“HERCULE POIROT’S CHRISTMAS” (1994) Review

“HERCULE POIROT’S CHRISTMAS” (1994) Review

I have been a fan of Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel, “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” aka “A Holiday for Murder” for years – ever since I was in my early adolescence. When I learned that the producers of the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” series aired its adaptation of it back in 1994, I looked forward to watching it.

Written as a “locked room” mystery, “HERCULE POIROT’S CHRISTMAS” focused on Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot’s investigation of the murder of Simeon Lee, a tyrannical patriarch of a wealthy family. The mean-spirited Lee, who had made his fortune in South African diamonds, summons his offspring to his country manor house for a Christmas gathering. He also requests that Poirot attend the reunion, but fails to give a full explanation for the latter’s presence. Those gathered for Lee’s Christmas reunion are:

*Alfred Lee, his dutiful oldest son

*Lydia Lee, Alfred’s wife

*George Lee, Simeon’s penny-pinching middle son, who is also a Member of Parliament

*Magdalene Lee, George’s wife, a beauty with a mysterious past

*Harry Lee, Simeon’s ne’er do well son, who has been living abroad

*Pilar Estavados, Simeon’s Anglo-Spanish granddaughter

The sadistic Lee treats his family with cruelty and enjoys pitting them against each other. This is apparent in a scene in which he summons his family to his sitting room and fakes a telephone call to his solicitor, announcing his intentions to make changes to his will. Later that evening, a scream is heard by the manor’s inhabitants before Lee’s throat is cut in an apparent locked room. Although the old man was wheelchair bound, there is evidence of a great struggle between him and his murder. It is up to Poirot, assisted by Chief Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard and a local investigating officer named Superintendent Sugden to find Simeon Lee’s murderer before the latter can strike again.

I would never view “HERCULE POIROT’S CHRISTMAS” as one of the better Christie adaptations I have seen. But I still managed to enjoy it. One, the television movie is rich with a holiday atmosphere, despite the presence of murder. In fact, I can honestly say that Rob Harris’ production designs really impressed me. Along with Simon Kossoff’s photography, they gave the movie an atmosphere of Olde England that suited the story’s setting very well. I also enjoyed Andrea Galer’s costume designs for the film. Instead of the early or mid-1930s, her costume designs for the female characters seemed to hint that the movie was set during the late 1930s.

“HERCULE POIROT’S CHRISTMAS” also benefited from a solid cast. David Suchet gave a first rate performance as Hercule Poirot, with his usual mixture of subtle humor and intelligence. He was ably supported by a very wry performance from Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp. The rest of the cast, aside from four, gave solid but unmemorable performances. For me, there were three standouts that really impressed me. Brian Gwaspari was a hoot as Simeon Lee’s outspoken prodigal son, Harry. And he had great chemistry with Sasha Behar, who was charming and frank as Simeon’s Anglo-Spanish granddaughter, Pilar Estravados. The producers cast veteran character actor Vernon Dobtcheff as the poisonous Simeon Lee. And he portrayed the hell out of that role, giving the character a richness and sharp wit that allowed him to practically own it. The only performance that failed to impress me came from Mark Tandy, who portrayed Superintendent Sudgen. I hate to say this, but Tandy’s take on a character as memorable and imposing as Sudgen seemed lightweight. He almost seemed overshadowed by Suchet and Jackson and I suspect that the role would have succeeded better with a more imposing actor.

As I had stated earlier, I have always been a fan of Christie’s 1938 film. This adaptation could have been first rate. But it had one main problem – namely Clive Exton’s screenplay. He made two major changes to the plot that nearly undermined the story. I did not mind that he had reduced the number of characters by eliminating the David Lee, Hilda Lee and Stephen Farr characters. I DID mind when he substituted the Colonel Johnson character for Chief Inspector Japp as the case’s senior investigator. As a member of Scotland Yard, Japp was out of his jurisdiction, which was limited to Greater London. This is a mistake that has appeared in a handful of other Exton adaptations. The screenwriter’s bigger mistake proved to be the addition of a prologue set in 1896 South Africa. The prologue included a scene featuring Simeon Lee’s murder of his partner and his seduction of a young Afrikaaner woman named Stella. Even worse, Stella reappeared as a mysterious guest at a local hotel in 1936 England. The addition of the South African sequence and the Stella character made it easier for viewers to eliminate a good number of characters as potential suspects . . . and dimmed the mystery of Simeon Lee’s murder.

I managed to enjoy “HERCULE POIROT’S CHRISTMAS” very much. It featured excellent characterizations and a rich, holiday atmosphere, thanks to Simon Kossoff’s production designs and Andrea Galer’s costume designs. Director Edward Bennett did a great job with a superb cast led by a superb David Suchet. But several changes to Christie’s plot made by screenwriter Clive Exton prevented this movie from being the first-rate adaptation it could have been.

“ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” (2007) Review

“ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” (2007) Review

Many people would be surprised to learn that not many of Agatha Christie’s novels featured another one of her famous literary sleuths, Miss Jane Marple. The latter served as the lead in at least twelve novels, in compare to the thirty-three novels that starred her other famous sleuth, Hercule Poirot. It is because of this limited number of novels that the producers of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” featured adaptations of Christie novels in which she appeared in the television films, but not in the novels. One of them is “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE”.

Based upon Christie’s 1958 novel, “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” opened with the murder of the Argyle family’s controlling matriarch, Rachel Argyle. Mrs. Argyle was a wealthy heiress who had adapted several children, due to her inability to have her own. She also proved to be a controlling – almost tyrannical – mother who managed to alienate her adoptive children and husband. It did not take the police very long to focus upon one suspect – the family’s black sheep, Jack “Jacko” Argyle. Apparently, the latter quarreled with the victim over money. Jacko claimed that he had been given a lift by a stranger, when Rachel was murdered. But said stranger never stepped up to give him an alibi and Jacko was hanged for the crime. Two years later found the Argyle family celebrating the family’s patriarch Leo Argyle to his secretary, Gwenda Vaughn. The latter had invited her former employer, Jane Marple, to attend the wedding. A day or two before wedding, a stranger named Dr. Arthur Calgary appeared at the family estate, claiming to be the stranger who had given Jacko a lift on the night of Rachel’s murder. Due to Dr. Calgary’s confession, the Argyle family and Gwenda found themselves under suspicion for murder.

As I have stated in other movie reviews, I never had a problem with changes in adaptations of novels and/or plays, as long as these changes worked. “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” featured a few changes. The biggest change featured in the inclusion of Jane Marple as the mystery’s main investigator. Arthur Calgary served in that role in the novel. The television film also featured the addition of a character that was not in the novel – Jacko’s fraternal twin Bobby Argyle. Another major change featured the film’s second murder victim. Screenwriter Stewart Harcourt switched the identity of the story’s second victim. And how did these changes work?

I have to be frank. The addition of Bobby Argyle to the story did not seemed to have much of an impact upon me. The character became the executor of his adopted mother’s will, which placed him in charge of her money and his siblings’ trust funds. The problem I had with his story arc is that audiences were left in the dark on whether he had lost their money when he committed fraud . . . or he simply lost his own money. As I had previously stated, Harcourt and director Moira Armstrong had switched the identity of the story’s second victim. I will not reveal the identities of both the old and new identities. But I must admit that the second victim’s death – at least in this television movie – added a rather sad and poignant touch to this adaptation. The last major change featured Jane Marple as the story’s major investigator. Arthur Calgary, the man who could have provided Jacko Argyle an alibi, was the main investigator in Christie’s novel. In this film, he was more or less regulated to the role of a secondary character. Ironically, this change did not diminish his role, for Calgary more or less served as Miss Marple’s eyes, ears and feet; while remained at the Argyle estate. And this meant several scenes that featured Calgary engaging in a good deal of investigations on Miss Marple’s behalf.

Despite these changes, “ORDEAL OF INNOCENCE” more or less retained the main narrative Christie’s story. More importantly, I thought both Harcourt’s screenplay and Armstrong’s direction did an excellent job in maintaining the story’s angst, poignancy and more importantly, irony. Thanks to the director and screenwriter, “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” conveyed how Rachel Argyle’s presence managed to cast a shadow upon her family. And how her absence lifted that shadow, until Dr. Calgary’s revelation about Jacko’s innocence. I was also impressed at how the television movie did an effective, yet subtle job in conveying the bigotry faced by the family’s only person of color – Christina “Tina” Argyle.

While watching “ORDEAL OF INNOCENCE”, it occurred to me that Christie’s tale would not have worked if it had not been for the cast’s exceptional performances. All of them, I believe, really knocked it out of the ballpark. Mind you, there were solid performances from supporting cast members like Reece Shearsmith, Andrea Lowe, Camille Coduri, Pippa Haywood, and James Hurran. But I must confess that I was really impressed by those who portrayed members of the Argyle household. Burn Gorman radiated a mixture of charm and slime as the doomed Jacko Argyle. Richard Armitage was equally memorable as the avaricious and bitter ex-R.A.F. pilot who had married into the Argyle family, Philip Durrant. Singer Lisa Stansfield gave a subtle performance as Philip’s emotional, yet reserved wife Mary Argyle Durant, blinded by intense love for her husband. I enjoyed Bryan Dick’s portrayal of the volatile Micky Argyle, but there were moments when he threatened to be over-the-top. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, on the other hand, gave a performance that matched Stansfield’s subtlety as the blunt Tina Argyle, who hid her resentment of the racism she faced behind a sardonic mask. Stephanie Leonidas gave an effectively tense performance as the family’s youngest member, Hester Argyle, struggling to face her past involvement with brother-in-law Philip. And the always reliable Tom Riley did an excellent job with his portrayal of morally questionable Bobby Argyle.

But the performances that really impressed me came from the cast’s more veteran performers. Geraldine McEwan was marvelous as always in conveying the quiet intelligence of Miss Jane Marple. Despite being on the screen for only a few minutes, Jane Seymour really knocked it out of the park and domineering and sharp-tongued Rachel Argyle. She made it easy to see how the character managed to cast a shadow over the Argyle family. Julian Rhind-Tutt struck me as both entertaining and effective as the scholarly Dr. Arthur Calgary, who gave Jacko Argyle his alibi two years too late. What I found impressive about Rhind-Tutt’s performance is that he managed to convey his character’s intelligence and strength behind the nebbish personality. Alison Steadman’s portrayal of the Argyle’s judgmental housekeeper struck me as both subtle and frightening – especially in her stubborn belief that Gwenda Vaughn was Rachel’s killer. Denis Lawson has my vote for the best performance in “ORDEAL OF INNOCENCE”. There . . . I said it. And I stand by this. Lawson did a brilliant job in conveying the weak and suggestible personality of Leo Argyle. There were moments when I could not decide whether I liked him or despised him. It is not every day one comes across a fictional character brimming with quiet charm and unreliability.

It has been years since I saw the 1984 television adaptation of Christie’s 1958 novel. So, I have no memories of it. And I have seen the recent 2018 television adaptation. But I must be honest. I really enjoyed this 2007 adaptation. Yes, it has a few flaws. But I really believe that it did a superb job in conveying the poignant and ironic aspects of the novel. And I have director Moira Armstrong, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt and a superb cast led by Geraldine McEwan to thank.

Favorite Episodes of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” (1984-1992)

Below is a list of my favorite episodes from the 1984-1992 BBC series, “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE”. The series starred Joan Hickson as Miss Jane Marple:

 

FAVORITE EPISODES OF “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” (1984-1992)

 

1. “A Murder Is Announced” (1985) – An unusual announcement in the newspaper leads the curious inhabitants of Chipping Cleghorn to Letitia Blacklock’s home, where they become witnesses to a murder.

 

 

2. “Sleeping Murder” (1987) – When a young bride moves into a small town villa, long repressed childhood memories of witnessing a murder come to the surface. She and her husband seeks Miss Jane Marple’s help in solving the murder.

 

 

3. “A Caribbean Mystery” (1989) – While on vacation at a West Indian resort hotel, Miss Marple correctly suspects that the apparently natural death of a retired British major is actually the work of a murderer planning yet another killing.

 

 

4. “A Pocket Full of Rye” (1985) – When a handful of grain is found in the pocket of a murdered businessman, Miss Marple seeks a murderer with a penchant for nursery rhymes.

 

 

5. “The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side” (1992) – At a reception for a fading film star shooting a screen comeback at Miss Marple’s home village of St. Mary’s Mead, a gushing fan is poisoned by a drink meant for the actress.

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1920s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1920s:

 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1920s

 

1. “Boardwalk Empire” (2010-2014) – Terence Winter created this award winning crime drama about Atlantic City, New Jersey during the Prohibition era. Inspired by Nelson Johnson’s 2002 book, “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City”, the series starred Steve Buscemi.

 

 

2. “Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Five Little Pigs” (2003) – In this beautifully poignant tale, Hercule Poirot investigates a fourteen year-old murder of a philandering artist, for which his client’s mother was erroneously convicted and hanged. David Suchet starred as Hercule Poirot.

 

 

3. “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” (2012-2015) – Essie Davis starred in this television adaptation of Kerry Greenwood’s historical mystery novels about a glamorous socialite who solves mysteries in 1920s Melbourne. The series was created by Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger.

 

 

4. “Rebecca” (1997) – Emilia Clarke, Charles Dance and Diana Rigg starred in this television adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel about a young bride haunted by the presence of her new husband’s first wife. Jim O’Brien directed.

 

 

5. “Peaky Blinders” (2013-2019) – Steven Knight created this television drama about a Birmingham crime family in post World War I England. Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory and Paul Anderson starred.

 

 

6. “The Day the Bubble Burst” (1982) – Joseph Hardy directed this fictionalized account of the events and forces that led to the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The television movie’s cast included Richard Crenna, Robert Vaughn, Robert Hays and Donna Pescow.

 

 

7. “The Great Gatsby” (2000) – Robert Markowitz directed this television adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel about the Jazz Age. Toby Stephens, Paul Rudd and Mira Sorvino starred.

 

 

8. “The Forsyte Saga: To Let” (2003) – Damian Lewis, Gina McKee and Rupert Graves starred in this adaptation of John Galsworthy’s 1921 novel, “To Let”, an entry in his The Forsyte Chronicles.

 

 

9. “The House of Eliott” (1991-1994) – Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins created this television series about two sisters who create this dressmaking business in 1920s London. Stella Gonet and Louise Lombard starred.

“GREENSHAW’S FOLLY” (2013) Review

“GREENSHAW’S FOLLY” (2013) Review

It must have been a chore for both the BBC and later, the ITV, to maintain a television series featuring novels about Miss Jane Marple, one of Agatha Christie’s most famous literary characters. I say “chore” because I was surprised to discover that the mystery novelist had only written a limited number of novels and short stories featuring the character.

As it turned out, Christie wrote twelve Jane Marple novels. Twelve. All of them have been adapted for television more than once between 1984 and 2013. Christie also wrote a lot more short stories featuring the sleuth, but only a handful have ever been adapted . . . and only in recent years. One of those adaptations is the 2013 television movie from “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” is “GREENSHAW’S FOLLY”.

“GREENSHAW’S FOLLY” is a loose adaptation of two Christie short stories – 1960’s “Greenshaw’s Folly” and 1932’s “The Thumb Mark of St. Peter”. Instead of revealing the plots of both stories, I will recap the plot for the 2013 television movie. “GREENSHAW’S FOLLY” begins with a woman named Louisa Oxley spiriting her young son Archie from an abusive husband. The pair arrives at Miss Jane Marple’s home in St. Mary’s Mead. To help them further, Miss Marple arranges for Louisa and Archie to stay at an estate called Greenshaw’s Folly, where the owner, an eccentric botanist named Katherine Greenshaw, hires Louisa to be her secretary. Louisa and Archie becomes part of a household that includes Mrs. Cresswell, the housekeeper; Nathaniel Fletcher, Miss Greenshaw’s actor/nephew; a house guest named Horace Bindler, who is a journalist claiming to be an architect, looking into the past of Miss Greenshaw’s father; the owner’s butler, whose name is Cracken; and a groundskeeper named Alfred Pollock. Nearby is a local priest named Father Brophy, who hopes to solicit money from Miss Greenshaw for the orphanage he manages. Also involved in the story is Cicely Beauclerk, one of Miss Marple’s elderly friends from St. Mary’s Mead, who had experienced a past trauma at the hands of Miss Greenshaw’s father years before.

Louisa and young Archie’s refuge is threatened when Cracken falls from a ladder and fatally cracks his head. His death is ruled by the police as accidental. However, Miss Marple, who has also been staying at Greenshaw’s Folly, begins to harbor suspicions when Mr. Binder mysteriously disappear. But when the estate’s owner, Miss Greenshaw, is brutally murdered, Miss Marple realizes that she has a full blown mystery on her hands.

What is there to say about “GREENSHAW’S FOLLY”? Although the television movie is based upon two Miss Marple short stories, the majority of the narrative seemed to be based upon the 1960 story – “Greenshaw’s Folly”. The other story, “The Thumb Mark of St. Peter”, had merely provided a foil for Louisa Oxley in the form of her abusive husband, and a “weapon” to be used in Miss Greenshaw’s murder. Although the narrative had started on a slow note, I must admit that it proved to be a very interesting tale about the Greenshaw family history and how many of the characters – aside from Louisa and Archie Oxley – had such a strong connection to it. Let me rephrase this. I thought the connection between the majority of the characters and the Greenshaw family worked. These connections include Nathaniel Fletcher’s blood connection to Miss Greenshaw; Mrs. Cresswell, Cracken and Alfred serving as Miss Greenshaw’s servants; Alfred’s past as a convict threatened to end his employment; Mr. Binder’s unexpected investigation into Miss Greenshaw’s past; and Father Brophy’s attempts to solicit money from Miss Greenshaw for his orphanage. What is more interesting is that Mr. Binder’s interest in the Greenshaw family past may have been threatening to the killer as well.

On the other hand, I had a problem with with subplot involving the past trauma that Miss Beauclerk had endured at the hands of the late Mr. Greenshaw. When you look at it, she had the strongest motive to kill Miss Greenshaw. It would be easy for her to scapegoat Miss Greenshaw for what the latter’s father had subjected her to as a child. But as the oldest suspect, it would have been nigh impossible for Beauclerk to carry out the murders. I realize that she could have recruited help from any of the other suspects. But . . . Miss Beauclerk’s age seemed like a minor problem in compare to a bigger one. There seemed to be something about her subplot that failed to resonate with me. In the Miss Beauclerk character, screenwriter Tim Whitnall had the strongest suspect for this story. And yet, I got the feeling that he was not particularly interested in her character or arc. Instead, it seemed as if the narrative ended up under utilizing the character . . . other than have her inadvertently direct Louisa Oxley’s abusive husband to his abused wife and son at Greenshaw’s Folly.

The production values for “GREENSHAW’S FOLLY” struck me as pretty solid. The majority of the story is set at a small English estate in the early-to-mid 1950s. This meant that production designer Jeff Tessler did not have to make any extra effort to re-create the television movie’s setting. But I will give credit to Tessler for doing his job in a competent manner and not providing any sloppy work. I can say the same about the production’s art department and costume/wardrobe department supervised by Jenna McGranaghan. The only wealthy character in the cast was Miss Greenshaw and being an eccentric botanist with no fashion sense, it was only natural that McGranaghan and her staff did not have to go the extra mile for the television movie’s costumes.

But I was impressed by the production’s cast. I thought Julia McKenzie did a tremendous job in conveying Jane Marple’s struggles to maintain a refuge for Julia and Archie Oxley, solve the murders in the story and evade the police’s attempts to put an end to her investigation. And she did all of this while maintaining Miss Marple’s quiet and reflective personality. Another performance that impressed me came from Fiona Shaw, who was first-rate as the warm, yet obviously eccentric Katherine Greenshaw. Kimberly Nixon gave a nuanced performance as Louisa Oxley, the abused wife whose attempts to befriend others in her new surrounding is muted by her fear of being discovered by her husband. I also have to give kudos to Martin Compston, who skillfully portrayed Alfred Pollock, the reserved groundskeeper, whose past as a convict threatens his current job and his future. “GREENSHAW’S FOLLY” also featured excellent supporting performances from the likes of Julia Sawalha, Sam Reid, Judy Parfitt, Joanna David, Bobby Smallbridge, Rufus Jones, Oscar Pearce, Vic Reeves, John Gordon Sinclair as the no-nonsense Inspector Welch and Robert Glenister as the very ambiguous Father Brophy.

I have to confess . . . I could never regard “GREENSHAW’S FOLLY” as one of those memorable Agatha Christie adaptations. Not by a long shot. Aside from the Cicely Beauclerk subplot, I could not find anything wrong it. But I cannot deny that while watching it, I actually managed to enjoy it very much. And this is due to a still first-rate screenplay by Tim Whitnall, solid direction from Sarah Harding and an excellent cast led by Julia McKenzie.

“All Aboard the Orient Express”

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Below is a look at two major movies and a television movie that featured journeys aboard the famed Orient Express:

 

“ALL ABOARD THE ORIENT EXPRESS”

I will be the first to admit that I am not one of those who demand that a novel, a movie or a television production to be historically accurate. Not if history gets in the way of the story. But there is an anal streak within me that rears its ugly head, sometimes. And that streak would usually lead me to judge just how accurate a particular production or novel is.

Recently, I watched three movies that featured a journey aboard the legendary train, the Orient Express. Perhaps I should be a little more accurate. All three movies, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974)“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) and “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” (1963) featured a famous route that came into existence nearly a year following World War I called the Simplon Orient Express. The original route for the Orient Express stretched from Paris to Istanbul via Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest. Then in 1919, Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits introduced a more southerly route, due to the opening of the Simplon Tunnel. This route stretched between Paris and Istanbul, via Lausanne, Milan, Venice, Belgrade and Sofia. Writers Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming made the Simplon Orient Express route famous thanks to their novels, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) and “From Russia With Love” (1957). And the movie adaptations of these novels increased the route’s fame.

Both Christie and Fleming’s novels featured the Simplon Orient Express’ route from Istanbul to Yugoslavia. There are reasons why their stories do not stretch further west to as far as at least France. In “Murder on the Orient Express”, the train became stuck in a snowdrift in Yugoslavia and detective Hercule Poirot spent the rest of the novel trying to solve the murder of an American passenger. And in “From Russia With Love”, British agent James Bond and his companion, Tatiana Romanova, made it as far as either Italy or France. The 1974 and 2010 adaptations of Christie’s novel, more or less remained faithful to the latter as far as setting is concerned. However, EON Production’s 1963 adaptation of Fleming’s novel allowed Bond and Tatiana to escape from the train before it could cross the Yugoslavia-Italy border.

While watching the three movies, I discovered that their portrayals of the Simplon Orient Express route were not completely accurate. I can imagine the thoughts running through the minds of many, declaring “Who cares?”. And I believe they would be right to feel this way. But I thought it would be fun to look into the matter. Before I do, I think I should cover a few basics about this famous train route from Istanbul to Paris-Calais.

During its heyday, the Orient Express usually departed from Istanbul around 11:00 p.m. Following the rise of the Iron Curtain after World War II, the Orient Express extended it route to stops in Greece in order to avoid the Soviet-controlled countries. The only Communist country it passed through was Yugoslavia. When the train became the slower Direct Orient Express in 1962, it usually departed Istanbul around 4:15 p.m. I do not know whether a restaurant car and/or a salon “Pullman” car was attached to the Direct Orient Express when it departed Istanbul between 1962 and 1977. One last matter. In the three adaptations of the two novels, the Orient Express usually made a significant stop at Belgrade. It took the Orient Express, during its heyday, at least 23 to 24 hours to travel from Istanbul to Belgrade.

Let us now see how accurately the two “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” movies and the 1963 “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” flick accurately portray traveling aboard the Simplon Orient Express (or Direct Orient Express) on film. I will begin with the “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel.

 

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“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974)

Following the conclusion of a successful case for the British Army somewhere in the Middle East, Belgian-born detective is on his way home to London, via a train journey aboard the famed Orient Express. When an American businessman named Samuel Rachett is murdered during the second night aboard the train, Poirot is asked by his friend and director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, Senor Bianchi, to investigate the crime.

In this adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet, the Simplon Orient Express that left Istanbul did so at 9:00 at night. The movie also included a dining car attached to the train. One scene featured a chef examining food being loaded onto the train. This scene is erroneous. According to the The Man in Seat 61 website, there was no dining car attached to the train when it left Istanbul. A dining car was usually attached at Kapikule on the Turkish/Bulgarian border, before it was time to serve breakfast. The movie also featured a salon car or a “Pullman”, where Hercule Poirot interrogated most of the passengers of the Istanbul-Calais car.

 

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According to the “Seat 61” site, there was no salon “Pullman” car attached to the train east of Trieste, Italy. Christie needed the presence of the car for dramatic purposes and added one into her novel. The producers of the 1974 movie did the same. At least the producers of the 1974 used the right dark blue and cream-colored car for the Pullman. More importantly, they used the right dark blue cars for the train’s sleeping coaches, as shown in the image below:

 

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In the movie, the Simplon Orient Express reached Belgrade 24 hours after its departure from Istanbul. For once, the movie was accurate. Somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod, the Orient Express ended up snowbound and remained there until the end of the story.

 

 

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“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010)

This adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel first aired on Britain’s ITV network in 2010. The television movie started with Hercule Poirot berating a British Army officer caught in a devastating lie. After the officer commits suicide, Poirot ends up in Istanbul, where he and a British couple witness the stoning of an adulterous Turkish woman. Eventually, the couple and Poirot board the Orient Express, where the latter finds himself investigating the murder of an American passenger.

I do not know what time the Simplon Orient Express departed Istanbul in this adaptation. The movie never indicated a particular time. This version also featured a brief scene with a chef examining food being loaded aboard a dining car. As I previously mentioned, a dining car was not attached until Kapikule. The movie did feature Poirot and some of the Istanbul-Calais car passengers eating breakfast the following morning. In this scene, I noticed a major blooper. Car attendant Pierre Michel was shown serving a dish to Poirot in the dining car. Note the images below:

 

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Pierre Michel greets Poirot and M. Bouc before they board the train

 

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Pierre serves breakfast to Poirot

 

Why on earth would a car attendant (or train conductor, as he was called in the 1934 novel) act as a waiter in the dining car? Like the 1974 movie, the ITV adaptation also featured a salon “Pullman” attached to the train, east of Italy. In fact, they did more than use one salon “Pullman”. As I had stated earlier, the westbound Simplon Orient Express usually acquired a salon “Pullman” after its arrival in Trieste. But in this adaptation, the producers decided to use the dark blue and cream-colored “Pullman” cars for the entire train as shown in these images:

 

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This is completely in error. As I had stated earlier, the Orient Express usually featured a dark-blue and cream-colored salon “Pullman” between Italy and Paris. But it also featured the dark-blue and cream-colored seating “Pullmans” between Calais and Paris. There is no way that the Orient Express leaving Istanbul would entirely consist of the blue and cream “Pullman” cars.

However, the train did arrive at Belgarde at least 24 hours after its departure from Istanbul. Like the other movie, the train ended up snowbound between Vinkovci and Brod and remained there until the last scene. However, I am confused by the presence of the police standing outside of the train in the last scene. Poirot and the other passengers should have encountered the police, following the train’s arrival in Brod, not somewhere in the middle of the Yugoslavian countryside.

 

 

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“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017)

In this adaptation of Christie’s 1934 novel, in which Kenneth Branagh directed and starred, Poirot solves a theft at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The detective hopes to rest in Istanbul after traveling there via the Mediterranean and Agean Seas, but a telegram summons him to London for a case and he boards the Orient Simplon Orient Express with the help of young Monsieur Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. When an American passenger named Samuel Rachett is found stabbed to death following his second night aboard the Orient Express, Poirot is asked to solve his murder.

 

 

This movie featured the departure of the Simplon Orient Express around 7:00 p.m., instead of eleven o’clock. However, this is probably the only adaptation of Christie’s novel that featured the strongest similarity to the real Sirkeci Terminal in Istanbul, the train’s eastern terminus.

However, I also noticed that passengers boarded via the dining car, at the tail end of the train. That is correct. This adaptation also has a dining car attached to the Orient Express in Istanbul, instead of having it attached at Kapikule, the Turkish-Bulgarian border crossing. And unlike the previous adaptations, the dining car and the lounge car are dark blue like the sleeping compartments, instead of a color mixture of dark-blue and cream-colored. Which was an error.

 

 

The movie did not feature a stop in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. It did, however, featured a brief stop at Vinkovci, before it encountered a snow drift, later in the night. Since it was definitely at night when the train stopped at Vinkovci, no error had been committed. Especially since it was not quite dark when the train departed from Istanbul. And the journey between Istanbul and Belgrade lasted roughly 24 hours. At the end of the film, Poirot departed from the Orient Express at Brod. This is also appropriate, since the train had been snowbound somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod in the novel. More importantly, unlike the 2010 adaptation, Poirot gave his false resolution to Rachett’s murder to the police … in Brod and not in the spot where the train had been trapped.

 

 

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“FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” (1963)

Ian Fleming’s tale begins with the terrorist organization, SPECTRE, plotting the theft of the KGB’s a cryptographic device from the Soviets called the Lektor, in order to sell it back to them, while exacting revenge on British agent James Bond for killing their agent, Dr. No. After Bond successfully steals the Lektor from the Soviet consulate in Istanbul, he, defector Tatiana Romanova and MI-6 agent Kerim Bey board the Orient Express for a journey to France and later, Great Britain.

While I found this adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 1957 novel extremely enjoyable, I found myself puzzled by the movie’s portrayal of Bond’s journey aboard the Orient Express. It seemed so . . . off. In the movie; the Orient Express conveying Bond, his traveling companions and SPECTRE assassin “Red” Grant; departed Istanbul somewhere between 3:00 and 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon. The train departed Istanbul around nine o’clock at night, in Fleming’s novel. Mind you, the novel was set in the 1950s and the movie, set in the early 1960s, which meant that its departure in the movie was pretty close to the 4:15 pm departure of the Direct Orient Express train that operated between 1962 and 1977. I do not recall seeing a dining car attached to the train, during its departure in the movie, so I cannot comment on that. But after the train’s departure, the movie’s portrayal of Bond’s Orient Express journey proved to be mind boggling.

The main problem with “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” is that Bond’s journey proved to be the fastest I have ever witnessed, either on film or in a novel. It took the train at least three-to-four hours to reach Belgrade, following its departure from Istanbul. One, it usually took the Orient Express nearly 24 hours to reach Belgrade during its heyday. During the first ten-to-fifteen years of the Cold War, it took the Orient Express a little longer to reach Belgrade, due to it being re-routed through Northern Greece in an effort to avoid countries under Soviet rule. This was made clear in Fleming’s novel. But the 1963 movie followed the famous train’s original eastbound route . . . but at a faster speed. After killing Grant, Bond and Tatiana left the train before it reached the Yugoslavian-Italian border. Bond’s journey from Istanbul to that point took at least 15 hours. During the Orient Express’ heyday, it took at less than 48 hours. And during the 15 years of the Direct Orient Express, it took longer.

Unlike many recent film goers and television viewers, historical accuracy or lack of it in a movie/television production has never bothered me. I still remain a major fan of both “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974 version) and “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE”. And although I have other major problems with the 2010 “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, there are still aspects of it that I continue to enjoy. Historical inaccuracy has never impeded my enjoyment of a film, unless I found it particularly offensive. But since I can be occasionally anal and was bored, I could not resist a brief exploration of the Hollywood and British film industries’ portrayals of the Orient Express.

“THE A.B.C. MURDERS” (2018) Review

“THE A.B.C. MURDERS” (2008) Review

Years ago, I had once compiled a list of my favorite novels written by Agatha Christie. One of those novels was her 1936 mystery, “The A.B.C. Murders”. The novel led to a movie adaptation, a radio adaptation and two television adaptations. One of the latter was the three-part miniseries that was adapted by Sarah Phelps for the BBC.

“THE A.B.C. MURDERS” is a rare tale from Christie. In it, Belgian-born sleuth Hercule Poirot helps Scotland Yard investigate a possible serial killer named “A.B.C.”. The killer uses this moniker in the letters sent to Poirot before committing a murder; and leaves an ABC railway guide beside each victim. Although there are several mysteries written by Christie that features more than one victim, “THE A.B.C. MURDERS” marked the first of two times in which the victims have nothing in common whatsoever.

Phelps made some significant changes to Christie’s novel. One, this version omitted Captain Arthur Hastings from the plot. I found this incredible, considering Hastings had served as the first-person narrator for the 1936 novel. Chief Inspector Japp made an appearance, but his character was killed off via a heart attack in the miniseries’ first episode and Poirot found himself working solely with Inspector Chrome, who was also in the novel. The Mary Drower character, who was related to the first victim, Alice Ascher, was also eliminated. Phelps made changes to the Donald Fraser and Thora Grey characters. Phelps included more detail than Christie in the story’s Doncaster murder and added a fifth murder (at Embsay) to the story. She also added a romance for the Alexander Bonaparte Cust character in the form of his landlady’s daughter. Phelps explored and changed Poirot’s World War I backstory. She also made sure that the first three murder locations had some relevance to Poirot. He had helped deliver a baby aboard a refugee train that stopped in Andover. He had visited the Bexhill café where the second victim, Betty Barnard, would later work. And he had once attended a party at the home of Sir Carmichael Clarke, the third victim.

I was surprised at how beautiful the miniseries’ production looked. Although the novel was first published in 1936, Phelps had decided to set her adaptation in 1933. I thought Jeff Tessler’s production designs did a superb job in re-creating 1933 England. A beautiful job. And his work was supported by Joel Devlin’s excellent photography, which struck me as colorful and sharp; along with Andrew Lavin and Karen Roch’s excellent art direction. Another aspect of “THE A.B.C. MURDERS” that impressed me were Lindsay Pugh’s costume designs. I thought she did an excellent job in creating costumes for characters that varied in both class and gender in 1933 Britain. This also included costumes for characters that were impacted by the Great Depression, regardless of class.

When it comes to Sarah Phelps’ adaptations of Agatha Christie novels, I have mixed views. I really enjoyed her 2015 adaptation of Christie’s 1939 novel, “And Then There Were None”. I cannot say the same about her adaptation of the author’s two other stories, “Witness For the Prosecution” and Ordeal By Innocence”. How did I feel about “THE A.B.C. MURDERS”? I am very grateful that Phelps had basically stuck to Christie’s main narrative from the 1936 novel. Unlike “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE”, she did not completely revise the narrative by changing the murderer’s identity or motive. And unlike “WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION”, she did not change the fate of the story’s main protagonist.

However, there were a few changes that I liked. One, she included more detail into the story’s fourth murder at Doncaster . . . at least more detail than Christie did. In doing so, she prevented this part of the narrative from being irrelevant. And two, she included a fifth murder. Phelps did not have to do this, but I thought it filled the narrative rather nicely. I noticed that the movie went out of its way to get rid of both Arthur Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp. I thought I would be upset about this, but . . . I was not. Their lack of presence did not harm the narrative. More importantly, it allowed Poirot’s relationship with Japp’s replacement, the slightly xenophobic Inspector Crome to develop from a conflict to a working relationship with a hint of a possible friendship. This did not bother me since Poirot had to deal with a hostile Crome in the novel. And I feel that Phelps’ portrayal of their relationship was better handled in this miniseries.

Unfortunately, Phelps used minor changes in the story to continue her campaign to make her Christie adaptations more edgy and angst-filled. These minor changes included transforming the Donald Fraser character into this publicity hound trying to profit from the death of his fiancée, Betty Barnard. What was the purpose of this change? To criticize those who try to profit from the death of others via publicity? I found this irrelevant and unnecessary to the story. The miniseries also featured a potential romance between stocking salesman Alexander Bonaparte Cust and his landlady’s daughter, Lily Marbury. In the novel, Lily was Cust’s friend and nothing more. For some reason, Phelps thought it was necessary to create a romance in order to convey the idea of Lily walking on his back in heels as a means to release some psycho-sexual need to remove his pain. What was the point of this? To make Cust more interesting? What really irritated me was how Phelps changed the character of one of the supporting character by making that person knowledgeable of the killer’s identity long before Poirot . . . and an accessory. Why? To make that character more interesting perhaps? It made me realize that this change made it easier for viewers to identify the killer before Poirot’s revelation.

The movie made one last change that I disliked . . . Poirot’s personal background. Christie had indicated in many of her novels and short stories that before becoming a private detective, Poirot was a police officer in Belgium. For reasons that still astound me, Phelps had changed Poirot’s background from former police detective to Catholic priest. Worse, she had created this mystery surrounding some major trauma during World War I that led him to leave the Church and become a crime fighter. What on earth? The problem with this character arc is that it had nothing to do with the main narrative. It played no role in Poirot’s discovery and revelation of the actual killer.

I will say this about “THE A.B.C. MURDERS”. It did feature some excellent performances, save for one. John Malkovich was the second American actor to portray Hercule Poirot, the first being Tony Randall in 1965. I found his Gallic accent slightly questionable. But I still admire his portrayal of the Belgian-born detective and found it refreshingly subtle without any theatrics or histronics. Many have complained about Malkovich portraying the most dour Poirot on screen. I do not agree. The actor did an excellent job of conveying Poirot’s grief over Japp’s death, his weariness from the never ending encounters of British xenophobia and his personal ghosts from World War I. But I never regarded his Poirot as “dour”. Frankly, I found David Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot in the 2010 television movie, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” rather depressing. I thought Rupert Grint gave the second best performance as the slightly xenophobic Inspector Crome of Scotland Yard. I have a confession. I have always been impressed by Grint as an actor and at times, thought the HARRY POTTER franchise did not provide any real opportunities for him to convey his skills, aside from one particular movie. But I was really impressed by how he had conveyed Crome’s journey from an angry and narrow-minded police officer to someone more open-minded, less angry and more willing to trust Poirot.

There were other performances from “THE A.B.C. MURDERS” that impressed me. Eamon Farren gave a first-rate performance as the beleaguered Alexander Bonaparte Cust, a bedraggled traveling salesman who seemed to suffer from epileptic seizures. Anya Chalotra struck me as equally impressive in her portrayal of Lily Marbury, the daughter of Cust’s landlady, who has been forced by the latter to prostitute herself for extra money. Tara Fitzgerald gave a very emotional performance as Lady Hermione Clarke, the ailing widow of the killer’s third victim, Sir Carmichael Clarke. I could also say the same about Bronwyn James’ portrayal of Megan Barnard, the sister of the second victim, Betty Barnard. James did an excellent job of conveying Megan’s initial infatuation of Betty’s fiancé, Donald Fraser and her jealousy. I found Eve Austin’s portrayal of the shallow yet flirtatious Betty rather skillful and memorable. Freya Mayor gave an interesting and complex performance as Sir Carmichael’s ambitious secretary Thora Grey. And Andrew Buchan seemed to be the personification of the literary Franklin Clarke, the sexually charming, yet eager younger brother of Sir Carmichael. The miniseries also featured first-rate performances from Jack Farthing as Donald Fraser, Michael Shaeffer as Sergeant Yelland, Lizzy McInnerny as Betty’s mother, Mrs. Barnard, Christopher Villiers as Sir Carmichael Clarke and Kevin R. McNally as Japp. If I could name one performance that I found unsatisfying, it would Shirley Henderson’s portrayal of Cust’s landlady, Rose Marbury. I found her performance rather theatrical and filled with too many exaggerated mannerisms.

I did not dislike “THE A.B.C. MURDERS”, but I did not love it. There are aspects of it that I admired, including the production’s visual style, writer-producer Sarah Phelps’ adherence to the story’s main narrative and an excellent cast led by John Malkovich. But I also feel that Phelps had added too many unnecessary minor changes to some of the characters and the story. And I suspect that she did this in another attempt to relive the glory of 2015’s “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE”. The 1939 novel was a rare creation of Christie’s. If Phelps wants to write and produce another mystery on that level, I suggest she consider adapting a novel from another writer . . . perhaps P.D. James. Or she should consider creating her own mystery.

 

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1930s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1930s: 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” (1989-2013) – David Suchet starred as Agatha Chrsitie’s most famous sleuth, Hercule Poirot, in this long-running series that adapted her Poirot novels and short stories.

2. “Moviola: The Scarlett O’Hara War” (1980) – Tony Curtis starred as David O. Selznick in the second episode of the miniseries, “Moviola”. The television movie featured Selznick’s search for the right actress to portray the leading character in his movie adaptation of “Gone With the Wind”.

3. “Edward & Mrs. Simpson” (1978) – Edward Fox and Cynthia Harris starred the 1978 adaptation of the events leading to the 1936 abdication of King Edward VIII of Great Britain. The seven-part miniseries was based upon Frances Donaldson’s 1974 biography.

4. “Mildred Pierce” – Todd Haynes directed and co-wrote this television adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1940 novel about a middle-class divorcee, who struggles to maintain her family’s position during the Great Depression and earn her narcissist older daughter’s respect. Emmy winners Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce and Emmy nominee Evan Rachel Wood starred.

5. “Upstairs, Downstairs” (2010-2012) – Heidi Thomas created this continuation of the 1971-1975 series about the Hollands and their servants, the new inhabitants at old Bellamy residence at 105 Eaton Place. Jean Marsh, Keely Hawes, Ed Stoppard and Claire Foy starred.

6. “And Then There Were None” (2015) – Sarah Phelps produced and wrote this television adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel. Craig Viveiros directed.

7. “The Last Tycoon” (2016-2017) – Billy Ray created this television adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel about a Hollywood producer during the mid-1930s. Matt Bomer starred.

8. “Indian Summers” (2015-2016) – Paul Rutman created this series about the British community’s summer residence at Simla during the British Raj of the 1930s. The series starred Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Nikesh Patel, Jemima West and Julie Walters.

9. “Damnation” (2017-2018) Tony Tost created this series about the labor conflicts in the Midwest, during the Great Depression. Killian Scott and Logan Marshall-Green starred.

10. “The Lot” (1999-2001) – This series centered around a fictional movie studio called Sylver Screen Pictures during the late 1930s. The series was created by Rick Mitz.

“THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE” (2010) Review

“THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE” (2010) Review

The 2010 television movie, “THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE”, marked the third screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1962 novel of the same title. This particular adaptation from the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE”series starred Julia McKenzie as the leading character, Miss Jane Marple. 

Considering this is the third adaptation of Christie’s novel, I almost feel inclined to compare it to the 1980 and 1992 adaptations. Perhaps I might every now and then. Otherwise, I will try to focus on the 2010 movie itself. The story began with the arrival of Hollywood starlet Marina Gregg and her husband, director Jason Rudd to Jane Marple’s home village, St. Mary’s Mead, England. The pair is in England to film Marina’s latest film about the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Marina and Jason have purchased Gossington Hall, the former home of Jane Marple’s recently widowed friend, Mrs. Dolly Bantry. The cinematic pair eventually Marina host a fête and reception for St. Mary Mead’s citizens. But due to a minor accident that left her foot sprained, Miss Marple was unable to attend. Among those guests that appeared at Gossington Hall for the fête were:

*Marina’s former husband and gossip columnist Vincent Hogg, who has a personal grudge against her
*Lola Brewster, Vincent’s current wife and Marina’s younger screen rival and Jason’s former lover
*Jason’s personal secretary, Ella Blunt, who happens to be infatuated with him
*Mrs. Heather Babcock, an annoying and self-involved St. Mary’s Mead citizen, who had first met Marina during World War II
*Local photographer Margot Pence, who happens to share a past connection to Marina

While Heather Babcock bores Marina with an account of their previous meeting during the reception at Gossington Hall, she drinks a cocktail meant for Marina and dies. Miss Marple and Detective-Inspector Hewitt discover that the cocktail had been poisoned. Both race to learn the killer’s identity before he or she can reach the true target – Marina Gregg.

I have always been surprised that “The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side” is not that highly regarded by literary critics. Although some regarded as among the best of her later novels, it remains not as highly regarded as many of her earlier works. This is a pity, because I have always found the 1962 novel to be among Christie’s more interesting works.

There were aspects of “THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE” that . . . well, irked me. The production cast actor Nigel Harman as Marina Gregg’s director/husband Jason Rudd. Harman is over twenty years older than Lindsay Duncan, who portrayed Marina. May-December romances on screen are not as uncommon as one would think – regardless of whether the man or woman is older. If the two performers in question have the screen dynamics to overcome this age discrepancy, then fine. The problem is that Harman lacked the screen presence to keep up with the likes of Duncan. He was no Rock Hudson or Barry Newman. Come to think of it, I had the same problem with the Vincent Hogg-Lola Brewster pairing. Actress Hannah Waddingham is over thirty years older than Martin Jarvis. And yet, she seemed to lack the screen presence to keep up with the likes of Jarvis. At least in this television production.

I had another problem with the Vincent Hogg character . . . namely his profession as a gossip columnist. Hogg is supposed to be one of Marina Gregg’s former husbands. If the Vincent Hogg character had met and married Marina before he became a gossip columnist, I could understand this. But a Hollywood star marrying a columnist? I cannot see it. I also had a problem with the Heather Babcock character. I do not mean to be an ageist, but I feel that the actress who portrayed her, Caroline Quentin, was too old at the age of 49-50 to portray Mrs. Babcock. Then again, I could be using age to hide from the fact that I did not find Ms. Quentin’s performance convincing.

Did “THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE” live up to this interesting aspect of the novel. I honestly do not know. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Do not get me wrong. With the exceptions of a few changes regarding the story’s characters, the 2010 television adaptation is more than less faithful to Christie’s novel. Thanks to Lindsay Duncan’s superb performance and Tom Shankland’s direction, it did a great job in conveying Marina Gregg’s fragile, yet artistic and ruthless personality and how she managed to accumulate so many enemies. There were certain scenes in the movie that I enjoyed. They include Miss Marple and Mrs. Bantry’s initial meeting with Marina Gregg and Jason Rudd at Gossington Hall for tea; any scene with Victoria Smurfit, who gave a very sharp, yet entertaining performance as Jason’s secretary, Elsa Blunt; the rather hilarious social encounter between the citizens of St. Mary’s Mead and the Hollywood newcomers at fête, and the scene featuring Marina’s breakdown during her filming of a Cleopatra movie.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Sheena Napier, who worked on her fifth (out of eleven) “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” movie, did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions of mid-20th century Britain. I can also say the same about Jeff Tessler, who skillfully took television viewers back to the same time period. And I felt somewhat satisfied with Cinders Forshaw’s photography. I say . . . somewhat. Although I found his photography beautiful and colorful, I felt annoyed by the soft focus style that hinted the production’s time period. So unnecessary.

I have already commented on those performances featured in “THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE” – like Lindsay Duncan, Victoria Smurfit and Caroline Quentin. I might as well comment on the other performances that I had missed. Julia McKenzie gave a marvelous performance, as always, as the brilliant and observant amateur sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. I noticed, however, that her performance seemed a bit more subtle than usual. Was this due to working alongside the more ebullient Joanna Lumley? I do not know. But I did noticed that the latter’s portrayal of Dolly Bantry seemed even more extroverted than she did in 2004’s “THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY”. I enjoyed Ms. Lumley’s performance, but there were times when I found it a bit grating. I may not have been impressed by Nigel Harman’s chemistry with Lindsay Duncan, but I thought he gave a solid performance as Jason Rudd. On the other hand, I enjoyed Hugh Bonneville’s skillful portrayal of the cool and slightly sharp-tongued Detective-Inspector Hewitt. He also had a surprisingly good screen chemistry with Julia McKenzie. Martin Jarvis nearly dominated every scene he was in as Marina’s resentful, yet malicious ex-husband Vincent Hogg. I wish I could say the same for Hannah Waddingham, but I cannot. Even in those scenes in which she did not share with Jarvis, she made a very disappointing Lola Brewster. I certainly was not disappointed with Charlotte Riley’s excellent, yet cool portrayal of the enigmatic photographer, Margot Bence. I can also say the same about Brennan Brown, who gave a very entertaining performance as Marina’s highly nervous secretary, Hailey Preston. The television also featured solid performances from Olivia Darnley, Samuel Barnett and Neil Stuke and Michele Doctrice.

“THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE” is not the best Jane Marple movie I have ever seen . . . or even one of the best. Nor can I say that it is the best adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1962 novel. But despite its flaws, I must admit that I still managed to enjoy it, thanks to Tom Shankland’s direction, Kevin Elyot’s screenplay and a first-rate cast led by Julia McKenzie.

“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.