Script versus short story
The extraordinary thing about the short story on which this adaptation is based, is that it consists entirely of a monologue by Poirot, with certain comments from Hastings. It recounts a case Poirot conducted while he was a member of the Belgian police force - his failure. Douglas Watkinson's script is a wonderful attempt at bringing this story-within-a-story to life. Most importantly, he creates a completely different framing story that enables Poirot to be back at the scene of the crime, so to speak, in Brussels. In the adaptation, Hastings is replaced by Chief Inspector Japp, who has been appointed a Companion de la Branche d'Or of Belgium, one of the country's highest distinctions, for his services to the Belgian police force ever since the Abercombie forgery case (mentioned in Christie's novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles as the first time Japp and Poirot collaborated). Poirot accompanies him to Belgium, since his wife Emily (mentioned throughout the series, but she never appears) is unable to come. As a result, Poirot is back in his home country, which in itself is a joy to watch, but more importantly, that enables him to reacquaint himself with Claude Chantalier and Jean-Louis Ferraud, old friends who worked with him on the case. Poirot and Chantalier start discussing the case, and Poirot recounts the story to Japp as a 'disinterested party'. These changes are very sensible, and they bring the story vividly to life. Another important change is to expand the hints of a love interest between Poirot and Vergine Mesnard. For one thing, she doesn't end up in a convent. Instead, she marries Jean-Louis and has children, Henri and Hercule (a sign of her affection for him). But, more importantly, she gives Poirot his lapel pin! And he calls her by her first name, Virginie - the only woman (except Ariadne Oliver and several kitchen maids) who has this 'honour'. Watkinson also makes certain small changes, like replacing the English character John Wilson with a French one, Gaston Beaujeu, and not letting Poirot disguise himself as a plumber, but all in all, this is a faithful and emotional retelling of the short story, one of the best entries in the series.
Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Ken Grieve's direction for this episode is absolutely great. He makes excellent use of the locations, and conducts some neat transitions between the time periods (1930s and 1900s). For instance, the camera follows a bus driving past the Deroulard household, which is replaced by horse driven carriages to convey the shift from present to past. Several similar examples occur throughout the episode. The locations and the sets are beautiful to look at, and it's so nice that they make the most of the 'foreign' location. Antwerp Station (not in Brussels, obviously), was used as Gare de Bruxelles. Gunning's soundtrack for this episode is particularly memorable, with a lovely love theme for Virginie and Poirot.
Characters and actors
David Suchet does such a brilliant job in this one. Seamlessly, he manages to portray both the young and energetic Poirot and the middle-aged Poirot. The hair piece and the somewhat more natural hair colour contribute to the effect, of course, but it's his acting, particularly in that end scene where he is reunited with Virginie, that he really lets his experience (and Poirot's melancholy) set in. The way he gently touches the vase is such a nice touch. All the guest actors in this adaptation do a brilliant job, too, with Anna Chancellor (Virginie Mesnard) and Rosalie Crutchley (Madame Deroulard) as the real standouts.