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Observant Poirot is quick to notice the family dysfunctions generated by Lady Boynton’s tyrannical behavior: withdrawn and sullen son Raymond (Tom Riley), anxious and depressed elder daughter Carol (Emma Cunniffe) and troubled younger daughter Jinny (Zoe Boyle) all trying to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

Masterpiece Mystery PBS 2010 Season Preview

Image of Masterpiece Mystery Banner

The game is afoot as crime season begins again on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS this Sunday, May 2nd. The 2010 line-up offers the best in British mysteries presenting a great selection of super sleuths to feed any whodunit addict’s desire for murder and mayhem. Returning in new episodes will be Michael Kitchen in Foyle’s War, Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple, David Suchet as Hercule Poroit, Kevin Whatley as Inspector Lewis and Kenneth Branagh in Wallander. Joining these five master detectives will be the new series Sherlock, a modern day spin on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s popular Sherlock Holmes staring Benedict Cumberbatch as the enigmatic detective. Airing on Sundays at 9:00 pm the series will also feature actor Alan Cumming who returns as host adding more quirky commentary to set the mood. Here is a preview of the summer – fall season.

Image from Foyle's War: Anthony Howel, Michael Kitchen and Honeysuckle Weeks © 2010 MASTERPIECEFoyle’s War – May 2-16, 2010

Michael Kitchen returns as Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle in series VI offering three new episodes of this popular crime drama. Set on South Coast of England in 1945, the Second World War has concluded and Foyle is keen to retire but compelled to remain in his job because of the steep rise in violent crime sweeping the country. Joining him are his former driver during the war Samantha “Sam” Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks), and his old sergeant, Paul Milner (Anthony Howell), recently promoted to detective inspector in nearby Brighton. In episodes The Russian House, Killing Time and The Hide, Foyle investigates murders involving Russian POW’s, Black American G.I.’s and German Nazi’s. (All episodes 90 minutes)

My recap & reviews

Image from Miss Marple staring Julia McKenzie © 2010 MASTERPIECEMiss Marple – May 23-June 27, 2010

Julia McKenzie is back in her second season as Miss Marple, our favorite spinster sleuth of St. Mary Meade making the local constables and inspectors scratch their heads in amazement at her delft deductions. This season will see three new episodes adapting Agatha Christie’s classic novels: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, The Secret of Chimneys and The Blue Geranium. Guest appearances highlighted by an all British cast include: Hugh Bonneville (Miss Austen Regrets), Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous) and Toby Stevens (Jane Eyre) adding polish to sleuthing perfection. (All episodes 90 minutes)

My recap & reviews

Image from Hercule Poirot staring David Suchet © 2010 MASTERPIECEHercule Poirot – July 11- August 1, 2010

The “little gray cells” are churning again as indomitably dapper Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is brought to the screen by David Suchet. It is amazing to think that Suchet has filled those spats and waxed that mustache for twenty-one years and sixty-five episodes. This season brings three new mystery dramas adapted from Agatha Christie novels as we witness Murder on the Orient Express, encounter matricide and nannicide in The Third Girl and experience an aristocrats Appointment with Death at an archaeological dig in the Middle East. Amusingly, the all British supporting cast is comprised of many key actors in the popular twisted bonnet parody Lost in Austen including Jemima Rooper, Tom Minson, Christina Cole and Tom Riley. Tim Curry who I shall always remember as Dr. Fran-N-Furter in the Rock Horror Picture Show adds humor and aplomb to the roister! (All episodes 90 minutes.)

My recap & reviews

Image from Inspector Lewis staring Kevin Whatley and Laurence Fox © 2010 MASTERPIECEInspector Lewis – August 8 –  September 26, 2010

Welcome back to the dreaming spires of Oxford for more murder among academia as Kevin Whately returns for five new episodes in the a third season as Inspector Lewis. Whatley is so charming as DI Robbie Lewis, but I readily admit that I can’t wait to see what his acerbic young partner DS James Hathaway (Laurence Fox) will snark about. Rumor has it that both Lewis and Hathaway find romance this season in between solving crime and throwing witty banter at each other of course.  The five new episodes include Counter Culture Blues, The Dead of Winter, Dark Matter, Your Sudden Death Question and Falling Darkness. Joining the cast is a fine line-up of British actors ready to be murdered for their profession including Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous), Robert Hardy (Sense and Sensibility), Nicholas Farrell (Mansfield Park and Persuasion), Anthony Calf (Pride and Prejudice) and Lucy Griffiths (Robin Hood) sans Sir Guy of Gisborne to harass her. (All episodes 90 minutes.)

My recap & reviews

Images 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

Masterpiece Mystery: Cat Among Pigeons – A Review

Image from Hercule Poirot: A Cat Among Pigeons © 2009 MASTERPIECEAgatha Christie mystery fans were dancing on tabletops across America tonight, when David Suchet returned as their favorite fastidious Belgian super sleuth Hercule Poirot, in Masterpiece Mystery’s opening episode of Six By Agatha Hercule Poirot: Cat Among Pigeons on PBS. It was more than worth the wait for this long time Masterpiece Mystery fan. What an elegantly produced production it was; superb British casting, classy costumes, period locations, masterful direction and an excellent adaptation of Christie’s classic 1959 novel,  all culminating into giant culture rush for this Anglophile/mystery lover. Swoon!

As the music started with the opening credits, I smiled in recognition of how much the Harry Potter movies have premeated into our culture. Here is a scene of children arriving for school term and the music is so similar to the whimsical children’s choral piece that opens the Harry Potter movies that I laughed out loud and thought the producer a cheeky monkey for slipping in that subliminal message! I wondered what other things they might borrow to make Hercule Poirot into Harry Potter! Anyway, our super sleutBook cover of A Cat Among Pigeons (1959)h has been invited to Meadowbank Girls School by his friend the headmistress Miss Bulstrode, played by Harriet Walter, who Austenites will remember portrayed Fanny Dashwood in the 1996 movie adaptation Sense and Sensibility. The progressive Miss Bulstrode has built up the school’s reputation, but now would like to retire. Doubtful that her co-founder Miss Chadwick (Susan Wooldrige) will be able to take over, she asks Poirot’s for his expert advice at character analysis to help select her replacement. No sooner than he has arrived the physical ed teacher Miss Springer (Elizabeth Berrington) is killed violently with a javelin through the heart in the school gymnasium sending the young ladies, including Princess Shaista (Amara Karan) sequestered there after a revolution in her country, into a panic of concern. She reveals to Inspector Kelsey (Anton Lesser) and Poirot that she is certain that she will be killed next. The first suspects are the new staff members at the school, a gardener Adam Goodman (Adam Croasdell), the secretary Miss Rich (Claire Skinner who was Fanny Dashwood in the 2008 Sense and Sensibility) and a French teacher Mlle Blanche (Miranda Raison).

Image from Hercule Poirot: A Cat Among Pigeons: Harriet Walter and David Suchet © 2009 MASTERPIECE

Another teacher is killed, sending the parents and the board of governors into a frenzy. Poirot suspects that there is a connection between the murders and Princess Shaista. One clever student Julia Upjohn (Lois Edmett) aides in the discovery of a valuable treasure connected to the Princess hidden in a tennis racket smuggled out of her country after the revolution. Could this be the motive for the murders? When Princess Shaista is kidnapped, Miss Bulstrode and Miss Chadwick watch their students pulled out of school by panicked parents, and years of hard work and the school’s reputation erode away. Poirot suspects everyone, but reveals little until his signature final roundup of suspects into the drawing room as he deconstructs his logic and reveals the killer. He had me guessing to the last.

Image from Hercule Poirot: A Cat Among Pigeons: Georgia Cornick © 2009 MASTERPIECE

One of the most enjoyable aspects of watching these British productions for me is the face hunt, as I sleuth out actors from their previous roles on Masterpiece or movie roles. And so the mystery becomes an inner mystery of me – hopefully all resolved by the end of the production. In Cat Among Pigeons there were some challenging faces to match to previous roles; one in particular who kept my “grey matter” churning until the very end. Like the great super sleuth Hercule Poirot, it took me ninety minutes to solve my own mystery – that Miss Chadwick, the deputy headmisstress of Meadowbank School was in fact Miss Daphne Manners from the 1984 Masterpiece Theater production of The Jewel in the Crown. No small coincidence that both roles were the axis of each story.

Masterpiece Mystery continues through July 26. Next week, another Hercule Poirot mystery, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, followed by four new Miss Marple episodes staring Julia McKenzie. Oh my. Where are my smelling salts?

Images courtesy © 2009 MASTERPIECE