Script versus novel
This was the last Poirot novel that Agatha Christie wrote (Curtain was written in the 1940s). It's not her most successful novel. It's been criticised as rambling, chatty and out of focus. Some even suggest that it shows early signs of Alzheimer's. With this in mind, Nick Dear faced a challenge. He needed to re-structure, trim and re-focus the plot and make it work as two hours (or 89 minutes, to be precise) of exciting television. I think he has been reasonably successful. Let's look at the obvious changes first. Obviously, the setting is moved from the 1970s to the 1930s. In fact, that makes hardly any difference. Yes, there are a few references to post-war objects and events in the novel, but the main plot could easily be set in the 30s.
A much more significant change, however, is to introduce a new subplot. Dear decides to flesh out a backstory that involves Dr. Willoughby (who was in the novel for a chapter). His elderly psychiatrist father (who was dead years ago in the novel) is found murdered in the basement of the Willoughby Institute, and Dr. Willoughby appears to be the only viable suspect. Dear also makes him a longtime friend of Poirot's. Someone suggested online that Poirot had been brought out of retirement in this episode, but this fact proves that he is still just taking cases that (a) interest him or (b) concern friends of his (Mrs Oliver gets him involved with the 'elephants', Willoughby with the death of his father. I think that's why Dear decided to make him a friend of Poirot's in the first place. The same goes for Inspector Neale, who is investigating the case. (He seems to partly substitute Superintendent Spence here, which is a shame, but the reason could be availability issues I suppose). Poirot was never really retired anyway (apart from the Ackroyd case), he has just entered a state of semi-retirement (which is in keeping with the later novels). I think The Labours of Hercules, due to be broadcast soon, will probably see him entering retirement for good. But back to the subplot. Dear adds an 'American' secretary/lover for Dr. Willoughby (later revealed to be Canadian, thanks to some fairly obvious hints in the script), and even ties the Institute and Dr. Willoughby's practise to the backstory of Desmond Burton-Cox. Poirot is only too keen to investigate the Willoughby case - so keen, in fact, that Mrs Oliver has to manage the 'elephants' case more or less on her own for about half the episode (which is a good thing - I'll come back to that later).
I think the subplot works well. It's a clever way to make the story more 'active' (a full-length episode solely concerned with Mrs Oliver's 'elephant' interviews could become a little tedious). I even suspect that is one of the reasons behind this change; Poirot gets a much more active role than the 'provider of information' he becomes in the novel. It also helps to distinguish the story from Five Little Pigs, a story it shares more than a passing resemblance with. Instead, the episode is tied more neatly to cases like Mrs McGinty's Dead and Hallowe'en Party, that deal with intertwined cases from the past and the present. (I must say, though, that I find all these retrospective, psychologically driven investigations some of the most fascinating of Poirot's cases. There are no fingerprints, (usually) no murder weapon and no bodies. We really get to see his main investigative method - the study of human behaviour - at its best). Still, it should be said that the last link between the subplot and the main plot seems a bit forced. The culprit SPOILER is revealed to be Marie, Dorothea Jarrow's long lost daughter (briefly mentioned in the novel), out on a personal vendetta to take revenge on the psychiatrist and Celia. For one, I thought Dorothea disliked children, so why would she still send her daughter letters, telling her the truth? And why didn't she speak up sooner? (She explains that she was 'a poor secretary' who had to earn money to get to the UK from Canada, which would be true in the 30s, but still). Also, she was present at Overcliffe and just happened to overhear the crucial conversation between Zelie and General Ravenscroft? Then again, the plot is in keeping with Christie storytelling (double identities, the secretary, mistakes made in the past), and the actors make it believable.
As mentioned earlier, Mrs Oliver is left to investigate the Ravenscroft case (more or less) on her own for about half the episode. This main plot and the subplot are intertwined throughout the episode. Nick Dear has written wonderfully for Wanamaker and Suchet before (I particularly enjoy the interaction in Mrs McGinty's Dead). The 'cold case' isn't too interesting in itself, but Ariadne's approach is a complete joy to watch, and the conversations with the 'elephants' are fun ('In this part of the world, Ariadne, one either hunts or one has affairs'). Poirot (who is really only interested in the Willoughby case and has to be persuaded to give advice) helps her along, urging her to look for a motive in the past. In this sense, Mrs Oliver becomes his apprentice, since Poirot isn't too keen to investigate himself (reminiscent of quite a few cases with Hastings in the past, e.g. 'The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim' and 'Double Sin'). Ironically, Mrs Oliver describes Poirot as her 'assistant' (the look on Suchet's face is hilarious) to Mrs Burton-Cox.
Dear has had to make several changes to the original plot. Most sections have been shortened down (the literary luncheon, conversations between Poirot and Ariadne, and between Ariadne and the elephants. Desmond has become a pianist (which allows for a lovely concert scene I'll come back to later). Mrs Buckle helps out at Mrs Matcham's place, and her daughter is deleted. Mr Goby has been removed (Beale takes over his tasks), which is in keeping with all the other adaptations of stories he appears in. Madame Rouselle and Mademoiselle Zelie Meauhourat have been merged into Zelie Rouselle (a very sensible decision). Most significantly, perhaps, is Desmond's new backstory. We are told that he 'formed an attachment to someone', who is later revealed to be Zelie. His adoptive mother Mrs Burton-Cox persuaded psychiatrist Dr Willoughby to take him on, and it is later revealed that he fell in love with her. He was 15, she was 25. Personally, I think this backstory can be deduced from the novel (he certainly viewed her as a friend, and they stayed in touch), so I'm not too surprised. Apart from these changes, the plot is kept more or less intact, and several scenes have been lifted almost word-by-word from the novel.
Finally, I have to comment on a script error. A commenter on the IMdB board, 'brucekaren136' said: 'I was left wondering if the plot contained a major goof. I might be wrong but 1) it was clearly stated that the 'suicide/murder' had happened 13 years previously, 2) that Desmond Burton-Cox had had a crush on Zelie when he was 15 which presumably was before the suicide etc and that 3) Desmond's birth mother in leaving him a fortune had stated that he could not inherit the money until he was 25 years old or got married, whichever came sooner. Surely taking 1) and 2) together Desmond was already 28 and should already have inherited the money that his adoptive mother was trying to prevent him from getting by getting married.'. I'm sure the mistake wasn't intentional, but it's a bit careless all the same.
All in all, I think Dear's script is fairly successful. He manages to bring a slightly pedestrian story to life by adding a subplot, changing a few backstories and focus the attention on the force of nature that is Ariadne Oliver. In the end, this makes for an enjoyable 89 minutes of television.
Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
John Strickland's direction should be particularly commended. The way he introduces Poirot (with the clock, the radio and the cigarette in Whitehaven is a good example. So are the scenes in the Willoughby basement, in which the shadows are allowed to create a particularly chilling atmosphere. The transitions between scenes are particularly well done. For instance, a shot of Garroway adding sugar lumps to his coffee is intercut with the fall of 'Dorothea' from the cliff (white sugar versus woman in white). Similarly, a scene in front of Poirot's Whitehaven fireplace transforms into a scene with the Ravenscrofts by a fireplace at Overcliffe. A part of the denouement has a similar shift from the present to the past in the Ravenscroft office. (These directoral choices remind me of several of the recent Sherlock episodes). I'd also like to point out the train sequence in which Poirot travels to Paris (we even get a tiny glimpse of his passport!). The production team have done particularly well here. For the first time since 2005, they've been back at Florin Court (aka Whitehaven Mansions) to shoot exterior scenes, and I love these (Ariadne arriving in her car, the conversation between Beale and Ariadne, Desmond arriving etc). Some of the camera angles are inventive, too, and we get to see the building from slightly new perspectives. They've even added a decorative elephant sculpture in Poirot's window, which is good, too (thought slightly obvious symbolism). Also, Zelie's Parisian shop is beautifully continental and perfectly in period.
I particularly noticed the colour grading in this episode, and I discovered this interview with Dan Coles, the colour grader on the episode:
“Poirot aims to give TV audiences a cinematic experience, so in the grading we made the images look rich and beautiful with filmic contrast levels,” says Coles. “In this episode we accentuated the art deco feel in Poirot's flat with vibrant red and orange tones, while maintaining cooler tones in the shadows. We decided to go for warmer colours of the spectrum for most scenes, for example using golden hues for interiors. We contrasted this overall look with a stark and steely blue shades for the first murder sequence.”Now, I have to comment on the use of green screens. I understand that this is a necessity to keep costs down, and I'm normally not too bothered. The glimpse of 1930s Paris was quite acceptable, for instance. However, when this episode was broadcast on ITV, there was a major green screen mistake! When Poirot visits Dr. Willoughby's episode for the first time, a massive green screen is visible in the window! I sincerely hope that this will be fixed for the DVD/Blu-ray releases. It's completely unacceptable and shouldn't happen on a show that prides itself on its production values!
“Much of the episode was shot using green screen, and composited later on so we had to take great care grading foregrounds and backgrounds using supplied mattes. An antique de-saturated look was applied to the flashback material, along with occasional defocused vignettes.”
The locations used for the episode include The Park Lane Hotel (last seen in The Mystery of the Blue Train, here used for the literary luncheon scenes), Greys Court in Oxfordshire (Julia Carstair's house), Netherwhylde Equestrian (mostly used for Ariadne's driving scenes I think). Most of the other scenes are shot at Pinewood and Shepperton Film Studios. Christian Henson's soundtrack is absolutely perfect for the episode. It doesn't draw too much attention to itself, but it accompanies the scenes well. I also like the use of Bach's Goldberg Variations (for the concert scene) and Chopin's Nocturne #7 (for the end credits).
Characters and actors
Poirot (and Suchet) is back in investigative mode here. There are certain character continuities worth commenting on. I've already discussed his semi-retirement and his friendship with Willoughby. There's also an amusing incident with Poirot and a passing taxi (Sacre!). Most importantly, though, there's the scene between him and Zelie in Paris. The interaction between Suchet and Elsa Mollien is exceptionally well done. I particularly like two of Poirot's comments: 'Neither you nor I are married (*he touches her ring finger*). We may never be married. But they should be', and 'It is easier to hate when you have once loved than to remain indifferent'. Both lines touch upon the loneliness in Poirot's life, the longing for a life companion that can never be fulfilled.
The actors are all (more or less) perfectly suited for their roles. Zoë Wanamaker is as brilliant as ever as Mrs Oliver. Greta Scacchi is great as the conniving adoptive mother. Caroline Blakiston is absolutely enjoyable as Julia Carstairs. So is Hazel Douglas as Nanny Matcham, and Maxine Evans as Mrs Buckle. Ruth Sheen is perfect in the cameo as Madame Rosentelle, and Iain Glen manages to come across as almost sympathetic as Willoughby. Ferdinand Kingsley (Desmond) and Vanessa Kirby (Celia) don't quite stand out, but they suit their characters. Alexandra Dowling (Marie) is faced with a challenging role with many layers, and she is reasonably successful. I have been told her Canadian/American accent isn't quite convincing, though.
Finally, I'd just like to comment on what is a major quibble to me on the actor front. Why couldn't they have brought David Yelland back as George? I realise that the reason might be scheduling difficulties, but it's so obvious that they have filmed and scripted scenes so that the character is conveniently out of sight. Poirot asks him to pack his bags (and gets a 'Yes, sir' in reply that clearly isn't Yelland, and we catch a glimpse of a stand-in opening the door for Desmond (but he clearly has black hair and doesn't at all look like Yelland. Still, I'm glad they didn't just forget that Poirot has a manservant and actually made the effort to make it seem as if he was there.