Acorn Media // 2008 // 275 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // July 21st, 2010
"It is now time for Poirot to reveal to you...the truth!" -- Hercule Poirot
And reveal it he will, with considerable flair and plenty of references to himself in the third person. Agatha Christie's other famous detective, Miss Marple, uses her gentle old lady persona to fly under suspects' radar and gain their trust, but Poirot (David Suchet, The Bank Job) plays the sleuthing game fully in the open as an eccentric crime-solving celebrity. Fortunately, his fame is well-deserved and his "little grey cells" seem capable of cracking any case. Also fortunately, Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Movie Collection, Set 5 confronts Poirot with some unusual moral and emotional challenges, as well, that throw him off balance. Said challenges, along with extremely solid work on an audiovisual level, position Set 5 as an impressive reinvigoration of a franchise that has just passed the two-decade mark.
Poirot is a fussy little Belgian whose 1930s detective operation is based out of his impeccably neat London flat. Most often, though, he seems to be solving mysteries "on the road." Poirot movies premiere regularly on British television, and Set 5 collects three of the most recent, which each run around 90 minutes and follow the familiar murder-investigation-accusation structure:
* "Murder on the Orient Express" (2010)
In one of Christie's most famous mysteries, Poirot sees his return journey from Istanbul on the luxurious train disrupted by a number of irritations: a grouchy roommate, a snow bank that delays the train, a resulting loss of power and heat as it waits to proceed, and -- oh yes -- a grisly stabbing murder. Will the ever-worsening conditions aboard the train throw Poirot off his game, or will he be able to sift out a killer from among the colorful passengers?
* "Third Girl" (2008)
Poirot's mystery-writing gal pal Ariadne Oliver (Zoë Wanamaker, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) throws a case his way when a young neighbor of hers fears that she might have committed a murder. The girl in question turns out to have a complicated life full of suspicious people and situations: an absentee father, a mother who died traumatically, a shifty artist admirer, an alcoholic former nanny, two catty roommates, and a mammoth inheritance that may motivate some of these folks to want her dead.
* "Appointment with Death" (2008)
Poirot's back to visit another archaeological dig in the desert (as he has before, in "Murder in Mesopotamia," for example -- Christie's husband was an archaeologist). This time it's a search for the head of John the Baptist. As usual, a murder crops up to keep the good detective occupied. The corpse in question is of the lead archaeologist's (Tim Curry, The Rocky Horror Picture Show) widely loathed American wife. With so many people obviously having reason to want her dead, Poirot confronts an excess of suspects.
This newest batch of television movies in ITV's long-running Poirot series is simply splendid, though Acorn Media's collecting and presentation of said films leaves a bit to be desired. Having previously reviewed the dozen or so most recent installments in this series, it's impressive how greatly quality has improved over the last decade of its run. While Suchet has always been absurdly good as Poirot, the character's on-screen adventures in the early 2000s otherwise felt rather flat and lifeless: colors were drab, cinematography was staid, and supporting performances didn't reliably connect. In the past few years, happily, someone at ITV seems to have breathed new life into the series. There is evidence across the board of considerable talent and ambition being invested in these films -- from graceful tracking shots and striking frame compositions, to swelling scores, to performers who find ways to make a character more than just another corpse or killer among many in these Christie stories.
All of these elements are quite strong in 2008's Appointment with Death, which managed to get me really invested in a fairly ho-hum mystery with its lavish audiovisual elements and its acting. The archaeologist's narration of the ancient "appointment with death" tale, for example, draws the viewer in with its dramatic lighting, deft use of soft focus, high-energy score, and with Curry and Suchet's almost whispered line deliveries. The accusation scene also gets surprisingly emotional in this story, and features some marvelous acting that I can't praise further for fear of spoilers. Apparently, much about Appointment has been altered in the process of adaptation, but if you have no attachment to the original novel you'll simply appreciate a well-told murder mystery here. Starting and ending in an opulent North African hotel with its middle shot in an old desert fortress, it takes full advantage of its on-location filming in Casablanca and Morocco -- and also of its opportunity to show the dainty detective irritated by the ever-present dust and the early-morning calls to prayer.
Also premiering in 2008 was Third Girl, the weakest film in this particular collection but still above average for the series. The problem here is that the characters feel like a typical collection of Christie's wealthy and wannabe-wealthy scoundrels, with little to distinguish them. Fortunately, this weakness is redeemed by the inclusion of recurring Poirot sidekick Ariadne Oliver, a female mystery writer whose approach to solving a mystery usually contrasts comically with Poirot's. She's a great foil for him and in Third Girl they get some amusing banter going. She bugs him about clues as they leave an interview and he shushes her, explaining, "I heard you madam. I am thinking. It is my custom." Little comic moments carry this one through, until a nicely tender moment from Poirot closes the film. Having cracked the case, which involved many emotions for those involved, Poirot asks Ariadne rhetorically, "Am I so calculating? Am I a solver of puzzles with a heart that is cold?" and takes a moment to reflect on his own emotional involvement with his mysteries.
As if in answer to Poirot's rhetorical questions that close Third Girl, 2010's Murder on the Orient Express finds the detective's feelings deeply in conflict with his logic and rules. Orient Express is probably Christie's most admired mystery, and everyone working on this adaptation seems to be pulling out all the stops to live up to its reputation. In particular, the famous train interiors look impeccably lavish (though its exterior shots seem to suffer from budget constraints), and Suchet gives a powerful and unexpected take on Poirot that sets the film apart from others in the series. Opening with Poirot remembering a just-finished case in which he inadvertently bullied a criminal to the point of suicide -- with blood from his gunshot splattering on the prim detective -- the film immediately places him in a fog of self-doubt. Normally, Poirot is unfailingly confident and unapologetically aggressive in his pursuit of the truth, but the remembered case as well as the case that's about to follow call his methods into question, and even the value of truth itself. Suchet doesn't shy away from these dark moments a bit, but rather embraces them by having Poirot vacillate between moments of despair and panic. He keeps it together enough to solve the case, but of course he's able to solve the case. In Orient Express, it's not his "little grey cells" that are being tested -- it's his moral compass. This adaptation, unfortunately, has to contend with fans' memories of the star-studded 1974 film version of the book. It's been about 15 years since I've watched that one, so my deep appreciation for the 2010 version wasn't marred by familiarity with this previous rendition. In a broad sense, I would think that this series' adaptation of Orient Express would have an advantage over a stand-alone film version because it derives so much power from the contrast between the standard version of Poirot we've come to know in case after case and the wounded version that Suchet gives us here.
Of course, Poirot himself -- whether confident or shaken -- is the main draw of the Poirot series. Suchet manages to balance all of this character's key elements -- his logic, his compassion, his neuroses, his indignation, and his perpetual out-of-placeness -- in a way that lets him easily navigate both comedy and drama in the same story. In the lighter and banter-filled Third Girl, he builds a more serious and emotional moment to end the film, with his questions about a "heart that is cold." Then in the somber Orient Express he still manages to find little oases of amusement, as in his impatience with and teasing of a passenger who helps him investigate. Whether he draws his talent from his own "little grey cells" or from a less cerebral place, David Suchet is this series' treasure and deserves a great deal of the credit for its success and longevity.
While I'll also dispense some credit to Acorn Media and to A&E for each distributing Christie's British TV movies to a U.S. DVD audience, I must say that they do so in a way that drives collectors crazy. Both Poirot and Marple releases are full of double-dips from previous sets and one can only sometimes find rhyme or reason in the way individual films are selected for and ordered within one of their box sets (for an egregious example, see my review of Agatha Christie: Poirot and Marple Crime Anthology Collection). Acorn Media's Set 5 continues this confusing trend by including two Poirot films aired in 2008, one aired in 2010, and skipping over three others aired in the interim -- which, as far as I can tell, haven't been released in any other set. Furthermore, 2010's Orient Express comes first in the collection, though last in terms of air dates, followed by Third Girl and Appointment. I had a hunch that this strange ordering might follow Christie's publication dates for the books, but nope. At least the packaging is pretty nice, with three slim cases in a handsome outer shell.
The other shortcomings of Poirot releases are usually picture quality and extras. The former is still a problem on Set 5, with visible compression artifacts (sometimes very visible) marring the crew's lovely work on the look of these films. The darker scenes of Orient Express look particularly bad, perhaps to be improved by the stand-alone Blu-Ray release of this installment that's planned for October. Elsewhere, the image looks good -- especially in its nice colors and widescreen presentation -- and sound quality didn't present any problems for me, though it would be better to have a 5.1 surround track than the stereo offering we get. In the extras department, Acorn Media actually gave us a substantive one this time! In addition to their usual screens of text (filmographies, bibliographies, production notes from Suchet and Curry, and some tidbits about events for Christie's 120th anniversary), the Orient Express disc also includes a 47-minute documentary about the famous train. What could have been a dry outing is made much more exciting by its guide: David Suchet! Missing Poirot's moustache, bowler hat, and accent, Suchet becomes just a regular and rather lovely English chap whose train journey from London to Prague we follow. This documentary is really enjoyable and well-made, mixing a succinct history of the train with an immersive look at what it's like to ride it today and also with a fun opportunity to see Suchet out of character. He chats with the staff and passengers (cheerfully enduring constant jokes about "I hope there won't be a murder on this trip!" and "I know whodunnit!"), gets a real thrill from taking a turn as the train's conductor, and even lets the camera watch as he tucks himself into his compartment's bed in a smart pair of pajamas. This is a great extra from Acorn Media and highly recommended viewing.
"Shall I tell you what I know?" Poirot whispers this to the passengers of the Orient Express in this case's climactic scene, making the phrase both an enticement and a threat. Tell us he shall, over and over again in case after case, and as long as Suchet's Poirot is doing the telling, I'll be hanging on every word.
Not guilty -- unlike most of the folks Poirot seems to meet.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 275 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Text Features
* DVD Verdict review: Poirot, Classic Crimes Collection
* DVD Verdict review: Poirot, The New Mysteries Collection
* DVD Verdict review: Poirot, The Definitive Collection