Friday, June 17, 2011

Still Belgian After All These Years: Poirot XI

David Suchet is an excellent character actor, but cineastes that came of age watching Sir Peter Ustinov’s joie de vivre in the role likely had trouble warming to him as Masterpiece Mystery’s incarnation of Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Yet, after eleven seasons on PBS, the people have spoken. Just four novels, one play, and a short story away from adapting the entire Christie Poirot canon, Suchet is clearly comfortable in the part and Dame Agatha’s fans are comfortable with him. Poirot XI premieres this Sunday on most PBS outlets with Three Act Tragedy, which will be of interest to fans of other Brit mysteries as well.

Pleasingly cinematic, Tragedy capitalizes on its scenic Cornwall location. Poirot’s friend Sir Charles Cartwright, the famous actor, has retired here to enjoy the sailing. Unfortunately, the old vicar has the poor taste to drop dead during his cocktail party. Poirot assures him, these things happen, mon ami. However, when Cartwright’s good friend, noted psychiatrist Sir Bartholomew Strange, dies under identical circumstances several months later, Poirot changes his tune to mea culpa. As Poirot investigates with the enthusiastic assistance of Cartwright and his considerably younger lover Egg, the case seems to hinge on a mysterious patient recently admitted to Strange’s looney bin.

Regular Masterpiece Mystery viewers will immediately recognize Martin Shaw, who succeeded Roy Marsden as Inspector Dalgliesh, playing the sidekick role as Cartwright. Art Malik, most recognizable as Mr. Amanjit in the recent Upstairs, Downstairs reboot (but also a veteran guest star Mystery series like Lewis and Second Sight) takes a lethal dose of nicotine poisoning for the team as Dr. Strange.

Altering the story of Dame Agatha’s source novel to a surprising extent, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt cranks up the cloak & dagger elements in The Clocks. A Naval lieutenant attached to MI-6, Colin Race’s true love and co-worker was murdered by a cell of German spies. While investigating the case, he collides with a profoundly panicked young woman running away from a respectable townhouse. Though not quite a fallen woman, Sheila Webb has certainly stumbled a bit. A typist with secretarial agency, Webb was instructed to let herself into the house in question and wait for her mysterious client.

What she found was a dead body and room full of clocks, none of which the home’s rightfully owner, the blind Mrs. Pebmarsh, knows anything about. She also disavows any knowledge of Webb, putting the young typist squarely in a fix. Fortunately, she is cute, so Race knows she must be innocent. Believing the crimes are related, Race enlists Poirot’s help clearing her name.

The dovetailing of the mystery and espionage elements actually adds an effective element of misdirection to Clocks. However, Dame Agatha would most likely not approve of the adaptation’s anti-anti-Communism. Supposedly, several of the ultimate traitors are motivated by their fear of the Soviets and a preference for Germany as a devil they can deal with. Of course, Clocks appears to be set around the time the Soviets and the National Socialists were allies, dividing Poland between themselves. Indeed, the Comintern was explicitly instructing the international fronts to oppose war with Germany at all costs. A more likely source of fifth columnists would have been former Fabian and Labour MP Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.

Jaime Winstone (daughter of Ray) nicely balances vulnerability and sauciness as Webb. Anna Massey (daughter of the great Raymond Massey) looks appropriately severe and birdlike as the prim and pacifist Pebmarsh. Recognizable from about a jillion British television appearances (including opposite Dame Judi Dench in As Time Goes By), Geoffrey Palmer’s Vice Admiral Hamling definitely comes across as a man one would not want to tell his secret naval plans are still missing. Of course, Suchet does his Poirot schtick with a fair amount of panache, but he also has a chance stretch a bit dramatically in Tragedy.

Suchet’s Poirot has been one of the most reliable workhorses of Masterpiece Mystery. Season XI is somewhat more notable for its prominent cast, particularly Winstone, who has considerable film work to her credit. It concludes with Hallowe’en Party, which appears to involve kids, so is probably much less interesting. Solid and respectable, Poirot XI kicks off with Tragedy this coming Sunday night (6/19) on PBS.