“CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS” (2008) Review

“CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS” (2008) Review

I have a confession to make. I am not particularly fond of Agatha Christie’s later novels featuring Belgian-born private detective, Hercule Poirot. Most of those novel were published between the end of the 1950s and 1976, the year of Christie’s death. But there is one Poirot novel that I have enjoyed over the years. It is the 1959 novel, “The Cat Among the Pigeons”.

Nearly fifty years later, the producers of the ITV series, “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” aired an adaptation of the novel. Written by Mark Gatiss, the story began in a fictional Middle Eastern country called Ramat during a revolution. The country’s leader, Prince Ali Yusaf, and his close friend, a British pilot named Bob Rawlinson; engaged in a violent shoot-out with revolutionaries that had managed to storm the palace. Rawlinson confirmed to the prince that he had made arrangements for the latter’s valuable rubies to leave the country minutes before the revolutionaries killed them in a hail of bullets.

A few months later, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot found himself at Meadowbank, a prestigious girls’ school in England, serving as a guest speaker for its award ceremony. Poirot happened to be a close friend of the school’s founder and headmistress, Miss Honoria Bulstrode. Following the ceremony, the latter asked the Belgian detective to remain at the school for a few days and help her select her successor following her retirement. However, Poirot found himself investigating a lot more when Miss Grace Springer, the school’s sports teacher, is found skewered to death by a javelin in the Sports Pavilion. Several days later, one of the students – Princess Shaista, Ali Yusaf’s cousin – disappeared from school . . . believed to have been kidnapped. Fearful that events might lead to the school’s closing, Miss Bulstrode asked Poirot to investigate and solve both the murder and the kidnapping.

There had been some changes in this adaptation of Christie’s 1959 novel. Several supporting characters had been omitted, which is not surprising to me. Poirot was featured in the television movie from the beginning to the end . . . unlike the novel in which he made his first appearance two-thirds into the story. In fact, he and Miss Bulstrode were not close friends in the novel. I believe one of the biggest improvements of this television adaptation was to feature Poirot’s character in the story from the beginning to the end. The manner of deaths for some of the characters had been changed. The biggest change proved to be the setting. The latter was changed from the late 1950s to the mid-to-late 1930s in order to fit the premise for “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. Fortunately, none of these changes had damaged the television movie’s narrative. But I did find the reasoning behind Poirot’s stay at Meadowbank a little thin.

Christie’s novel has always been a favorite of mine, considering how it permeated with political intrigue. That same intrigue seemed present in “CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS”. Yet . . . how I can put it? The political atmosphere seemed slightly muted from the novel. I believe the problem originated with Grace Springer’s death. In the novel, her death seemed to emphasize the mystery surrounding the Sports Pavilion. Whereas this movie had put a great deal of focus on Springer’s character. Perhaps a bit too much. I have always found the screenwriter’s decision to transform Miss Springer into a borderline sadist with a penchant for blackmail unnecessary. I also wish that Gatiss had included Christie’s original ending that featured Ali Yusaf’s secret British wife and son. I have always found that particular scene poignant.

Otherwise, I did not have a problem with the changes made in “CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS”. Although it is not favorite Christie adaptation of mine, I cannot deny that I have always enjoyed it. One, I enjoyed the political intrigue behind the narrative, even if it seemed slightly muted. Two, I thought the movie did an excellent job in its characterizations – especially with the school’s teachers. I also enjoyed the developing relationship between Poirot and Inspector Kelsey, thanks to Gatiss’ screenplay and the performances of David Suchet and Anton Lesser. Three, if I must be honest, I thought Gatiss did a better job in portraying Ali Yusaf and Bob Rawlinson’s deaths than Christie. In the latter’s novel, the pair was killed in an arranged plane crash, off screen.

The production values of the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” movies have been something of a mixed bag post-2000. Although most of the television movies did an excellent of reflecting Great Britain during the mid-to-late 1930s, there have been a few that I found questionable. Thankfully, I cannot say the same about the production values for “CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS”. I believe the movie benefited greatly from Jeff Tessler’s production designs, Michael Harrowes’ editing, Miranda Cull and Paul Spriggs’ art direction and Cinders Forshaw’s photography. However, I did wish that Forshaw had not been so inclined to indulged in that hazy photography that had seemed to dominate period dramas from the 1970s and 1980s.

I also enjoyed Sheena Napier’s costume designs. I thought she did a solid job in creating costumes that reflected the movie’s setting. But I had one complaint about Napier’s costumes – namely those worn by actress Natasha Little. Perhaps my eyes were deceiving me, but the hemlines for Little’s costumes seemed a bit short for the 1930s. The idea of her wearing dresses that were indicative of the late 1920s seemed rather odd. Little portrayed Ann Shapland, a secretary who had worked for a series of prestigious employers – including Miss Bulstrode. I doubt that the Miss Shapland character lacked the finances to purchase clothes that were in fashion.

The performances featured in “CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS” seemed top-notch as usual. I have already commented on David Suchet and Anton Lesser’s performances as Hercule Poirot and Inspector Kelsey, complimenting both actors for conveying the growing professional relationship between the two characters. Harriet Walter did an excellent job in her portrayal of the more than competent Honoria Bulstrode, the school’s headmistress.

Adam Croasdell gave a solid performance as the likeable, yet smarmy school gardener, Adam Goodman. Natasha Little was excellent as Miss Bulstrode’s slightly sophisticated secretary Ann Shephard, who was also hiding a poignant secret. Amara Karan proved to be rather entertaining as Princess Shaista, the royal student who regarded herself as more mature and superior than the other student. I can say the same about Amanda Abbington’s portrayal of Miss Blake, the art teacher who did not bother to hide her dislike of the boorish Miss Springer. Although I was a little critical of Gatiss’ decision to make the latter character unlikable in a rather ham-fisted manner, I cannot deny that Elizabeth Barrington gave an interesting performance.

The television movie featured solid performances from Carol MacReady, Pippa Heywood, Katie Leung, Georgia Cornick, Jo Woodcock and Lois Edmett. But I feel that Claire Skinner and Susan Wooldridge gave the two best performances as literary teacher Eileen Rich and Miss Chadwick, teacher and co-founder of the school. Both actresses did a superb job in evoking the poignant aspects of their characters.

“CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS” is a curious adaptation. Some of the changes to Agatha Christie’s 1959 novel made by Mark Gatiss struck me as a bit detrimental to the production – especially the exaggeration of Miss Springer’s character. Yet, some of the changes – including Poirot’s increased appearances and the manner of two minor characters’ death – seemed to improve the story. Overall, I enjoyed “CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS” very much thanks to Mark Gatiss’ screenplay, James Kent’s direction and especially the performances of the cast led by David Suchet. I still find it very satisfying.