After several 10-episode seasons of 50-minute shows, the exceptional British mystery series Poirot, which debuted in 1989, switched to feature-length, made-for-TV movies at a rate of about two a year. A&E / New Video has now packaged the four most recent productions into a set entitled Agatha Christie's Poirot - The New Mysteries Collection. Although some might miss the shorter format and mourn the absence of series regulars Hugh Fraser (as Captain Hastings), Philip Jackson (Inspector Japp), and Pauline Moran (Miss Lemon), the four TV movies in this set - Five Little Pigs, Sad Cypress (both 2003), Death on the Nile, and The Hollow (both 2004) - are uniformly excellent.
The same strategy of alternating between feature-length and episodic, hour-long adaptations was likewise done with the equally popular Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett. But where the later run of that series was compromised by reduced budgets and the extremely (and glaringly obvious) poor health of its star, Poirot has suffered no such indignities. The budgets on all four shows, by all appearances, seem quite lavish. They reportedly cost $3.5-$4 million apiece, and look it.
Better, star David Suchet's interpretation of the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot has remained remarkably consistent yet, at the same time, over the past 15 years his performances have become both subtler and richer. It's not the extravagant Poirot Albert Finney had played so entertainingly in Murder on the Orient Express (1975), but in toning it down several notches Suchet has made it a lasting and endearing one.
Rather curiously, all four movies revolve around characters unfaithful to their spouses/betrothed, which in retrospect blurs them together somewhat, though their varying settings and eccentric characters offset this. And each show has its own personality and illustrates both Christie's marvelous storytelling talent and the filmmakers' respect for the material. Tellingly, the shows are never dull when Poirot's not around and each one has a sweep that, at times, becomes absolutely riveting. One complaint, perhaps in trying to compete with the music video-influenced pace of modern television, is that the denouement of each film is a bit rushed for this reviewer. I found myself frequently scanning back trying to understand the means and motives of the various murders that Poirot has exposed.
Production wise, the shows are notable for their exquisite fidelity to the period, and like much of the series they amusingly but subtly comment on the emptiness of life among the idle rich, their pretensions and xenophobia, and with 21st century hindsight make pointed but equally subtle socio-political observations on everything from homosexual relationships to the rise and fall of Nazism.
Five Little Pigs Adapted by Kevin Elyot. Directed by Paul Unwin. Airdate: 12/14/03. Fourteen years after the conviction and hanging of Caroline Crale (Rachel Stirling in flashback, instantly recognizable as the daughter of Diana Rigg)** for the murder of her husband, their adult daughter engages Poirot to look into the long-closed case. The performances in this melancholy tale are superb all the way 'round, with Toby Stephens (Die Another Day) a standout as the inconsolable best friend of the dead husband. Patrick Malahide, from the ill-fated Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, turns up here as a barrister.
Sad Cypress Adapted by David Pirie. Directed by Dave Moore. Airdate: 12/26/03. A woman and her fiance receive a letter suggesting their wealthy aunt, in failing health after a series of strokes, is in imminent danger of an unspecified nature. Suggesting a kind of privileged class All About Eve, this telefilm is quite exciting and, in one scene at least, nightmarish. (The latter isn't surprising coming from screenwriter Pirie, who is also an authority on horror cinema and the author of several fine books on the subject.) Christopher Gunning's score is especially good, and Suchet has several great scenes in this engrossing mystery: Poirot losing his temper with an old friend who has lied to him, and his disgust at having to sample a "salmon and crab" sandwich paste, whose processed flavor is completely at odds with his gourmand's palate.
Death on the Nile Adapted by Kevin Elyot. Directed by Andy Wilson. Airdate: 4/12/04. The second Poirot mystery to take on an EMI film -- Evil Under the Sun, which had first been filmed in 1982 with Peter Ustinov had been adapted with Suchet in 2002 -- this extremely lush travelogue-mystery, filmed aboard the same cruiser used in the 1978 feature, is exquisitely made. After a wealthy socialite steals away a young woman's fiance, she hounds the newlyweds all the way to Egypt, where Poirot also happens to be on holiday. Featuring James Fox, Judy Parfitt (ER), and an unrecognizable David Soul (very good here), Death on the Nile is a superior remake.
The Hollow Adapted by Nick Dear. Directed by Simon Langton. Airdate: 8/30/04. The last Poirot film to date is a solid "holiday in the country" mystery about a philandering doctor's murder at the apparent hands of his long-suffering wife. The excellent cast features Sarah Miles, Tom Georgeson (A Fish Called Wanda), and James Fox's brother Edward, very droll as a dour, deadpan butler. Also making a welcome appearance is Edward Hardwicke, Dr. Watson from the Granada Sherlock Holmes series, here without his toupee and looking every bit the image of his actor father, Sir Cedric. (In a nod to that series, Hardwicke's patriarch tells Poirot, "Isn't really my line, murder.")
Video & Audio
How film stock has improved! Credits don't make clear whether these shows were shot in 35mm, Super-16, or High-Definition Video, but whatever format was utilized, the photography on all four shows, spread over four discs, is extremely good, with subtle and varied color, excellent contrast and grain. One wishes these shows were shot and released for 1.78:1 format (instead of full-frame), but as they stand they are a vast improvement over the earliest episodes.
The latter two shows, Death on the Nile and especially The Hollow, have abrupt fade-outs throughout using masters that were obviously intended for their run on commercial television. (The first two shows do not have this annoyance.) These are so severe on The Hollow that it wouldn't surprise this reviewer if that 89-minute program was derived from an edited broadcast master. (The other shows run 90-93 minutes.)
The stereo soundtracks are also quite good with a dynamic range and good separations. There are no subtitle options.
As with other sets in this series, Agatha Christie's Poirot - The New Mysteries Collection is notably short on extras, including only short and woefully incomplete biographies of Christie, Suchet, and Poirot himself. The Internet offers far more complete information in this regard.
This set is a great if pricey primer to those uncertain about the series. Everyone involved has made shows faithful to Christie, while Suchet's Poirot remains one of the great interpretations of an iconic mystery character. One hopes that there will be many more great performances to come.
**The actress will be reprising Rigg's part in a National Theatre adaptation of Theatre of Blood (!), the great 1973 Vincent Price revenge melodrama/horror film/black comedy. Jim Broadbent will be playing Price's role. Get your tickets now!
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.