Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Agatha Christie’s Poirot - Series 11

Agatha Christie’s Poirot – An Introduction
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 1
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 2
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 3
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 4
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 5
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 6
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 7
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 8
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 9
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 10

1. Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (first broadcast September 1, 2008): Mrs. McGinty, a charwoman (cleaning lady) in the small village of Broadhinny, is found murdered and robbed of several pounds. Her lodger, an unemployed young man named James Bentley, is immediately arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to death for the crime. During the course of the trial, Superintendent Spence, who investigated the murder and arrested Bentley, becomes increasingly unconvinced of the young man’s guilt but has no evidence to the contrary. After Bentley is sentenced, Superintendent Spence shares his doubt about Bentley’s guilt with his friend Hercule Poirot and appeals to the detective to determine whether there is any evidence that either proves or disproves Bentley’s guilt. Poirot travels to Broadhinny to learn more about Mrs. McGinty and discovers that several days before her death, the charwoman, who was not a letter writer, bought a bottle of ink and cut out an article from a tabloid newspaper asking whatever became of several women of notorius tragedies from years past. Poirot tracks down the writer of the article only to discover that Mrs. McGinty had written a letter to the reporter claiming to have previously seen one of the pictures included in the article somewhere before. Mrs. McGinty had asked whether the paper was willing to pay for the information and, if so, how much. Since Mrs. McGinty was brutally murdered before a reply could come, nothing ever came of it. Meanwhile crime writer Ariadne Oliver arrives in Broadhinny to work on an adaptation of one her books with the young playwright Robin Updward. Mrs. Oliver literally bumps into M. Poirot and the detective reveals the purpose for his being in the small village. He goes about determining which of the women from the newspaper article might have been in Broadhinney back when Mrs. McGinty was murdered. He finds out that Mrs. Upward, Robin’s mother, recalls one of the photographs from the article. But she can’t place how or where she knows it. Poirot suspects Mrs. Upward knows more than she is saying. She is then discovered strangled to death and the clues point to a female suspect. Is it one of the women from the newspaper article? Poirot senses a pattern to the crimes but cannot see it until several more clues emerge.

First published in 1952, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead also appeared under the strangely inappropriate title of Blood Will Tell. Like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and Dumb Witness (1937), Mrs. McGinty’s Dead returns Hercule Poirot to the quiet English village, the murderous stomping grounds of the author’s other famed sleuth, Jane Marple. Investigating a crime that already has a murderer sentenced to death, Poriot races against the clock unraveling an unusually complex plot that takes in an uncooperative innocent on death row, a village peopled by working-class strangers to Poirot and a newpaper article musing on the fate of several women with murderous tragedies in their past (all of the past crimes are based on actual murders but one of them, involving a man named Craig, is based on Dr. Crippen’s notorious murder of his wife Cora in 1910, with Eva Kane modeled on Crippen’s mistress, Ethel Le Neve). This maze subjects Poirot to yet another post-War English landscape, though the War has less to do with the plot’s machinations here than Christie’s constructs of Taken at the Flood (1948) and After the Funeral (1953). Here, though, Christie quotes a number of English poets (Robert Browning, twice, Lord Alfred Tennyson and William Ernest Henley) to, perhaps, trumpet England’s rich and proud artistic heritage.

Parentage, as it so often does in Agatha Christie’s work, plays a significant part in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, “Dead Man’s Mirror,” “The Case of the Missing Will”). But here the author doesn’t murder off the mothers as she does in, say, Sad Cypress (1940) or Ordeal by Innocence (1958), even though these mothers and those that are referenced do worse by their offspring in this particular telling. Mrs. McGinty’s Dead also employs a significant plot twist on the nature of names, similar to important name games that Agatha Christie used to turn the plots of Peril at End House (1932) and the clever Miss Marple novel of two years earlier, A Murder Is Announced (1950).

The author, who initially considered but abandoned including “2 young men who live together” among the group of suspects, presents a primary suspect, James Bentley, who is likely a closeted homosexual, certainly, at least a “mama’s boy.” Regardless of Bentley’s unknown and unimportant sexuality, the author proposes a fascinating scenario not terribly dissimilar to the one Franz Kafka devised for The Trial’s Joseph K., where the entire village of Broadhinny judges the poor young man guilty of the ultimate crime of murder for his criminally “queer” nature alone. It’s also easy to conclude that the novel’s real killer, a most flamboyant and curiously single individual (heterosexual indifference is a coded way writers can suggest homosexuality), is indeed homosexual, which, for the deeply contextual reader, curiously reinforces the cultural stereotype that “queer” equals “crime(s) against humanity,” as significant a ramification as the author’s and/or her characters’ frequent equation of “foreigners” as undesirable “others.”

Mrs. McGinty’s Dead was first filmed in 1964 as Murder Most Foul, replacing Hercule Poirot with Margaret Rutherford’s wacky Miss Marple. The film, which might be one of the best of Rutherford’s four Miss Marple films, makes a number of reasonable references to Shakespeare (notably the film’s title), The Lodger and several ficticious references to Agatha Christie herself. Murder Most Foul maintains the story’s basic premise of the lodger being tried for the murder of Mrs. McGinty, though changes almost everything else, including Miss Marple’s insertion into the thread of the plot and the typical way Rutherford’s character makes deductions from similar crimes found in books and stage plays. Still, of course, she gets it right in the end, even if it has little to do with detection.

Mrs. McGinty’s Dead was scripted by Nick Dear in his third Poirot film following The Hollow (2004) and Cards on the Table (2005) and simplifies the text most remarkably to its barest possible essentials – though it may take several viewings to understand how it all unfolds as it does. Dear maintains a great deal of the author’s crisp and incisive dialogue but excises the nasty Wetherbys and their daughter, Deirdre Henderson (a possible love interest for James Bentley, at least as far as the regrettable matchmaker Poirot is concerned), minimizes the sub-plot of the anonymous letters Mrs. Rendell receives (and the nature of those letters), changes who pushes Poirot in front of the train (and why), reduces the number of crimes from Pamela Horsefall’s article to only two (a good idea), changes Charles Bentley’s reclusive and introspective nature into a poet’s temperament and recasts Maude from Poirot’s undercover agent (similar to what Miss Marple does in 4.50 from Paddington) to more of an independent sleuth with her own mysterious objective.

The film is directed by Ashley Pearce who also directed this series’ Appointment with Death (2008) and casts an eerie – and singularly unusual – dark pallor over the proceedings that is much in tune with the book’s surprising darkness. Pearce is careful about catching or crafting dark, foreboding skylines into his mise en scene. He accomplishes this with a careful composition of iconically staged shots, which significantly underscore the important ambiguity of photographs, and many overhead camera angles (“God shots”) that give the viewer the questionably uncomfortable omnipotence of peeking into everyone else’s lives and judging them like a detective might. Stephen McKeon’s score, a surprisingly successful mix of Philip Glass and John Williams, is remarkably effective in achieving these ends, though the curious use of the melodica, a keyboard instrument, now suggests the music of the Harry Potter films a bit more than is appropriate. Refreshingly, the score does offer several hints of Christopher Gunning’s Poirot theme, which hadn’t been heard in any of the films for quite some time.

A number of people returned to Mrs. McGinty’s Dead from previous Poirot films, including the recurring characters Ariadne Oliver (Zoë Wannamaker) from Cards on the Table and both Superintendent Spence (Richard Hope) and George (David Yelland) from Taken at the Flood. Also returning to Poirot are actors Catherine Russell (Pamela Horsfall) from the 1991 Poirot film How Does Your Garden Grow, Richard Lintern (Guy Carpenter) from the 1993 Poirot film Dead Man’s Mirror and Simon Shepherd (Dr. Rendell, who also appeared in the 1985 Miss Marple film A Murder Is Announced) and Simon Molloy (District Judge), who both appeared in the 1993 Poirot film The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan. Sarah Smart (Maude) also appeared in the 2009 Marple film They Do It With Mirrors while Mary Stockley (Josie Turner) appeared in the 2004 Marple film The Body in the Library and Paul Rhys (Robin Upward) appeared in the 2010 Marple film The Blue Geranium.

2. Cat Among The Pigeons (first broadcast September 8, 2008): Meadowbank is considered one of the finest girl’s schools in all of England. After many years of success, though, something about this term seems very different, almost amiss, to those who’ve been part of the school for a while. The headmistress and founder of Meadowbank, Miss Bulstrode, is considering retiring from her position and is troubled by choosing a successor who is best suited to carry on leading the school in the innovative tradition that she has established. There are also several teachers and staff members that are new to Meadowbank this term, which leads to some turmoil and conflict as well. Meanwhile, a political revolution in the small country of Ramat in the Persian Gulf several months earlier also has significant impact on the girl’s school. The country’s democratically-oriented ruler, Ali Yusuf, is slain and the ruling family’s riches seem to disappear from the country shortly before he is killed. Coincidentally, the country’s young Princess Shaista comes to Meadowbank as a student this term and another one of the school’s students, Jennifer Sutcliffe, was actually in Ramat with her mother at the inception of the revolution but was evacuated just hours before the uprising occurred. Suddenly, late one night at Meadowbank, the games mistress, Miss Springer, is discovered murdered in the school’s sports pavilion. The panic is minimized until other foul play ensues, forcing parents to withdraw their children from the school. Poirot investigates, piecing together various clues that lead him to determine the motives and the perpetrators of the strange happenings at Meadowbank.

First published in 1959, Cat among the Pigeons is a pondering curiousity; much more complex and longer than most Agatha Christie novels, it mixes then-in international intruigue (which the author had dabbled in as far back as 1927’s The Big Four and as recently as 1951’s They Came to Baghdad) with murder in yet another microcosm, in this case, most uniquely, a girl’s school. It’s an intruiging idea that might have been a bit too ambituous for its own good. But while it’s a little slow to get going or envelope the reader, the book finally ends up packing a wallop of a punch in its last half. A curiously lengthy prologue is followed by an elaborate set-up that prevents the first murder – or any sort of real grabber – until the eighth chapter. It’s just too much of a set up. The famous Belgian detective is never even mentioned or introduced until about two thirds of the way through the book in the 17th chapter, which suggests that the author was probably forced against her will to include Poirot in the story – although the bumbling investigation goes on a bit too long for even the most patient of murder mystery readers.

Written by actor/writer/producer Mark Gatiss, who would go on to act in the 2008 Poirot film Appointment with Death and write the 2010 Poirot film Hallowe’en Party, the film of Cat among the Pigeons is a reasonably short-handed version of the original novel that captures enough of what it needs to make its questionable points. Gatiss wisely introduces Poriot into the story much, much earlier than the author does as a long-time friend of Miss Bulstrode and guest presenter of the school’s MacGuffin-like “Pemberton Lacrosse Shield” (in the book it is Julia Upjohn, whose mother is friends with Mrs. Summerhayes from Poirot’s adventures in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, that brings Poirot into the story much later in the plot). Gatiss does away with many of Christie’s characters including Col. Pikeaway, the mysterious Mr. Robinson, Briggs the gardener, Denis (Ann’s boyfriend), Henry Sutcliffe and, most significantly, Eleanor Vansittart (though Miss Rich’s character inherits some of her fate and her characteristics) and, wisely, adds, two more students to the mix: Patrica Forbes and Hsui Tai. The script also changes the nature of a significant witness in Ramat from peeping-tom neighbor to one-time lover, (needlessly) adds an effigy doll of Miss Springer, changes Shaista’s status from cousin of Ali Yusuf to fiancé, does away with Mlle. Blanche’s identity theft and the questionable ownership of the jewels and deletes a character who has nothing to do with the story at the end of the novel that ends up with the rights to the missing jewels. Interestingly, the novel never details any of the murders. They occur between chapter breaks. But Miss Springer comes to an altogether different and more gruesome end in the film than in the book, where she is merely shot. Her demise here is also more visually appealing – and considerably more satisfying, given her repellant nature – to horror-film aficionados than the typical shotgun murder.

Cat among the Pigeons is directed winningly by James Kent in a subtle and appropriate mix of Suspiria and Harry Potter, a sort of popular-film shorthand of the childlike terrors and bizarre adult hindsight romanticism of school life. It’s professionally mounted, with many elegantly staged sequences such as the choreography of opening day, the rainy night of Miss Springer’s murder, the dark passages of the school and the seemingly menacing sports pavaillon. But the story’s cleverness is more in its telling than its performance, despite some exceptionally good performances here, notably Harriet Walter as Miss Bulstrode, Susan Woolridge as Miss Chadwick, Natasha Little as Ann Shapland and, most especially, Lois Edmett as Julia Upjohn. It looks good, but sadly it’s really not among the most memorable of Agatha Christie’s stories and, as a result, not one of the greatest of the Poirot films.

Harriet Walter (Miss Bulstrode) also appeared in the 2006 Marple film Sleeping Murder while Carol MacReady (Miss Johnson) also appeared as Mrs. Croft in the 1990 Poirot film Peril at End House and Mrs. Pierce in the 1982 TV film Murder is Easy. Claire Skinner (Miss Rich) also appeared in the 2005 Marple film A Murder Is Announced, SusanWooldridge (Miss Chadwick) also appeared in the 1986 TV film Dead Man’s Folly, Pippa Haywood (Mrs. Upjohn) also appeared in the 2007 Marple film Ordeal by Innocence, Jane Howe (the drunken Lady Veronica) also had a brief scene as a gossipy party goer in the 2005 Poirot film The Mystery of the Blue Train, Don Gallagher (Mr. Forbes) also appeared in the 2010 Marple film The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side and the pretty Jo Woodcock (Jennifer Sutcliff) also appeared in the 2007 Marple film Towards Zero.

3. Third Girl (first broadcast September 15, 2008): A young woman arrives unannounced at Hercule Poirot’s apartment claiming she thinks she may have committed a murder. Before she elaborates any further, she suddenly departs. The meeting worries Poirot and the detective contacts his old friend, the crime writer Ariadne Oliver, who reveals that it was she who suggested the young woman consult Poirot. The young woman turns out to be Norma Restarick, a scion of a wealthy family and the “third girl” sharing a London flat with two other girls. Together, Mrs. Oliver and M. Poirot set out to find the girl and learn the truth behind her claim. Poirot looks into the background of the girl’s family and encounters an elderly uncle and her father, who left her and her now decesased mother many years before for another woman. Meanwhile Mrs. Oliver seeks to learn more about the girl’s friends and roommates, discovering that she is in love with a young man named David, someone the girl’s father thoroughly disapproves. It is sometime before Poirot discovers a death that occurred in the girl’s apartment building and, suddenly the pattern of the puzzle becomes clearer.

First published in 1966 in the UK and in 1967 in the US, Third Girl is a decent potboiler that’s built upon one too many coincidences to be believable. By the denoument, some of the revelations seem so preposterous that they can only bear Mrs. Oliver’s quip that “it sounds like…an old-fashioned detective story,” at least a fictional one such as this. Still, the needle – which takes an unusually long time to thread here (the death which is in fact a murder is only discovered in the book’s third act) – weaves a compelling if slightly implausible tale. Third Girl is one of Christie’s swinging sixties mysteries, with then-topical references to beatniks, hippies, gangs, reefers, drugs (“hopped up” young people), Mods and The Beatles. The “you’re too old” insult which affronts Poirot and motivates his desire to prove otherwise is probably the author’s way of, generally, addressing the then-burgeoning premise of the “generation gap” and, specifically, one imagines, to admonish critics who might consider her old-fashioned brand of detective fiction out of date. Indeed, with Third Girl, Agatha Christie confirms that she still possessed an amazing facility to reinvent detective fiction after nearly half a century (!) of writing. The author does, however, seem to despair of the times as they were: boys that look like girls, girls that like boys only for sex, and the pervasive long hair that provides the book with one of its most unbelievable revelations. Still, the author seems much less reluctant for the first time in many years to put her best selling and aged sleuth in the thick of things, even if it’s only to prove a point. One point of interest in the novel is in chapter 13 when Sir Roderick Horsfield, in an effort to recall Poirot’s first name, considers that it is “something like Achilles,” and notes, of course, that it’s not Achilles. This is the name that Poirot himself later uses in Curtain (1975, but written during World War II) when he names his brother.

The novel is rife with Poirot’s ruminations and reflections – infuriating even Mrs. Oliver – and a long search for a death that could affirm the girl’s thought that she may have murdered someone, making it, perhaps, one of the more difficult of Agatha Christie’s novels to film adequately. As scripted by Peter Flannery and directed by Dan Reed in their only Poirot endeavors, Third Girl gets a considerable overhaul that maintains pretty much only Norma’s intial claim, the unmasked imposter and the imposter’s murderous co-conspiritor. The most obvious change is setting the story’s clock back to the 1930s, the setting for the the time period of the rest of the Poirot series – a time that might not justify a “third girl” or “the peacock” as well as the considerably different era of the 1960s would (now, perhaps, too much of a revisionist joke, not unlike the Austin Powers movies). Many of the novel’s main characters remain, though Miss Lemon, Dr. Stillingfleet (from “The Dream”) and the private investigator Mr. Goby (who was also left out of the film version of After the Funeral) are dispensed with. The main characters are almost completely different here than their novel counterparts and not only is Louise Charpentier, Andrew’s former lover, turned into Lavinia Seagram, Norma’s former nanny, their suspicious deaths are completely different too. Poirot is also told here that Mrs Oliver sent Norma Restarick to him (in the book he discovers this later) and, conveniently, discovers Nanny Seagram’s death while he questions Mrs. Oliver about Norma (Poirot finds out about Louise’s death very late in the book). Mary Restarick goes from being Andrew’s current wife to being the wife he left many years ago (who, preposterously, kills herself on young Norma’s birthday), leaving Andrew free to dally with his secretary. Here, too, Miss Battersby has a terrible secret to hide that she doesn’t have in the book, which Poirot somehow figures out. David Baker is also a shady character with the good intentions he doesn’t have in the book, allowing “The Peacock” to survive the film. He’s not so lucky in the novel. The point of all these changes was – probably – to remove the tissue of coincidence that informs so much of the novel. But the result, which is still Christiesque (“Dead Man’s Mirror,” “The Case of the Missing Will,” Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Sad Cypress), remains almost as outlandish. The one mistake the filmmakers make is omitting the influence of drugs on Norma. In the novel, Norma’s blackouts and actions are easily explained by the use of drugs. In the film, she does appear to be troubled by the deep psychological problems the scriptwriter provides for her, but it can hardly explain what sort of pressure would force her to believe that she is capable of murder.

The film looks unnecessarily dark, suggesting dark forces at work in all quarters, but the setting is unusually elegant, as if it were filmed in Amsterdam or some other old-world European city more than London, which would probably be prohibitively expensive to recreate in a 1930s perspective. Reed’s restless camera pokes around like a spy in almost every scene, telling of many covert missions, not unlike a Harry Potter movie – which Steven McKeon’s music again suggests (though Christopher Gunning’s main theme is used for the first time in quite a few years here). One of the most clever things the filmmakers do here, whether by accident or design, is include the somewhat relevant “mother losing her child” painting featured in the 1993 film of Dead Man’s Mirror in David’s studio while he’s painting Frances.It’s one of the paintings that leads Mrs. Oliver to conclude that David is a good painter, though it’s hard to say why he would paint this particular image, which would have no particular meaning to either him or Frances.

David Yelland and Zoë Wannamaker make welcome returns to Poirot in Third Girl as, respectively, George the valet and Ariadne Oliver, the crime writer. Even some of the other Third Girl actors returned to Poirot from different roles earlier in the series, including Lucy Leimann (Sonia), who appeared as Miss Burgess in the 2005 film Cards on the Table, Haydn Gwynne (Miss Battersby), who appeared as Coco in the 1991 film The Affair at the Victory Ball, and Tim Stern (Alf, the concierge), who also appeared in the 2004 Marple film 4.50 From Paddington and was a bellboy in the 1993 film The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan. Third Girl “name” actors include James Wilby (Andrew Restarick), who also appeared in the 2006 Marple film The Sittaford Mystery and Peter Bowles (Sir Roderick Horsfield), who also appeared in the excellent 1972 film Endless Night.

4. Appointment with Death (first broadcast September 22, 2008): While holidaying in Jerusalem, Hercule Poirot encounters a family headed by the tyrannical Mrs. Boynton, a mother who rules her adult step children so methodically that they have no real lives of their own. One afternoon, while the family is out exploring the Holy Land, Mrs. Boynton is discovered dead. Poirot is asked to investigate the death and wends his way through a maze of people who wanted the woman dead and the fact that the detective himself actually heard two of the children discuss killing her.

First published in 1938, Appointment with Death is a travelogue murder mystery in the signature tradition of the author’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), Death on the Nile (1937) and Evil Under the Sun (1941), where a group of seemingly dissimilar people congregate in a picturesque microcosm that provokes murder. Many of the aforementioned novels rank among the author’s most popular, but Appointment with Death is an exception, probably as it is peopled by particularly awful women, from the tyrant Mrs. Boynton – a textbook ugly American – who has the titular fate, to the obnoxiously opiniated Lady Westholme and even the smug, recently-doctored (as she likes reminding everyone), Sarah King, who could be a poster child for feminism and female achievement were it not for her grating, unlikable personality. Mrs. Boynton, in particular, is a monsterous creation, not unlike her male counterpart, Simeon Lee, from Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, published just six months after Appointment with Death. (As an aside, it is interesting to note how Christie kills these two parental tyrants off for reasons other than their parental tyranny.) Too few of the remaining females have endearing enough characteristics – perhaps only Nadine and Carol are remotely likable – and the males barely register as manly or masculine to matter much at all. Like Death in the Clouds (1935), the murderer here conceals their crime by dressing like a servant and like the previously-filmed Third Girl (1966), Appointment with Death turns on a remark made within Poirot’s earshot; in this case it is “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed” and another phrase that is said to one person but meant for another that motivates the horrible woman’s death.

The story is one of Christie’s least engaging and, despite all of the potentially fascinating but heavy-handed Freudian psychology involved, one of her least believable. Even after proving how pretty much everyone could have murdered Mrs. Boynton, Poirot’s resolution to the crime is particularly difficult to accept as it is based on, one, a conversation that the detective was not present for and one whose true significance is unable to be vouched for by those who were there and, two, what amounts to guessing at the killer’s background and ultimate motivation for the crime. The killer’s suicide at the end of the novel also pretty much absolves the author of coming up with any real “evidence” that points to the murderer, something Poirot conveniently said early on that he could not guarantee. It’s kind of a cheat that seems to have not agreed with even the author herself, who revised the story for a 1945 stage play, dropping Hercule Poirot from the cast as well as changing the identity of the killer and the motivation for Mrs. Boynton’s death. Significantly, and predictably, neither the novel nor the play factors much in Agatha Christie’s own autobiography. While the play originally premiered in Glasgow, the 1945 West End (London) production of the play was significant for including among its cast a young Joan Hickson, playing Miss Pryce. Agatha Christie was so taken by Miss Hickson’s performance in the play that she wrote to the actress, expressing her hope that she would one day play her beloved Miss Marple. Indeed, Joan Hickson assumed the role of the elderly spinster many years later for an excellent series of 12 BBC TV productions made between 1984 and 1992.

Appointment with Death was first filmed in 1988 by Michael (Death Wish) Winner, with a fanciful script written in part by Anthony Schaffer, who also wrote 1978’s Death on the Nile and 1982’s Evil Under the Sun. The surprisingly handsome Golan/Globus feature film presented Peter Ustinov in his last of six performances as Hercule Poirot and rightly returned the great detective back to the 1930s after several TV productions that took place in oddly contemporary settings. The starry cast featured John Gielgud and Lauren Bacall (both of whom were featured in the 1974 film of Murder on the Orient Express), David Soul (who appeared in the 2004 Poirot film Death on the Nile), Hayley Mills (who appeared in the 1972 film Endless Night) and everybody’s nightmare of a mother, Piper Laurie (Carrie, also scored by this film’s composer, Pino Donaggio). The story took a number of liberties, but wound up pretty much as Agatha Christie’s novel, without the appallingly melodramatic epilogue the author added to the text.

The 2008 film adaptation of Appointment of Death seems to recognize the myriad faults of the author’s text and strives to improve the story with a number of changes that, surprisingly, render the film among the very worst in a series that now stretches past two decades in age. The original text’s most important motifs - “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed” and “I never forget. I’ve never forgotten anything - not an action, not a name, not a face” – aren’t even present or part of the action here. Written in an arch, obtuse manner by Guy Andrews, who also wrote The Mystery of the Blue Train (2005) and Taken at the Flood (2006), the script of Appointment with Death does away with Nadine and Miss Pierce and adds many pointless characters such as Lord Boynton, archaeologist (like Christie’s second husband, Max Mallowan), in a peculiar search for the head of John the Baptist, a nanny who administers the beatings of children at the behest of Mrs. Boynton (something not even hinted at in the book) and the truly bizarre creation of Sister Agnieszka, a white slaver who has an unnatural interest in one of the Boynton girls. Andrews changes any number of the author’s original ideas and intentions to an almost preposterous degree. Such changes include an overwhelming and uncomfortable Catholic undertone to the story, the fact that all of the Boynton children are adopted (like the many suspects in Ordeal by Innocence), the parentage and adopted parentage of a number of characters – particularly Jinny, whose real parents turn out to be as awful as her stepmother – the switch from Lady Westholme, M.P., to Dame Celia Westholme, travel writer, and most surprisingly for a Poirot film, the unbelievable addition of a murderous accomplice, who masterminds an even more gruesome, Giallo-like (La corta notte delle bambole di vetro/Short Night of the Glass Dolls) end to Mrs. Boynton than the original murderer conceived.

Directed by Ashley Pearce, who helmed the Poirot films Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and Three Act Tragedy (2010), Appointment with Death was filmed on location in Morocco like a circus of freakish events, from the hysterically blowsy Cheryl Campbell as the American Lady Boynton to John Hannah’s doctor, who here is Scottish rather than French, probably in deference to the great John Rebus character the actor played briefly several years before in Rebus. Like Tom Clegg’s 2001 Poirot film Murder in Mesopotamia, Appointment with Death benefits by the way Pearce makes the story look more substantial than it ultimately is. The vistas and the compositions are often opulent, which unfortunately can’t improve a story that is delivered with so many red “fish”and such purple prose as to be, in the end, ridiculous.

Despite some big names in the cast (Tim Curry, Elizabeth McGovern), the casting seems particularly off here, though it’s hard to say which is worse: the horribly written roles or the rather inept casting of the characters. Only Christina Cole as Sarah Price seems cast correctly and plays her part quite well, improving on the character as written in the book. Cheryl Campbell (Lady Boynton) also appeared in the 1986 Miss Marple film The Murder at the Vicerage and the 1981 TV film The Seven Dials Mystery. Christina Cole (Sarah Price) and Angela Pleasance (Nanny) also appeared in the 2004 Marple film The Murder at the Vicerage. Handsome Tom Riley (Raymond) also appeared in the 2007 Marple film Ordeal by Innocence while John Hannah (Dr. Gerard) also appeared in the 2004 Marple film 4.50 from Paddington and Beth Goddard (Sister Agnieszka) also appeared as Violet Wilson in the 1993 Poirot film The Case of the Missing Will. Mark Gatiss, who plays Leonard very differently from the novel’s Lennox, also wrote the Poirot scripts Cat Among the Pigeons and Hallowe’en Party (2010).

Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 12

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