“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.

“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.