Hercule Poirot: Appointment with Death on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Poirot: Appointment with Death: David Suchet in Hercule Poirot © 2010 MASTERPIECEThree quarters into the new to Masterpiece Mystery presentation of Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death tonight, her detective Hercule Poirot proclaimed to the roundup of suspects “This case mon ami, is full of the red fish.” I couldn’t agree more. In this 2008 ITV/PBS liberal adaptation by screenwriter Guy Andrews there are red herrings leaping out of the plot like a politian’s rebuttal, but not of Christie’s making. In fact, very little of what you experience onscreen is from her 1937 novel. To disarm reproof there is after all, the discreetly placed caveat of “based on” Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death in the opening credits. Does this absolve all sins before they are committed?

(Queue blazing sun and Lawrence of Arabia music.) Eccentric English archaeologist Lord Greville Boynton (Tim Curry) has been trolling through the Middle East for years in search of the head of John the Baptist reputed to have been buried where the river meets the mountains 2,000 years ago. His domineering American wife (Cheryl Campbell) is graciously funding his expeditions from her lucrative stock market dealings, but that is where the joy ends. With her three henpecked adult children and faithful nanny (Angela Pleasence) to fetch and carry, they arrive in Syria where Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) is on holiday. Also joining the happy family reunion is Lord Boynton’s son Leonard (Mark Gatiss) who like everyone who has encountered Lady Boynton’s abrasive manners cannot see why his father adores her.

Observant Poirot is quick to notice the family dysfunctions generated by Lady Boynton’s tyrannical behavior: withdrawn and sullen son Raymond (Tom Riley), anxious and depressed elder daughter Carol (Emma Cunniffe) and troubled younger daughter Jinny (Zoe Boyle) all trying to survive under their mother’s dictatorial fist. Joining this “bonanza of crippled personalities” for the tour of the dig are American businessman Jefferson Cope (Christian McKay), doctor Sarah King (Christina Cole), Scottish psychiatrist Theodore Gerard (John Hannah) and Polish nun Sister Agnieszka (Beth Goddard).

As the group journeys by car into the desert they un-expectantly encounter travel writer Dame Celia Westholme (Elizabeth McGovern) appearing on camelback like Lawrence of Arabia. This ensemble of colorful characters will shortly all be suspects in a crime when Lady Boynton is found murdered roasting under the desert sun. Commissioned to find her killer by his old friend Colonel Carbury (Paul Freeman) Poirot must work quickly to discover clues and interrogate the suspects. There are several among them who would benefit from her death and yet others with no apparent connection at all until, “The voices of the little gray cells have begun to sing to Poirot.” Mix in white slavery, child abuse, financial ruin and revenge and the motives to murder become an appointment with death.

For those viewers like myself who have not read the original novel this new production looks beautiful, sounds enchanting and feels like a Poirot mystery. There is a deeply moral thread in the plot echoed by Lord Boynton from the start – “try as one might, one cannot escape his rightful destiny.” This eastern philosophy clashes with the western characters as they attempt to manipulate lives and change fate with serious consequences.

The casting was excellent as always. Elizabeth McGovern as Celia Westholme and John Hannah as Theodore Gerard should have been the anchors of the production but their roles were not very helpful to the story. Both have secrets to hide and unevenly play out the game until its tragic end. Tom Riley as Raymond reminded me of the emotionally crippled Anthony Perkins in Psycho, except his domineering mother convincingly played by Cheryl Campbell was not a mummy in the upstairs bedroom, but a raging bully in the flesh. Other casting choices were intriguing. Did anyone else see a young Orson Wells in the performance of Christian McKay as American Jefferson Cope? He even sounded like him! I became suspicious that director Ashley Pearce was doing all this character mirroring on purpose when Zoe Boyle as Jinny continued her blank stares and cow eyes a la Maggie Smith. If she got a voice coach she might have a future in the profession beyond luminescent damsel in distress.

Putting aside the beautiful production values and excellent casting, this liberal 2008 adaptation had its troubles. Red herrings are Christie’s forte and any mystery aficionado anticipates the shift of the investigation from suspect to suspect as eagerly as the next P. D. James novel. Without revealing spoilers for those who have not seen it, screenwriter Andrews’ important denouement fell flat as Poirot went around the room disqualifying each suspect. It was totally unbelievable.

If Appointment with Death is case in point of a classic being ‘improved’ for a modern audience, I am puzzled. Some will argue that the original novel (not one of Christie’s best efforts) was fine as it was. Others will queue up in favor of creative license. I have seen this approach with Jane Austen’s challenging novel Mansfield Park. People don’t get it and want to fix it. With the recent profitability of literary mash-up’s and re-interpretations such as the Austen/Grahame-Smith Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and director Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film Sherlock Holmes, one can see where the industry is going with this and take your side. I am sitting on the fence at the moment. Agatha Christie may be speaking through her character Lady Boynton by thinking that “we are not sufficiently sorry” , but you can “despise me if you dare.”

Image courtesy of © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Hercule Poirot: Third Girl on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Poirot: Third Girl: David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker © 2008 MASTERPIECEIf Masterpiece Mystery fans were unsettled by last week’s uncharacteristically dark and moralistic production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, then absolution is in order with Third Girl, a total turn-around back to the sophisticated Art Deco 1930’s London and country manor house crime dramas that we have come to cherish and expect. In this new 2008 ITV/PBS co-production, David Suchet continues as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot joined by Zoë Wanamaker in her re-occurring role as crime novelist Ariadne Oliver. Faced with one of their most challenging cases they must discover if a tormented heiress is a murderer or another criminal is amongst a group of suspects who may have set her up.

Norma Restarick (Jemima Rooper – Lost in Austen) arrives at Poirot’s London flat distressed and distraught, hoping that he can save her. She believes she has committed murder, but before he can assist her she abruptly leaves oddly claiming the distinguished detective is too old. Baffled, Poirot later visits his friend celebrated crime novelist Ariadne Oliver and learns she had sent Norma to him for assistance. Mrs. Oliver shares with him that Norma is the “third girl” in a flat of single women who live upstairs. The night before Mrs. Oliver had attended their birthday party for “first girl” Clemency Burton-Hill (Claudia Reece-Holland) a secretary of Norma’s recently reunited father Andrew Restarick (James Wilby). While there she witnessed the “second girl” Frances Cary (Matilda Sturridge) a Bohemian actress/model flirting with Norma’s love interest artist David Baker (Tom Mison – Lost in Austen) upsetting Norma who leaves the party.

Poirot and Mrs. Oliver are both unaware of yet a further connection in her apartment building until they learn that Norma’s childhood nanny Lavinia Seagram (Caroline O’Neill) is also a resident until her death only the night before. Is this the woman Norma believes she murdered? The police arrive to investigate and Inspector Nelson (John Warnaby) is quick to conclude a suicide, but Poirot and Mrs. Oliver are not convinced. Is Norma guilty, innocent or insane?

While Norma’s roommates and family fret over her unstable state of mind, Poirot delves into her family history also becoming fearful of her life, but for different reasons. Who would benefit from her demise? Is it her grand-uncle Sir Roderick Horsfield (Peter Bowles) or her father Andrew Restarick, the two people who will co-inherit her large estate? To flush out the killer, Poirot must depend on fragile Norma’s help to trick a confession out of the criminal only Poirot has suspected.

Based on Agatha Christie’s 1966 novel, Poirot purist might be miffed again with more artistic license being taken by screenwriter Peter Flannery when they discover changes to her original plot and rearrangement and elimination of characters. Having not read Third Girl I was not offended taking everything presented at face value, quickly accepting the time shift from the 1960’s to the 1930’s atmosphere that I so enjoy in many of Ms. Christie’s novels.

There was also much to distract me in the decadent and delightful high quality production values: gorgeous costumes, striking locations, superlative acting by an all-star cast, ambient direction by Dan Reed (Inspector Lewis) and the stunning cinematography by Paul Bond. Did I say stunning cinematography? Wowza! Zoë Wanamaker’s performance was the highlight for me. Her scene after she awakens after being struck on the head is brilliant and LOL funny! Unfortunately, the last fifteen minutes were a disappointment. The traditional round-up of suspects into one room and final denouement was accelerated into a muddling quandary. Can one assume that this condensed 90-minute format did not allow enough plot development and clues to make everything click?  It took another viewing of the scene before this dull elf could absorb and decipher. (Oh, and since there are no sportscars in this episode, I will accept Poirot’s persimmon sofa’s as my guilty indulgence!)

Image courtesy © 2008 MASTERPIECE

Hercule Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express: David Suchet as Hercule Poirot © 2010 MASTERPIECEMystery fans were treated to the opening of season X of Poirot on Masterpiece Mystery last Sunday with a new episode of Murder on the Orient Express, one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels. Amazingly, this new production is only the second time it has been adapted for television and follows the famous and glitzy 1974 Hollywood movie directed by Sidney Lumet with an all-star cast including Albert Finney as Detective Hercule Poirot, Lauren Becall as the outrageously brash American Mrs. Hubbard and Ingrid Bergman in her Oscar winning role as Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson. Having seen this version some 36 years ago (yikes), I watched it again in preparation for this new David Suchet production. With the passing years, it is even more of an opulent showpiece of bravada by the then fading Hollywood studio system than I remembered, packed with so many stars and stunning costumes that my eye could not settle upon the seriousness of the story nor my head erase the earworm that the musical score created. It was glamorous. It was exciting. It was a dog and pony show that Agatha Christie’s novel never was. It still made me smile in appreciation of the great acting and direction from an era that we may look back upon in wonder.

The bones of the plot are basically the same. Hercule Poirot boards a luxury passenger train the Orient Express traveling from Istanbul to London and on the second night out the train becomes snowbound in Yugoslavia. During the night a ruthless American businessman Samuel Ratchett (Toby Jones) is murdered. Not only has he has been stabbed repeatedly; he appears to have been drugged. Poirot’s friend and director of the train line Xavier Bouc (Serge Hazanavicius) asks him to investigate the murder, and with the assistance of Dr. Constantine (Samuel West) Poirot begins to collect clues in the victims room and interview all of the passengers on the train. The evidence leads him to the famous kidnapping and murder five years earlier of a young girl Daisy Armstrong by Lanfranco Cassetti who was tried for the crime but not convicted. Poirot soon discovers that Samuel Ratchett is personally connected to the criminal and so are each of the passengers in a sad and tragic way. But who among them killed Samuel Ratchett and why?

From the first scene Poirot purists will know that this is not your typical ITV/PBS production of an Agatha Christie novel. While interrogating a British army officer in Palestine, Poirot catches him in a lie and the officer pulls his revolver and commits suicide right in front of him. This alone is a shocking image, but Poirot’s unemotional reaction to his death was so chilling that there is no doubt that screenwriter Stewart Harcourt (Dracula) and director Philip Martin (Wallender) have taken an entirely different approach in their interpretation of the cozy mystery fare that we have become so accustomed to on Masterpiece Mystery. Next Poirot is in Istanbul and he witnesses another pointless death of a woman accused of adultery being stoned by a mob of her family and neighbors. Is this a foreshadowing of what is yet to come for us aboard the Orient Express? Both of these scenes are added embellishments to Christie’s original novel and definitely not in the 1974 candy coated film. There are many other changes that I will leave for the observant viewer to deduce.

Even though many liberties have been taken with Christie’s plot and characters this new slant on Poirot really worked. Yes, the Jane Austen purist in me who is tweaked when others dally with my Jane is not offended by this hybridized Poirot. I just imagined him in a parallel universe aboard the antithesis Orient Express and it all worked for me. The highlight was the casting. David Suchet is more introspective and melancholy than I have ever seen him in this role before and it suits him as well as his waxed mustache and prim manners. (anyone who is that persnickety about their appearance andfood is sure to have a dark side) Eileen Atkins as the elegant Princess Dragomiroff, a white Russian who has seen the revolution and knows deeply what murder means, and Barbara Hershey as the pushy American widow Caroline Hubbard whose defense against suspicion is her brassy attitude were both the key performances. Hugh Bonneville as Mr. Ratchett’s man Edward Masterman and David Morrissey as English colonel John Arbuthnot sadly did not get much air time, but made a lasting impression.

The ending scene outside the snowbound train when Poirot must decide what justice must be done will linger with you and make you want to watch the movie again to catch all the bits that passed you by. This new direction for an Agatha Christie’s classic story seems to be in line with the trend to take what our culture values and remake it in our own unique vision. One wonders out loud how these changes will be viewed in twenty or thirty years, similar to my experience of watching the 1974 movie. Each is entertaining, but have we done justice to Miss Christie?

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Miss Marple: The Blue Geranium on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Miss Marple: The Blue Geranium: Julia McKenzie in Miss Marple © 2010 MASTERPIECEMiss Marple concluded last Sunday on Masterpiece Mystery with the final episode, The Blue Geranium, a twisted tale infused with the seven deadly sins, those tempting vices that have plagued man since the beginning of time. I can think of no better foundation for an intriguing murder mystery than, wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. They are the stock and trade of the genre. And like the super-sleuth that she is, Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) is the only one who can unravel the complicated mystery surrounding three deaths in the quaint village of Little Ambrose.

Based on a short story by Agatha Christie published in 1932, the mystery begins almost immediately with the death of heiress Mary Pritchard (Sharon Small) whose life up until her demise involved hypochondria and histrionics. Her husband George (Toby Stephens) does not take her concerns over medical ailments or the flowers in her bedroom wallpaper turning blue very seriously. She on the other hand is convinced that it symbolizes her impending death. Proving him wrong is not what anyone expected. Did she indeed die of shock, or are there people around her who would benefit from her death? In Miss Marple’s view it all seems very odd and the villagers escalating tensions equal a long list of suspects. Two more victims and a quick confession by George Pritchard closes the case for Detective Inspector Somerset (Kevin R. McNally) who hopes to ride on the glory of the case right back to London after being banished for bad behavior.

On the day of the court hearing all seems to be wrapped up neatly until Miss Marple watches her gardener mixing a cyanide solution to kill wasps and it suddenly becomes clear that she has made a mistake. George Pritchard is not the killer and she must stop the court hearing. Phoning Inspector Somerset she gets no farther than the court assistant and rushes to London in search of her friend Sir Henry Clithering (Donald Sinden) who she hopes to convince to use his influence to intercede in the case. As she tells him the story of the Blue Geranium Murder we are taken back in time through the events leading up to Mary Pritchard’s death, the family and villagers involved, and all the reasons why she got it all so terribly wrong the first time round. “It became so knotted that it was difficult to tell one thing for the other” until she sees the light when her gardener mixes the poison to kill the wasps. Mary was also poisoned. Is it the philandering husband full of pride, the jilted sister full of wrath, or another whose lust for money will drive their greed to commit murder?

On first viewing, this episode was rather flat for me. I could not identify or sympathize with any of the characters. Fortunately, this script really gave Julia McKenzie a chance to use her acting skills showing greater depth of emotion than I remember in past episodes. The rest of the cast gave fine performances, but their characters were so unappealing that I never warmed to any of them. Mary Pritchard was an odious, manipulating, gluttonous woman whose death no one seemed to grieve. Her family was not much better. Husband George was cheating on her, sister Philippa Pritchard (Claudie Blakley) was a bitter and spiteful, her brother-in-law Lewis Pritchard (Paul Rhys) was an alcoholic gambler, her doctor Jonathan Frayn (Patrick Baladi) was a revengeful thief, and even Miss Marple’s friend Reverend Milewater (who shall remain a mystery because this actor is shamefully not credited, anywhere) is downtrodden over his decaying church and unproductive life. Oh my. Add to that a gray winter setting and not so thrilling locations and I was nonplused. On second viewing the story grew on me as I caught more of the seven deadly sins subtext by screenwriter Stewart Harcourt who greatly expanded the original short story. With so much sin in such a small place there had to be one vice that I could identify with. It arrived in this beautiful vintage red roadster.

Images courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Miss Marple: The Secret of Chimneys on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Miss Marple: The Secret of Chimneys: Julia McKenzie and Stephen Dillane © 2010 MASTERPIECEThe fifth series of Miss Marple continued on Masterpiece Mystery last Sunday with a new episode, The Secret of Chimneys. I was not familiar with this Miss Marple mystery novel written by Agatha Christie in 1925, so I just sat back and let it take me by surprise. It certainly did. There was distinct difference in this episode. The script, direction and editing were a cut above the normal fare which piqued my curiosity to investigate the original novel and the production team. I do not know whose feet I should throw all the accolades at or who deserves the laurel wreath of distinction, but screenwriter Paul Rutman, director John Strickland and film editor Nick Arthur made a triple play worthy of Eric Bruntlett. This is the best Miss Marple episode I have seen so far in the new Julia McKenzie reign. Fast paced, packed full of red herrings and double takes, I was questioning each character’s motives and analyzing every possible clue to the last, and then was totally surprised by the final reveal.

Ambitious M.P. George Lomax (Adam Godley) is pressuring the Revel family on many fronts. He has given their young daughter Virginia (Charlotte Salt) a deadline to accept his marriage proposal and her father the ninth Marquis of Caterham (Edward Fox) must entertain an Austrian count Ludwig van Stainach (Anthony Higgins) at his grand, but fading, country estate Chimneys to seal a deal for iron ore that England is desperate for after the war. The guests assemble for the weekend including cousin Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie), eldest daughter Lady Eileen “Bundle” Brent (Dervla Kirwan), National Trust advocate Miss Hilda Blenkinsopp (Ruth Jones) and faithful servant Miss Treadwell (Michelle Collins).

The count arrives and agrees to the deal on the condition that Chimneys be given to him in compensation. This does not sit well with anyone but Lord Caterham whose reputation and finances went south after the theft of the Mizoram diamond at a Chimneys party twenty years ago. His daughter Bundle is determined to carry on in grand decline, Miss Blenkinsopp wants the property for the National Trust and Miss Treadwell silently observes in disapproval. When the count is found shot with Virginia’s beau Anthony Cade (Jonas Armstrong) standing over him and the smoking gun near-by, scandal seems to be following the family across the generations as Miss Marple and chief inspector Fitch of Scotland Yard (Stephen Dillane) team up to investigate the murder discovering clues to the past that will unearth the deadly secret that happened at Chimneys so many years ago.

Faithful readers of the Miss Marple mysteries will be quite puzzled by this new adaptation. The original novel of the same name does not include Miss Marple at all, the plotline has been changed drastically and characters have been interchanged at random. Even the murderer is not the same. If this was a Jane Austen adaptation I would be screaming bloody murder in her defense. Having not read the original novel, I just took it for face value and loved it. Happily, Miss Christie did not write only six major novels so the offense seems less invasive to me, but short shrift for Marple book fans. Screenwriter Paul Rutman who I have admired in the past for his previous Miss Marple episode from last year, They Do it with Mirrors (2009) and two Inspector Lewis episodes, The Vanishing Point (2009) and The Great and the Good (2008) is a superb storyteller and a master at multilayered suspense. I am certain that the Marple die hards will not agree with me on that, but que sera, sera. It was a great story and ironically a cut above some of the previous episodes even though it has little Christie in it. I was thrilled to see Miss Marple do something besides observe and drop hints to the inspector on the case and enjoyed Julia McKenzie’s performance thoroughly. Finally they gave her more than one sentence of dialogue at a time.

The staid and measured performance by Stephen Dillane as Inspector Fitch was the highlight for me. He stole every scene that he appeared in because I was so intently listening and watching his every word and gesture that the other characters were secondary. If he could have his own series I would be enthralled. Virginia’s beau Anthony had me squinting in deep thought to place him before I realized it was Robin Hood without his bow and arrows. Ah, and Edward Fox as Lord Caterham. What distinction. What grace. Besides coming from the distinguished Fox acting dynasty (his brother is James Fox, nephew Laurence Fox and daughter Emilia Fox) he is a national treasure and never disappoints. As usual, the locations and costumes were superb. I want the Austin Healey that Miss Marple and Virginia arrive at Chimneys in. Ah, perchance to dream.

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE