Like the packaging says, David Suchet is back as Hercule Poirot, for three (relatively) new feature-length mysteries that comprise Poirot - The Movie Collection - Set 5.
Fans of the long-running series, which since 1989 has presented both hour-long and feature-length mysteries, have long bemoaned the perversely Byzantine manner in which it has been released to DVD. Simultaneously distributed under two different labels (Acorn Media and A&E), sometimes edited (on the A&E releases only) for no justifiable reason, often overly expensive, and always confusingly packaged and endlessly reissued, Poirot on DVD is nothing short of a colossal mess. This title unfortunately adds to the ongoing frustration.
The set consists of three TV movies: Third Girl (2008), Appointment with Death (2009), and Murder on the Orient Express (2010). However, Three Act Tragedy, The Clocks, and Hallowe'en Party (2010), all made prior to Murder on the Orient Express, have yet to be released to home video. Further, distributor Acorn Media has scheduled a Blu-ray edition of Murder on the Orient Express in late October - but, strangely, not the other two, further frustrating fans. (However: Chad Campbell at Acorn Media writes, "The only reason is that Orient Express was the only one of the three shot in HD. We would have loved to release all three in Blu-ray, but we didn't feel comfortable releasing a Blu-ray with two of the three being upcoverts rather than real HD programs." I stand corrected.) The DVD set retails for $49.99, which is pricey for just three television movies. As I write this a British DVD set containing everything up to and including Third Girl and Appointment with Death is currently on sale over at Amazon UK for £54.67 - that's about $82 for nearly the entire series, 61 mysteries in all vs. $50 for just three shows. I'd say the former is the better deal, even if you toss in the cost of a cheap region-free player.
Two things distinguish the Poirot movies of recent years. For reasons not entirely clear the supporting cast of the regular series - Poirot's slightly dense companion Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), his devoted secretary Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran), and Scotland Yard liaison Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) - were gradually dropped for the later films though a new regular character, Bohemian novelist Ariadne Oliver (Zoë Wanamaker) makes frequent appearances. While these characters never appeared in most of the original stories to begin with, the show's producers seem almost adamant in not including them now, despite much protest from the series' fans. (Miss Lemon, for instance, appears in Christie's novel of Third Girl but isn't in the TV-movie version.)
Also distinguishing the TV-movies of recent years from the older, generally hour-long series has been their unevenness. While many are excellent and most are at least good, were it not for Suchet the weakest ones (e.g., 2005's The Mystery of the Blue Train) would be nearly unwatchable - more than once Suchet's performance saved the day. The chief reason for this unevenness seems to be that in aspiring toward a theatrical feature film look, the producers have given the shows' directors greater stylistic latitude, and sometimes this added freedom results in distracting, sometimes downright grating over-direction. Tied to this, there's been an obvious attempt in all of the recent Agatha Christie shows to draw in a younger demographic, with for example much younger talent brought in for leading roles. If you compare the average age of the cast in the 1975 Murder on the Orient Express versus its 2010 remake you'll see what I mean.
Also, and this is very apparent in the set's first entry, Third Girl, there's an attempt to quicken (and darken) the pace of these later TV-movies, but this faster cutting comes at the expense of coherency. Christie's extremely complex mysteries need to unfold and its characters introduced plainly and coherently, otherwise viewers won't be able to follow what's going on later in the story. More than once on Third Girl I found myself rewinding (is that the right term?) the disc to replay certain bits just to be able to follow what was going on.
Finally, recent Poirot stories have been firmly entrenched in the late-1930s instead of the time in which Christie wrote or set them and, peculiarly, the adaptations actually have been taking more liberties with Christie instead of less (true of the recent Miss Marple shows as well). Third Girl was published in November 1966 and Christie set her novel in what was then present-day London. As actor David Suchet has himself aged 20 years, I would have liked to have seen these adaptations move more freely through pre- and postwar Britain.
Norma Restarick (Jemima Rooper), the less-attractive "third girl" of three renting a London flat, appears suddenly at Poirot's apartment at the suggestion of Norma's neighbor, Ariadne Oliver (Wanamaker). Norma announces that she may have committed a murder. Before Poirot has a chance to interview the young woman, she just as abruptly departs.
The following morning an older woman is found dead in Norma's building, apparently a suicide though Poirot quickly concludes the woman was murdered. Investigating further - with Ariadne's assistance - Poirot interviews Norma's father, Andrew (James Wilby), who has returned from Africa after a long absence; and her wealthy but blind great-uncle Sir Roderick Horsefield (Peter Bowles, Guthrie Featherstone on Rumpole of the Bailey), who is engaged to his much younger personal assistant, Sonia (Lucy Liemann); and Norma's two flatmates, Claudia (Clemency Burton-Hall), and Frances (Matilda Sturridge), as well as her would-be artist boyfriend, David (Tom Mison).
Third Girl is ultimately entertaining thanks to Suchet and Wanamaker's performances, the latter surprisingly so as generally I find the otherwise excellent actress miscast and the character often intrusive. The adaptation does improve Christie slightly by fixing the author's overuse of (unbelievable) coincidence involving this character, though I still regret the producers didn't take a chance and place Poirot in mid-'60s London. As stated above the opening act is needlessly confusing, but once that gets sorted out a sweet relationship between Poirot and Norma takes a few unexpected turns and pays off in the final scenes, which find Poirot unusually emotional. All in all, not great but entertaining. (*** out of *****)
Appointment with Death, was previously filmed by director and co-screenwriter Michael Winner as a 1988 theatrical feature, made right before the Suchet series began. It starred Peter Ustinov, making his sixth and final appearance as Poirot; its existence, along with the 1975 film of Murder on the Orient Express, no doubt explain why two of the three stories here were only recently remade, despite their fame.
The newer Suchet version is as slick and lavishly produced as the 1988 version, filmed as it was in Morocco, standing in for Syria (though the original story takes place in Petra in what's now part of Jordan).
Adapted from Christie's 1938 novel rather than her 1945 play (which dropped Poirot entirely and changed the identity of the "murderer"), its story is loosely based on Christie's own experiences with archeologist husband Sir Max Mallowan. Lady Boynton (Cheryl Campbell, Pennies from Heaven) is a cruel American heiress and owner of a financial empire that's somehow weathered the Great Depression unscathed. She's married to an English lord (Tim Curry*), a rich but amateur archeologist obsessed with locating the skull of John the Baptist. Lady Boynton is a sadistic monster that physically and mentally abused her three adopted children, as well as other children briefly adopted but shipped back to the orphanage when she found them unacceptable. Now adults, they accompany their mother on a trip to Lord Boynton's dig, along with a vacationing Hercule Poirot; psychologist Dr. Gerard (John Hannah, of Universal's recent "Mummy" series); a Polish nun, Sister Aginieszka (Beth Goddard); the old family nanny (Angela Pleasance, Donald's weirdly look-alike daughter); and Dame Celia Westholme (Elizabeth McGovern), an Isak Dinesen-type writer and world traveler.
When the monstrous matriarch is found murdered, as well as boiled like a lobster in the hot sun, Poirot is commissioned to investigate the matter by Colonel Carbury (Paul Freeman, Dr. René Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark).
Even more than Third Girl, Guy Andrews's adaptation veers sharply away from Christie's original story, adding characters and subplots while omitting others. As Christie herself made even more radical changes for her play version, it seems not entirely unreasonable, though hardcore fans of Christie and/or the Suchet series are sharply divided. Fan reviews of this story especially tend to either loathe or adore it, though I'm somewhere in the middle.
As with other recent Poirot movies, my main complaint is that Appointment with Death is over-directed and over-stylized, though most of this is confined to the first act, when the locale and characters are establishing themselves. The visual flourishes get in the way rather than enhance the story. In director Ashley Pierce's hands, the first half hour of Appointment with Death very closely resembles one of those automobile commercials filmed in the desert, a sporty sedan zipping across the sand as bemused camels look on.
Suchet and the above-average cast, as usual, win out in the end. The guest cast struggles with their American accents but, interestingly, American actress Elizabeth McGovern, who has lived in England since the early 1990s, is spot-on with her British one. Her performance also stands out, with maybe the best scene being a quiet moment she shares with Poirot, admiring the spectacular view but arguing that it's the people rather than the destinations that make life worth living. "This is nice," she says, "but show me the humans every time." (*** 1/2)
Murder on the Orient Express poses the unique problem of having already been done to perfection once before, in Sidney Lumet's superb 1975 adaptation, a film so popular that it spurred an Agatha Christie revival which in turn led to more movies and, subsequently, the Joan Hickson Miss Marple and David Suchet Poirot series.
The new version couldn't hope to compete with the original's peerless, all-star cast. Moreover, the complex, unusual story necessitated a general faithfulness to Christie's original yet, obviously, the filmmakers didn't want this to appear a cheap carbon copy of the earlier picture.
Fortunately, director Philip Martin (Prime Suspect: The Final Act) and writer Stewart Harcourt (Marple) make the right decisions about 80% of the time. The result is a Murder on the Orient Express pretty faithful to Christie but stylistically far removed from Lumet's film and with a few intriguing, ambitious additions. Though not entirely successful it's a legitimate, satisfying adaptation, much more so than I was anticipating.
The familiar story begins in Istanbul, where Poirot boards the Orient Express. An unpleasant, bossy American, Samuel Ratchett (Toby Jones), crudely tries to hire Poirot to investigate vague threats on his life. Poirot refuses and later, in the snowy mountains near Belgrade, Ratchett is murdered during the night, stabbed a dozen times in his First Class compartment. Wanting to avoid a troublesome investigation by Yugoslavian authorities, line director M. Bouc (Serge Hazanavicius) persuades Poirot to investigate the murder. After going over the crime scene with Dr. Stavros Constantine (Samuel West), the Belgian detective begins interviewing the other passengers.
To Poirot's shock and frustration, all of the first- and second-class passengers in Ratchett's car seem to be hiding something: Hector MacQueen (Brian J. Smith), Ratchett's personal secretary; Masterman (Hugh Bonneville), Ratchett's valet; Pierre Michel (Denis Menochet), the French conductor of the coach; Mary Debenham (Leigh Allyn Baker), a young British woman, who appears to be conspiring with Colonel Arbuthnot (David Morrissey), a British army officer returning from India; Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Eileen Atkins), an elegant, elderly White Russian travelling with Hildegarde Schmidt (Susanne Lothar), her German maid; Hungarian diplomat Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Stanley Weber) and his wife, the Countess Helena (Elena Satine); Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson (Marie-Josée Croze), a devoutly religious Christian convert; Mrs. Hubbard (Barbara Hershey), a demanding American woman; and Antonio Foscarelli (Joseph Mawle), an Italian businessman.
Wisely, the filmmakers didn't even try to pack their Orient Express with big-name stars; Barbara Hershey is about the only "name" in the cast, though a few faces, like Tony Stephens (wonderfully toady as Karl Rove in Oliver Stone's W), may be familiar to viewers.
The story is basically the same but the approach differs starkly from the 1975 film. Where that version was generally light and frothy, bathed in a nostalgia for pre-war continental glamour, this Murder is dark and ominous, Christian Henson's relentlessly pounding music effectively underscoring this. The 1975 Orient Express was elegant, stately; this train is more like the Horror Express (1973), racing headlong into chaos. Of course, Suchet's Poirot was always quite different from Albert Finney's delightful interpretation for the 1975 film, and for this story especially the differences between the two are starkly emphasized. Finney's Poirot was a gravelly-voiced Belgian dandy, eccentric and excitable - theatrical. By contrast, Suchet's increasingly solitary and introspective, fussy and mannered Poirot is so subdued that during the dénouement his voice is barely above a whisper. I don't think he smiles once in this, and is atypically petulant throughout the climax, the very opposite of Finney's portrayal.
(Warning: Major Spoilers) In addition to some perplexing and unnecessary cosmetic changes there's one big and admirably ambitious if somewhat muddled addition: Murder on the Orient Express is presented as a religious and moral dilema for Poirot, and this internal struggle, an original concept, becomes this adaptation's backbone.
In Istanbul, Poirot and Mary Debenham watch helplessly as an adultress is stoned to death by a mob in the street right in front of them. Though horrified, Poirot insists that the woman understood the consequences of disobeying her culture's rules. However, when the murderer(s) argue essentially the same point: Ratchett is revealed to have himself murdered an innocent toddler (in events inspired by the Lindbergh kidnapping). In the end, Ratchett escaped ordinary justice and profited by his actions. Should not the victims and grieving survivors therefore be entitled to mete out out moral justice?
Poirot's Catholic faith - we see him pray devoutly, possibly for the first time in the entire Poirot series - and trust in the Rule of Law tells him no, but the terrible, far-reaching impact of Ratchett's crime weigh heavily on Poirot's conscience.
Technically, like the other two TV-movies this show is handsome and polished. Exteriors of the train are mostly CGI shots that are an improvement over the notably phony ones in The Mystery of the Blue Train, but still unreal. (****)
Video & Audio
All three are presented in 1.78:1 widescreen with 16:9 enhancement. All look quite nice and appear unedited and not time-compressed. (The first two run 93 minutes while Orient Express is a taut 89 minutes.) The Dolby Digital stereo (English only) is up to contemporary television standards, and the discs are supported by SDH subtitles.
The only real extra apart from Acorn's usual text filmographies, list of Poirot novels, and presskit-type publicity material is an enjoyable 47-minute documentary, David Suchet on the Orient Express, with the actor, out-of-character (always a jarring experience post-Poirot), hosting a tour of the world's most famous train service. Also in 16:9 enhanced widescreen, the train has been restored and is exquisitely beautiful but also prohibitively expensive (no prices are mentioned, but according to the company's website the trip Suchet enjoys would run at least $14,000!), making it a vicariously enjoyed experience. However, Suchet's delight is contagious.
It costs too much but these three Poirots are definitely worth seeing, and their presentation here is near-flawless. I'm not a fan of the manner in which this series is being sold, but the content therein is way above average. Highly Recommended.
* Watching Curry, notably filled out since his Rocky Horror days, it's easy to imagine how in another life he might also have made an excellent Poirot.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.