Thursday, 29 August 2013

Episode-by-episode: The Mystery of the Blue Train


©ITV
This episode was based on the novel The Mystery of the Blue Train, first published in 1928, which in turn was based on the short story 'The Plymouth Express', adapted for Series Three. The novel was adapted for television by Guy Andrews (who also adapted Taken at the Flood and Appointment with Death) and directed by Hettie Macdonald.

Script versus novel
Agatha Christie always considered this one of her lesser efforts. It's basically just an expansion of the short story, 'The Plymouth Express', and it consists of a wide range of incredible plot points. Therefore, it was no surprise that Guy Andrews felt the need to radically rewrite the story (although, like with his other adaptations, he adds some equally ludicrous points himself...). It's almost impossible to sum up all the changes, but I'll try to outline the most important ones. First, he makes everyone travel on the same train to Nice (cf. MOTOE), including the count, Lady Tamplin, Corky ("Chubby" in the novel), Lennox, Mirelle Milesi (just Mirelle in the novel) - as well as the ones from the novel (Ruth, Katherine, the maid etc.). Second, Poirot appears much earlier than in the novel, and he is well acquainted both with Katherine and Ruth before the train journey. In fact, he becomes Katherine's "avuncular" (with a particularly charming introductory scene at the hotel). Third, there is an elaborate birthday party for Ruth in London before the train journey, attended by everyone involved, and a party at Lady Tamplin's once they arrive in France. Fourth, Ruth asks Katherine to change compartments on the train, suggesting that Katherine might have been the intended victim. Fifth, there's an entire new back story to Katherine (her father killed himself after Van Aldin Oil bought his company and fired all his employees). Similarly, an entire back story is added to Ruth's mother, who is revealed to be in a convent / convalescent home in France, where she has become a nun. Sixth, Mirelle is Rufus Van Aldin's lover and not Derek Kettering's. Seventh, the extremely complicated background with "the Marquis", Demetrius and Zia Papopolous is removed (a wise decision). Instead, Corky finds the imitation ruby, Derek is in heavy gambling debt to the Count, and one of the culprits attempts to kill Katherine in her sleep. At the end of the film, the murderer commits suicide, instead of just being arrested by the French police as in the novel.The end result is such that, if you can get past the changes, the adaptation isn't half bad. I particularly like the way in which Poirot's avuncular qualities are brought to the fore. I'm not going to defend the changes (what's up with Andrews and nuns? He adds them in all of his three adaptations!), but I don't really mind him making them, both because the novel itself hardly can be considered plausible and because there was a need to distinguish it clearly from 'The Plymouth Express'.

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Hettie Macdonald's direction has divided opinions, I have noticed. Her experimental use of camera angles and shadows takes a bit of getting used to, I admit, but I find them mainly effective. Also, she benefits greatly from some really nice locations and excellent production design. The locations include (Sheraton) Park Lane Hotel, London, Menton Old Town, La Rotonde, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Villa Maria Serena, Menton, Wansford Station and Nene Valley Railway, Musée des Beaux-Arts - Palais Carnolès (Nice railway station) and  Freemason's Hall London (party scenes).Stephen McKeon, who composed the music for Series Ten and Eleven, does a nice job with this particular episode. See his website here. Also, if you can find the 45 minutes behind-the-scenes documentary on Series Ten, there is plenty of more information on this production there, including a short interview with scriptwriter Guy Andrews.

Characters and actors
Again, Suchet adds little touches of Poirot's sense of loneliness (see, for instance, the end scene). It's lovely to see the character develop from the early years to his retirement. Of the guest actors, most suit their roles, but Lindsay Duncan and Georgina Rylance are the standouts in my opinion. 

13 comments:

  1. I wasn't that impressed by the 1928 novel. And if I must be honest, this 2005 movie is a mixed bag for me. I didn't care for some of the changes - the murderer's attempt to escape the law on the train tracks; and the changes in Katherine Grey, Ruth Van Aldin and Lennox Tamplin's personalities. On the other hand, I liked the change in Mirelle's character, along with the Van Aldin family background and Derek Kettering's character.

    Like I said . . . a mixed bag.

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  2. While some would call it pandering to political correctness, I liked that this series doesn't require everyone be hooked up by the end. Sometimes the women are allowed to become more independent, like Lynn in Flood, and Katherine here.

    Nice to see her eager for more travel and NOT hooked up with Kettering! All that money...heck, enjoy your freedom, don't tie yourself down! Of course, we were supposed to be surprised by "Knighton in Shining Armor" turning out to be more evil than the surfacely-rougish Kettering, but neither of them deserved Grey! And Lennox's bonding with her and then defending her was pretty awesome too.

    And nice to see Poirot out-and-out stating that he rejects many etiquette rules as "snobbery." Although I would have expected Poirot to care which knives and forks to use for which dishes as an order-and-method thing! In the books, how snobby or how rebellious he is is a bit inconsistent. He is definitely impressed by being permitted to socialize with aristocrats...it's even part of Vera's appeal for him, and he doesn't want to hear anyone say that she may be a phony.

    I actually wondered a little about Katherine's social insecurity, because, granted, she's never had a lot of money before, but surely, she would have been around people with money and/or status in the course of her employment? At least enough to observe? Clearly, she had some education and breeding.

    While some of the changes they made to that one were pretty outlandish, I did rather like the twist of Roche and Kettering ending up teaming up. They seem like birds of a feather who would be flocking together. And they deserved each other and didn't deserve any of the women.

    In the book, Kettering seems to be sort of redeemed as a result of the case. But it's uncomfortable how Ruth's death kind of solves his problems.

    The ending had Poirot essentially talking Knighton into killing himself instead of Katherine. That doesn't really convince, somehow. How many times can he talk someone out of doing something bad? It really does begin to feel like magic.

    Is it just me, or did the beginning not "flow" all that smoothly? And did the train scenes feel a little too much like Orient Express?

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  3. Did anyone feel like the ways the characters from different circles ended up getting to know each other was awkward and unconvincing? Most especially, for me, Katherine and Poirot. I think it was partly because it wasn't clear to me what was going on with the wine that so horrible for her, that for Poirot to jump in was practically a "save"? Something about her not knowing which wine to pick? Or the usual 'drill' for when it was poured? I've heard about the "drills" for wine-tasting...today, there are a lot more people willing to denounce it as pretentious.

    I'd like to think if it was me in Katherine's shoes, I would enjoy myself being talked about as the one NOT following the rules (think "The Lady is a Tramp" - Katherine could have used that song.)

    Actually, I think the Katherine of the book is a little more confident at the outset - but in the books, the women tend to go from "independent" to "ready to settle down and smart enough to make the right choice who with" whereas in this series they tend to get more independent.

    Having said all that, I wasn't sure how sympathetic they meant to make Lady Tamplin and Lennox, but I wasn't disgusted with them the way I was with the Cloades. While, they were clearly sucking up to Katherine for money, I didn't sense that they had hatred or contempt for her, or were sneering behind her back, as many of the Cloades did to Rosaleen. I thought the Tamplins had some genuine liking for Katherine - and clearly, there was something in it all for Katherine, too - they could help her have new experiences and have fun, so to speak. And on the one hand, the scene where Corky gives Lady Tamplin a present, and it seems to be leading to some "bedroom time" seemed gratuitious, on the other hand, it did show that for all their, in Poirot's words, silliness and snobbery, they were really "into each other" unlike many couples in this society. (Why was Poirot watching it? Was he scandalized by it? They were married, after all.)

    Now, to circle back to my first point: after seeing Poirot cultivate Jane Grey, Katherine Grey, and others, I'm starting to question his motives. (Not case-related, in most instances.) Obviously he isn't trying to get them into bed, but I'm starting to wonder if he's motivated by some sort of attraction, (and some of them of seem somewhat attracted to him) or if he's looking for a substitute for the child he never had, or if he has some sort of rescue complex - to the point that he's seeking out people to rescue!

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  4. I wonder if Katherine's issue with ordering wine goes over the heads of many modern viewers - especially younger ones - due to their not being schooled in that kind of etiquette (for better or worse.)

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    1. fg82 - that also occurred to me, while watching that scene. It was most kind + generous of Poiroit to be avuncular to her, + especially about table etiquette, as he is so precise, well almost pedantic about many issues. Very sweet in his comment about snobbery. As in life, it is usually the snobs who really aren't gracious or generous, while those who show such kindness, are refined or genteel, courteous + considerate. Their friendship was so charming.

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    2. I honestly couldn't get what Katherine was doing wrong in that scene.

      Suchet talks about Poirot hating the English class system, but I have to say, I don't take that away from the books, and he never has any lines that direct in the books. Sometimes he seems impressed by aristocrats.

      Actually, before watching that wine scene, I would have expected Poirot to care about which fork was used for which dish - from a standpoint of order and method!

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  5. While I agree it's one of the weaker novels, I do think the early chapters (before we ever get to the train) are some of Christie's finest writing.

    I like that in the adaptation, everyone stands up to Poirot during the denouement. I've always felt these scenes make him seem rather a bully, accusing people he knows to be innocent and exposing secrets that don't actually need to come out into the open in order to explain the crime. Here, everyone rightly calls him on it.

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    1. Rocky Elvestad21 June 2015 at 20:00

      On the other hand, Poirot's plan for the drawing room confrontation is especially questionable here, given that he decides to unmask a brutal murderer who kills for pleasure while he (the murderer) has his arm around the neck of an innocent girl.

      I was also put off by his angry "Ça suffit!" when the suspects break into some levity, when the whole thing seems to be set up for no other reason than to allow him to show off. And I always end up trying to picture the conversations required to arrange for these confrontations: getting the police on board, convincing everyone that they have to turn up, in this case even renting out a train (!) for no particular reason. Yes, it is quite preposterous.

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    2. Stuart Farquhar13 July 2015 at 21:19

      Yes! In fact, he's lucky everyone always does turn up. Imagine he tries to set up one of these meetings and only himself and Japp show. :)

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  6. I do find Guy Andrews' adaptations quite pretentious, I tend to lose the plot at some moments, with Taken At the Flood being the exception (I haven't watched Labours yet). I don't mind most of the changes, I understand the whole thing had to be restructured due to the short story episode. It bugs me though how the resource of making literally EVERYBODY a suspect is a bit overused; why the heck are the Tamplin on the train? And why are Knighton and Mr. Van Aldin attending to the party at Villa Marguerite? Even Ada Mason is serving cocktails there! Why? How? It all feels somewhat forced in my opinion.

    But as I said before, I don't mind the changes, I find some of them quite enjoyable (this new Mirelle character was interesting). On the other hand, I think that too many convoluted subplots tend to weak the main story as a whole, as in Appointment with Death, it feels like a puzzle whose pieces don't fit together.

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    1. I agree. Making everybody a suspect is an overused trick of the trade. They deliberately wanted to increase the number of suspects here, to make the adaptation more 'exciting' for the viewer. I find it hard to believe that they would all socialise at the Villa after recent events - and they're not even supposed to know each other. However, the changes work as a whole, so the adaptation isn't too bad. Unlike Appointment with Death, where the actual plot was completely lost in a mess of subplots...

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  7. Hi Eirik I have been looking at this episode again, but cannot find the Freemasons' Hall in the party scenes. However, the hall seems to have been used as the interrogation venue of the Gare de Nice. I recognised it from photo 14 of the Location Works website.

    See you,
    Judith

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  8. I've just binge watched the entire series except for Orient Express (which I will watch next) and Curtain (which I will not watch, as I was traumatized by the book as a teenager and I fear I'll feel even worse if I watch the film). Great blog you have here; I've enjoyed reading it immensely.

    To respond to a few of you who have commented:

    Poirot IS a snob in many ways and would normally expect to be in the company of those who know which fork to use when, but chivalry is much more important to him. Therefore, he makes Katherine feel at ease by talking about snobbery and how unimportant rules of etiquette can be.

    Poirot accuses everyone of being the murderer because that makes for good drama--in books and in television. I would not try to find any other explanation because you won't find one.

    I find myself very saddened by Poirot's loneliness. I think I'll end my binge watching by returning to a couple of the more lighthearted Hastings episodes. That is how I like to think of Poirot.

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About Me

I'm a passionate fan of Poirot, Agatha Christie and the ITV series. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or requests, please e-mail me at poirotchronology@gmail.com, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)