“THE CLOCKS” (2009) Review

“THE CLOCKS” (2009) Review

While perusing the list of novels written by Agatha Christie between 1957 and 1973, I noticed that only five of them featured Belgian detective Hercule Poirot as the main detective. Five out of sixteen novels during this period. Considering how the author used to churn out Poirot novels and short stories like nobody’s business in the previous decades, I could not help but wonder if the author’s interest in the Belgian detective was on the wane. 

This certainly seemed to be the case for her 1963 novel, “The Clocks”. Although Poirot was the investigator who solved the mystery, he barely played a role in this investigation. Major supporting characters like Colin Lamb and Inspector Richard Hardcastle visited the crime scenes and questioned the suspects and other witnesses. They fed the information to Poirot, who exercised his “little grey cells” and solved the case. This is one reason why the 1963 novel was not a particular favorite of mine. Thankfully, the 2009 adaptation of “The Clocks” proved to be a different kettle of fish. Unlike his literary version for this tale, actor David Suchet’s Poirot was, without a doubt, the mystery’s main character.

Although the 2009 television movie, “THE CLOCKS”, provided some minor changes to Christie’s novel, it also featured two major changes. I have already commented on how Poirot had a bigger role (as he should) in this television adaptation. The setting for “THE CLOCKS” also underwent a major change. Instead of being set during the heyday of the Cold War, the 2010 television movie was set near the end of the 1930s, with Europe (and eventually the rest of the world) on the cusp of World War II. And the narrative’s B-plot reflected this. In “THE CLOCKS”, the character of Colin Lamb has been changed to Colin Race, conveying the idea that he is the son of of an old friend of Poirot’s. And instead of being an MI-5 (Special Branch) agent investigating a pro-Communist spy ring, Colin is a Royal Navy officer working for MI-6 and investigating a possible pro-Nazi spy ring in Dover. Also, the character of Richard “Dick” Hardcastle has become a slightly xenophobic police officer, who resented Poirot’s presence in the investigation. Despite these changes, the core of Christie’s narrative managed to survive for this adaptation.

“THE CLOCKS” began as a spy story in which MI-6 operative Colin Race finds himself investigating the theft of classified documents from a naval base at Dover Castle. Apparently, Colin’s girlfriend had spotted the thief/German spy, but was killed by a speeding car before she could apprehend the thief. Colin’s girlfriend left a clue, leading Colin to a neighborhood in Dover. Upon reaching one house on a street shaped like a crescent, a young woman named Sheila Webb races out of it, screaming that she had found a murdered man inside, along with a collection of clocks. Colin seeks Poirot’s help to solve the murder mystery, in case the murder proves to be connected with the spy ring he had been investigating and his girlfriend’s death.

As I had earlier stated, I am not a big fan of Christie’s 1963 novel. While some might find the idea of Poirot being reduced to a minor character who solves the mystery in an armchair rather amusing, I did not. I could not, especially if this was supposed to be a “Poirot” mystery. And as I had earlier pointed out, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt director Charlie Palmer ensured that Poirot would be the main character in this adaptation. I also enjoyed how the narrative allowed Poirot and Colin’s search for the spy ring and missing document overshadow their efforts to find the killer responsible for the mystery man’s death, along with the deaths of two other characters – Edna Brent, a typist and colleague of Sheila Webb’s; and Merlina Riva, a former stage actress who claimed to be the widow of the dead man discovered by Colin and Sheila. Throughout the story, those viewers unfamiliar with Christie’s novel might find themselves wondering if Sheila was responsible for the deaths, if the deaths had anything to do with the German spy ring, or if the three victims had been killed for another reason. Overall, I believe “THE CLOCKS” is a solid adaptation of Christie’s novel, but also an improvement.

However, there is one aspect of Harcourt and Palmer’s adaptation that I do not regard as an improvement. I refer to the character of Colin Race. One, this secondary lead character came off as less than intelligent than his literary counterpart. Colin was able to solve the mystery of the spy ring without Poirot’s help. And two, in the television movie, he struck me as a slightly shallow man who was able to transfer his affections from one woman to another within a few days. I found this rather tacky. I believe Harcourt’s screenplay made the mistake of having Colin involved with the doomed Fiona Hanbury, whose activities led him to another clue regarding the spy ring, at the beginning of the story. Worse, it did not take Colin very long to develop romantic feelings for Sheila Webb after meeting her. And he met Sheila in less than a week after Fiona’s death. Even when he was still mourning Fiona’s death, he was falling in love with Sheila. Really? This is just tackiness beyond belief. Colin’s romantic relationships in this movie made him look like a shallow idiot who seemed to have this need for romance in his life 24/7.

The television movie’s production values struck me as very impressive. I thought Jeff Tessler’s production designs did a great job in recreating Dover circa 1939. His work was ably supported by Miranda Cull’s art direction and Sheena Napier’s costume designs. I have mixed feelings about Peter Greenhalgh’s cinematography. On one hand, I found movie’s photography very colorful and beautiful. In fact, I thought it did justice to the production’s locations in London and Kent. But I did not care for the hazy veneer that I felt almost spoiled the photography. I found it an unnecessary device for indicating that this story was set in the past. And it reminded me of numerous period dramas in the 1970s that also used this camera device . . . unnecessarily.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s cast. David Suchet, as always, gave a sharp and elegant portrayal of Hercule Poirot. In fact, his performance reinforced my relief that the screenwriter and director had given Poirot a bigger presence in this adaptation than in Christie’s novel. Despite my irritation with the Colin Race character, I cannot deny that Tom Burke gave an exceptionally skillful performance. He almost made me believe in the plausibility of Colin falling in love with one woman, while still grieving for another. I was very impressed by Jaime Winstone’s portrayal of the ambiguous Sheila Webb. I thought she did an excellent job in conveying both the character’s desperate need for everyone to believe in her innocence and her occasional lapses in morality. Phil Daniels was excellent as the slightly aggressive and xenophobic Inspector Richard “Dick” Hardcastle. Lesley Sharp gave a very subtle performance as Sheila’s no-nonsense boss Miss Martindale. And I was very impressed with Anna Massey’s performance as Miss Pebmarsh, the blind owner of the house that contained the dead man and the actress’s final role before her death. Like Winstone, Massey did an excellent job of portraying a very complicated and ambiguous character, who was haunted by the deaths of her sons during World War I. The television movie also featured excellent performances from Geoffrey Palmer (father of the director), Tessa Peake-Jones, Jason Watkins, Beatie Edney, Abigail Thaw, Guy Henry, Stephen Boxer, and Frances Barber.

In the end, I believe that “THE CLOCKS” was a solid adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1963 novel, thanks to a first-rate script by Stewart Harcourt and first-rate direction by Charlie Palmer. My only true complaint was their handling of the Colin Race character. The television movie also featured excellent performances by a talented cast that included David Suchet, Anna Massey and Jaime Winstone.

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