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Observant Poirot is quick to notice the family dysfunctions generated by Lady Boynton’s tyrannical behavior: withdrawn and sullen son Raymond (Tom Riley), anxious and depressed elder daughter Carol (Emma Cunniffe) and troubled younger daughter Jinny (Zoe Boyle) all trying to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