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

Masterpiece Mystery: Mrs. McGinty’s Dead

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Who would want to bludgeon to death a humble country charwoman? Suspicions lead Superintendent Spence (Richard Hope) to conclude that her dodgy tenant James Bentley (Joe Absolom) who has fallen on hard times was motivated by theft to commit the crime. After Bentley is convicted and sentenced to die by the gallows, things still do not seem quite right, and he calls upon Hercule Poirot (David Suchet), the greatest detective in the world to confirm his doubts and help him discover the real murderer, as Masterpiece Mystery continues with Agatha Christie’s, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead on PBS.

David Suchet and Zoe Wannamaker in Mrs. McGintys Dead (2009)

Poirot travels to Broadhinny, a country village to investigate the scene of the crime meeting his friend Ariadne Oliver (Zoe Wanamaker) the novelist visiting a local playwright Robin Upward (Paul Rhys) who is adapting her novel into his next play. Poirot begins by interviewing all of Mrs. McGinty’s family and work connections. Even though she led a simple life, she worked for many wealthy residents in the village with secrets to hide. What did she discover that was so important that would prompt her murder? When Poirot inspects the remains of her personal belongings, he discovers a recent Sunday paper with an article cut out on the whereabouts of two women involved in separate murders from thirty years ago. One picture is of a young child Lily Gamboll, and the other of a young woman Eva KBook cover of Mrs. McGinty's Dead (1952)ane. Which woman in the village could each of these women be? There are plenty of red herrings appearing before Poirot uses all of his little grey matter and discovers the identity of the real murderer.

This second Poirot episode of the Masterpiece Mystery season had been adapted for the screen from Agatha Christie’s 1952 novel by Nick Dear who brought us the incredibly moving adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion in 1995. Riding on that cloud of glory, I expected the same sensitivity and nuances that he had delivered previously in this new production. The result was quite the opposite. I may be comparing apples to oranges with genres, but his choices in pacing and dialogue had me confused and replaying certain parts of the DVD screener over again. Because of the layered affect of Christie’s plots, if you miss one clue, the next does not make sense. Ah, mon ami, I may be being too critical of Mr. Dear, since producers and directors do not always shoot the script that was presented to them.

David Suchet and Mary Stockley, Mrs. McGinty's Dead (2009)

As always, the production values were outstanding. The costumes, locations and cars, yes the vintage cars, were just stunning. The large cast was quite impressive and I particularly appreciated the performances of Siân Phillips as Mrs. Upward, Zoë Wanamaker as Mrs. Oliver and Amanda Root as Shelagh Rendell. Viewers might recognize these three British actresses from their roles as Madame de Volanges in Valmont (1989), Madame Hooch in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and Anne Elliot in Persuasion (1995) respectively.

Masterpiece Mystery continues next Sunday July 5th with A Pocket Full of Rye with Julia McKenzie, in her premier as Miss Marple, Christie’s famous elderly spinster amateur detective whose deductive skills are as sharp as her knitting needles.

  • Read the complete synopsis of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead
  • Read my previous review of Cat Among Pigeons