eight seasons (1989-2001).
The plot and storyline of "Mrs. McGinty's Dead" follows the original work very well, and the few minor changes serve to lessen the confusion of the viewer by having fewer characters to keep track of. The movie begins with a very nervous young man (James Bently, played by Joe Absolom) being sentenced to death for the murder of his landlady, a case that seemed to have been clear from the start. However, the investigating officer has doubts, and he asks Poirot to look into it.
Poirot goes to the town where Mrs. McGinty lived and was murdered to begin his investigations, and while there, he runs into an old acquaintance, Mrs. Ariadne Oliver (Zoë Wanamaker). Mrs. Oliver is a mystery writer and occasional amateur sleuth who, particularly with her Finnish protagonist Sven Hjerson, is often considered to be a caricature of Christie. However, it is commonly agreed that Mrs. Oliver is more of an exaggeration than an autobiographical inclusion. Mrs. Oliver provides some comedic relief, since more often than not her wild conclusions ("a woman's intuition!") are so far off the mark that they border on absurd. As these things go, the truth is eventually ferreted out by Poirot, who lays a trap for the murderer in his typical dénouement at the end.
Absolom's portrayal of the anti-hero James Bently is well done. The audience is never quite sure if he's a cold-blooded killer or simply a hapless victim who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It would be easy to go overboard one way or the other, but Absolom walks that fine line from start to finish.
My only complaint with this production is in regards to the soundtrack. Far too often the overly dramatic themes would pull me out of the story with their flashing neon lights that screamed, "SOMETHING IMPORTANT IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW! PAY ATTENTION!" The music wasn't awful or performed poorly, but it could have used more subtlety and grace.
As with "Mrs. McGinty's Dead," "Cat Among the Pigeons" follows the original work with a few exceptions that merge characters and adjusts the story so that Poirot is involved from the beginning rather than entering half-way through as he does in the book. The story begins with quiet, romanticized scenes of an old English school preparing for the start of classes, interspersed dramatically with scenes of a final, brutal clash in the fictional Middle Eastern country Ramat. How the two are related is made apparent eventually, but before then we are dropped into the opening of the school year at Meddowbrook, the finest girls school in England.
Poirot has been invited to speak to the students and their parents at the opening assembly, and he is then asked to stay for a week longer by Miss Bulstrode (Harriet Walter), the headmistress and founder. She is looking to retire soon and is struggling to decide which of the teachers she will ask to replace her. She hopes that Poirot, with his understanding of human psychology, will be able to assist her with that decision. He agrees to do so, and when one of the teachers is found dead in the gymnasium, killed by a javelin, he begins his own investigation in parallel with the police to determine why she was murdered and who murdered her. Eventually, the connection is made between the revolutionary uprising in Ramat and the events at Meddowbrook, and the murderer is exposed by Poirot and one of the parents in the dramatic dénouement.
As with the book, I found myself once again wishing for a different ending. The characters who are revealed to be the murderers (there are more than one) are sympathetic up to the point of the reveal, and it is shocking to realize that you have been fooled by them.
The young actors who portray the students at the school deserve some recognition. In particular, Georgia Cornick as Patricia Forbes conveyed more with her eyes and her body language than what one might expect from a young and inexperienced actor. And, Lois Edmett's portrayal of budding detective Julia Upjon was spot-on, as far as I am concerned.
While Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Movie Collection, Set 4 might not have as much content as one would hope for, what is included packs a powerful punch that will stand up to multiple viewings. Highly recommended for Christie fans and those who appreciate period detective films.