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Case Number 06620

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Agatha Christie's Poirot: The New Mysteries Collection

Five Little Pigs
2003 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Sad Cypress
2003 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Death On The Nile
2004 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
The Hollow
2004 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by A&E
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // April 20th, 2005

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees defers to the great detective's judgment in just about every matter except for moustaches: Wax should be for removing them, not styling them.

The Charge

"I have concluded that nothing in this matter is what it seems."—Hercule Poirot

Opening Statement

These four recent made-for-television movies featuring Agatha Christie's master detective Hercule Poirot, indelibly portrayed by David Suchet, are now available in a boxed set. Featuring beautiful period production values and appearances by such distinguished actors as Gemma Jones (Sense and Sensibility), Edward Fox (The Republic of Love), Toby Stephens (Die Another Day), and James Fox (The Remains of the Day), these handsomely mounted feature-length mysteries should satisfy fans of the detective who is famous for using his little grey cells.

Facts of the Case

• Death on the Nile (directed by Andy Wilson [Gormenghast]; screenplay by Kevin Elyot)
Beautiful, wealthy Linnett Ridgeway (Emily Blunt, Henry VIII) steals her best friend's fiancé, Simon (JJ Feild, K-19: The Widowmaker), and goes off with him on the Nile cruise that was meant to be his honeymoon with Jacqueline (Emma Malin, The Forsyte Saga: To Let). But the spurned Jacqueline shows up on the cruise as well, dogging the newlyweds' footsteps. Hercule Poirot, also on board, doesn't believe Jacqueline means any actual harm until Linnett is found murdered. Since Jacqueline has an alibi, though, it's up to the brilliant detective to determine who else among the motley assortment of passengers had cause, and opportunity, to kill Linnett.

• The Hollow (directed by Simon Langton [Pride and Prejudice]; screenplay by Nick Dear)
Poirot takes a house in the country, where he becomes a witness to the complicated—and ultimately deadly—goings-on at The Hollow, the residence of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. A love triangle between handsome doctor John Christow (Jonathan Cake, First Knight), his gentle wife Gerda (Claire Price), and dashing sculptress Henrietta Savernake (Megan Dodds, Malice Aforethought) becomes a quadrangle with the arrival of seductive movie star Veronica Cray (Lysette Anthony, Dracula: Dead and Loving It). When Gerda is discovered standing over the body of her faithless husband with a revolver, Poirot senses that there is more to the crime than meets the eye. His suspicions are confirmed by the contradictory stories he hears from dotty Lady Angkatell (Sarah Miles, White Mischief), her husband (Edward Hardwicke, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes), and their loyal butler Gudgeon (Edward Fox).

• Five Little Pigs (directed by Paul Unwin [Bramwell]; screenplay by Kevin Elyot)
Fourteen years after Caroline Crale (Rachael Stirling, Tipping the Velvet) was hanged for murdering her husband, Amyas, a philandering but brilliant artist, her daughter Lucy (Aimee Mullins) seeks out Poirot to determine whether her mother was actually guilty. Besides Lucy's parents, five people were on the scene when the death occurred, and Poirot seeks them out one by one to unearth the truth of what happened so many years ago. The five witnesses are Phillip Blake (Toby Stephens), Amyas's childhood friend; Meredith Blake, Phillip's herbalist brother, who carried a torch for Caroline; Angela Warren, then an adolescent, Caroline's tempestuous sister; Miss Williams, the governess (Gemma Jones); and Elsa Greer (Julie Cox, Children of Dune), the conscienceless beauty who was both model and mistress to Amyas.

• Sad Cypress (directed by Dave Moore; screenplay by David Pirie)
Young Elinor Carlisle (Elisabeth Dermot Walsh, Bertie and Elizabeth) is disturbed when she receives an anonymous letter warning her that her beloved aunt (Diana Quick) has fallen under the influence of an interloper since she had a stroke. Accompanied by her fiancé, Roddy Winter (Rupert Penry-Jones, The Four Feathers), Elinor goes to visit her aunt and finds that the former gardener's daughter, lovely young Mary Gerrard (Kelly Reilly, L'Auberge Espagnole), has returned from abroad. Worried about losing her inheritance—and Roddy—to Mary, Elinor falls under suspicion when death strikes. Poirot feels that Elinor is the likely culprit, but Dr. Peter Lord (Paul McGann, Queen of the Damned) has a soft spot for her and persuades Poirot to look beyond the obvious motives.

The Evidence

Although all four of these mystery movies share the same producers, they are interestingly varied in everything from visual style, mood, and pacing to the skill of the performances and the degree of suspense. The variety in directors and screenwriters—not to mention in cast members, of whom only the wonderful Suchet is a constant—results in striking differences, mostly for good, across this set.

Let's take Death on the Nile, the weakest film here, to start. Readers can see my full-length review on this film (linked in the sidebar) for a more in-depth analysis, so here I'll just sum up its striking points: solid screenplay, beautiful to look at, with some terribly amateurish acting by the young cast. What an amazing difference between that and, say, Five Little Pigs, which grabs our attention at once by showing us the tense final moments and execution of Caroline Crale, then uses a skillful counterpoint of present-day scenes and flashbacks to offer a kaleidoscope of different perspectives on the crime. Director Paul Unwin creates a striking look for this movie, using a cool, dreary color palette and subdued camera work for the present-day scenes and sunny-hued footage given liveliness by a handheld camera for the flashbacks to the fatal summer. Although the excess of camera joggle in the flashbacks became a bit much for me over the course of the film's running time, the artistry beautifully complements the story and accentuates the ways the characters' lives have changed since that pivotal event in their mutual past.

In contrast, Sad Cypress, the other outstanding film in this set, doesn't use fancy visuals or the rat-a-tat pacing of Five Little Pigs, yet it stands out as a well crafted, suspenseful, elegant adaptation. It, too, uses a cool palette, but the visual style is otherwise restrained; the standout elements are the story, which is given urgency by our attachment to Elinor and the ticking-bomb device of her approaching execution, and the performances. The device of starting this film with Elinor standing trial for murder is also an excellent way of generating story tension. The Hollow is the only one of the four to have a somewhat weak screenplay; it damages Poirot's credibility by making him draw some faulty conclusions and preoccupy himself with a character who is clearly a red herring, and he is never held accountable for his errors of judgment. This is also the only plot that feels like a bit of a cheat; in the other adaptations, the solution is always unexpected yet satisfying and logical, yet here the major clue that sets Poirot on the right track seems unfair when he explains it.

Except in Death on the Nile, there's no truly bad acting to be seen here, and some of these films boast simply terrific supporting performances. The Hollow mitigates its story weaknesses with some delightful comic performances by Edward Fox, who is dryly funny as the elderly butler, and Sarah Miles, who brings a wonderful combination of anxiety and loopiness to absentminded Lady Angkatell. It's a particular treat to see Edward Hardwicke, who was so memorable as Dr. Watson in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes adaptations, and Megan Dodds is enjoyable as the bold, independent Henrietta. Sad Cypress boasts a strong cast all around, with particularly fine performances by Paul McGann, whose characterization of Dr. Lord has something of the worn, melancholy appeal of Gabriel Byrne, and the excellent Elisabeth Dermot Walsh, who gives our heroine a poignant vulnerability that makes us care deeply about her fate. Five Little Pigs, too, derives much of its power from excellent acting. Toby Stephens gives his embittered character surprising depths, Aimee Mullins makes what could have been a thankless role effective, and Julie Cox does an admirable job as both the willful young vixen and the hardened, poised society lady she becomes. But the real laurels in this film go to the astonishing Rachael Stirling, who creates a character so nuanced, so varied, so capable of all things at once that she is able to support all the contradictions inherent in the reminiscences of the people who saw her so differently. Her beauty is of a type that can suggest both gentleness and fury, warmth and chilliness, so physically as well as artistically she is an ideal actress for the ambiguous character who may or may not have been a vicious killer.

Of course, every one of these adaptations benefits immeasurably from the presence of David Suchet. Generations to come will produce their own Poirots, but they will all be compared to Suchet's definitive characterization. From the detective's endearing vanity to his mixture of shrewdness and sentiment, Suchet is simply perfect as Poirot. If one can single out one facet of his characterization for particular praise, I think it's that he takes a character who is, as written, almost a caricature, and makes him human and believable while retaining his delightful idiosyncrasies. Other actors, such as Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express, have turned in enjoyable performances as Poirot, but performances is exactly what they are; Suchet simply seems to inhabit the role, to become this person. Long may he continue to so.

Audiovisual quality for the films in this set is fairly consistent and mostly strong; a few scenes show occasional haziness, which seems to be due to source lighting rather than to any print defects; Sad Cypress has a handful of white blips that resemble playback flaws in a VHS tape, but these are only present for a short span of the film's running time. Likewise, audio in that film has some buzz in one scene, but otherwise the audio throughout the set seems to be clear and well balanced. There is handsome fidelity in the orchestral music score, and dialogue comes through with impressive clarity, which is particularly crucial when following the detective's Belgian-accented asides. Each film boasts the same three text features as extras: biographies of Agatha Christie and David Suchet, and a listing of Hercule Poirot stories. I've come to expect such slim pickings from A&E, but I would have enjoyed being surprised by something worthwhile—say, an interview with the man whose name has become synonymous with Hercule Poirot.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

There are a few more weaknesses to note here; besides the instances of amateurish acting in Death on the Nile, there is the gushy, affected performance by Lysette Anthony in The Hollow—although since her character is a larger-than-life actress, a tendency to overact is appropriate. The plot of The Hollow at first struck me as more complicated than it needed to be, but on reflection that is pertinent to the solution. Some viewers may find Five Little Pigs confusing in its depiction of events from so many different points of view, especially when timing and the comings and goings of characters are so important, but that's one of the things Christie does so well.

Since I haven't read as extensively in Agatha Christie's works as I would like, her more faithful followers may notice instances of infidelity to her books that I didn't pick up on. For one thing, I don't recall there being any bedroom activity between unmarried young heroes and heroines in her books, and that does tend to crop up in these adaptations, which seems like pretty shameless pandering to the tastes of modern viewers.

Closing Statement

Lovers of classic mysteries should definitely check out these screen adaptations of avowed mystery classics. It's unfortunate that viewers don't have the option to purchase titles individually (except for the weakest, Death on the Nile), but there's also a great deal to be said for having so much variety in one set. Five Little Pigs and Sad Cypress are more grave (no pun intended) in tone, whereas Death on the Nile and The Hollow are a bit lighter, with more overtly comedic characters. Thus, this set offers mystery lovers the opportunity to pick the Poirot that accords with their mood.

The Verdict

Mr. Poirot has proved invaluable to the defense. He is released with the court's thanks.

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Genres

• Drama
• Mystery
• Television

Scales of Justice, Five Little Pigs

Video: 98
Audio: 97
Extras: 10
Acting: 95
Story: 95
Judgment: 95

Perp Profile, Five Little Pigs

Studio: A&E
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Five Little Pigs

• Biographies of Agatha Christie and David Suchet
• Index of Hercule Poirot Stories

Scales of Justice, Sad Cypress

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 10
Acting: 95
Story: 95
Judgment: 95

Perp Profile, Sad Cypress

Studio: A&E
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Sad Cypress

• Biographies of Agatha Christie and David Suchet
• Index of Hercule Poirot Stories

Scales of Justice, Death On The Nile

Video: 98
Audio: 97
Extras: 10
Acting: 82
Story: 93
Judgment: 86

Perp Profile, Death On The Nile

Studio: A&E
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Death On The Nile

• Biographies of Agatha Christie and David Suchet
• Index of Hercule Poirot Stories

Scales of Justice, The Hollow

Video: 98
Audio: 97
Extras: 10
Acting: 88
Story: 83
Judgment: 86

Perp Profile, The Hollow

Studio: A&E
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Hollow

• Biographies of Agatha Christie and David Suchet
• Index of Hercule Poirot Stories








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