Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Poirot: The Clocks

Masterpiece Mystery continued last night with another thoroughly enjoyable Poirot mystery entitled The Clocks. I don't know if it's just because I haven't been familiar with this latest slate of Agatha Christie mysteries, or if there's been a genuine up-tick in episode quality (irregardless of faithfulness to the source material), but I'm enjoying the broadcast runs of these episodes much more than previous years of Poirot offerings. Is it just me? Anyways, here's the episode summary from the PBS website:

A lovely young stenographer, Sheila Webb, is greeted at a job not by her client but by an eerie assembly of clocks all frozen at the precise same moment in time and, behind the couch where she sits waiting, a corpse. Horrified, she scrambles screaming into the street, straight into the arms of Naval Lieutenant Colin Race. In Race, she finds a protector who takes her story to Hercule Poirot, and together they set about exonerating her, all the while trying to unearth a German mole who masterminded Race's botched spy mission at Dover Castle. But when a second murder is discovered, the mystery becomes more "dagger" than "cloak" and the evidence mounts against Sheila. Faced with enduring a pint of beer, the rubbing of cats against his legs, and being mistaken for a Frenchman, will Poirot prevail in revealing the killer and the mole? Joined by Tom Burke (Dracula), David Suchet stars as Hercule Poirot in this adaptation of the novel by Agatha Christie. (One episode; 90 minutes; TV-PG)
The Clocks opens with a bang, a suspensful set-up involving stolen intelligence documents that was reminscent of The 39 Steps. It's the end of the workday in a maze of tunnels beneath Dover Castle, and Fiona Hanbury (Anna Skellern) witnesses her co-worker, Annabel Larkin (Olivia Grant)
filch documents from a private office. Unable to rally her fiance, Lt. Colin Race (Tom Burke), engrossed in an after-hours poker game, Fiona nervously tails the thief. While jotting down the address, she's seen by her target, and in her attempt to flee the scene both women are struck dead by a passing car. That has to be one of the most action-packed openings to a Poirot episode of all time - *BAM* and you have two actresses vaporized. I'm unfamiliar with Skellern's work, but Grant may be familiar to fans of the show Lark Rise to Candleford, where she played the character Lady Adelaide Midwinter. Tom Burke may be recognizable to fans of the mystery series Jericho from a couple of years ago, when he appeared in the episode A Pair of Ragged Claws. I'd love to see more from Burke in the future, I think he's got a lot of period drama potential.

Race is - as he should be!! - guilt-ridden over dismissing Fiona's last frantic phone call. Within a few days, Race is seeking out his old friend (I can't help it, I find Poirot's never-ending supply of "old friends" hilarious) Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) for help with a curious mystery that literally ran him down in the street while he was attempting to decipher Fiona's hastily scrawled clue identifying the German spy. Sheila Webb (Jaime Winstone) runs into Race, screaming from a house where she found a dead body. Sheila, a typist, was sent to the location after a phone call to her agency specifically requested her services. Suspicion falls on Sheila when the owner of the home, the blind Miss Pebmarsh, claims she never made the phone call requesting the typist's services, and doesn't know Sheila or the victim. Race has a chivalrous streak, and is determined to clear Sheila's name. It's blindingly apparent that this is due to equal parts chivalry and the fact that he's quite taken with Sheila, nevermind that his fiance has been dead for less than a week. *rolls eyes*

Winstone does the period look extremely well. I've only ever seen her in one other film - Made in Dagenham, where she exhibited a great deal more spunk, and I've got to say I think the role of Sheila would've benefited from a dash of the sass she exhibited in that film. Miss Pebmarsh is played by the absolutely divine Anna Massey. Massey has appeared in everything from the Around the World in 80 Days miniseries, where she played Queen Victoria, to The Importance of Being Earnest, where she played Miss Laetitia Prism, as well as a memorable turn in Inspector Lewis.

This is where things start to get a little crazy plot-wise, and I'm sure that the novel streamlines the investigations (because Christie was a genius, and some of these reworked scripts...aren't *g*). However, jumps in logic and red herrings aside, what saves this adaptation for me is the period detail and engaging performances. Race's superior, Vice Admiral Hamling (Geoffrey Palmer), is convinced that the stolen government documents and the dead man are connected, and urges the investigation to proceed along those lines. Palmer is a long-time favorite of mine, and it was a real treat to see him in a Poirot film. If you've never checked out his work, I highly recommend the long-running series As Time Goes By, which Palmer headlined opposite Judi Dench. Sadly for this film, I felt like Palmer's presence was really under-utilized.

Accompanied by the long-suffering local Inspector Hardcastle (Phil Daniels), Race and Poirot interview the odd assortment of neighbors in the vicinity of the murder. While I enjoyed the appearances of actors like Guy Henry as the academic Matthew Waterhouse (Henry plays Pius Thicknesse in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Mr. Collins in Lost in Austen) and Jason Watkins as the deceptively-named Joe Bland (Bland is perhaps best-known for his role as Plornish in Little Dorrit and Herrick in the series Being Human), the number of unnecessary-to-the-plot neighbors the script throws at the viewer tends to muddy the waters of the investigation's on-screen flow. However, from the perspective of looking at a microcosm neighborhood life, the juicy gossip uncovered in the interviews provides the neighbors with a fun excuse to dish on each other.

Regarding the agency Sheila works for, I was thrilled to see Lesley Sharp appear in The Clocks as the agency's proprietress Miss Martindale. Sharp is a Masterpiece veteran, having appeared in The Diary of Anne Frank as Petronella van Daan and Cranford as Mrs. Bell, as well as a memorable appearance in the Doctor Who season four episode entitled Midnight. I really enjoyed Sinead Keean's appearance as Sheila's ill-fated co-worker Nora. Keenan played Addams in the Doctor Who special The End of Time, and currently is probably best-known as George's girlfriend Nina in the supernatural sci-fi drama Being Human. She was the perfect choice to play the bold and brassy Nora, and handled the period aspects of the role extremely well.

While this script throws red herrings at the viewer left and right, and the resolution of the two disparate cases is nice and convenient, overall I still really enjoyed this film and look forward to investigating Christie's orginal novel soon (hopefully...there's so many things I want to read "soon"!). Whether or not the Miss Pebmarsh storyline plays out in the novel in the manner it does on-screen is irrelevant to my appreciation of her spy-related plot twist in the film. I thought it was interesting and pretty effective to have Pebmarsh turn to spying following the deaths of her sons in the Great War - the same conflict that also led to her blindness.

I'm a total sucker for the romances in this mystery films, but there was a missed opportunity with the Colin and Sheila storyline. From what I've read about the novel's storyline, the Colin character doesn't have a fiancee, so any romantic interest doesn't have, oh, I don't know, RECENT TRAUMATIC DEATH hanging over its development. *sigh* The script gives Sheila a ton of emotional baggage, and since Colin very clearly has a hero complex in the world of The Clocks they are destined to be together. I like Colin as an emotionally sensitive hero, and I do think that's what Sheila needs, but I would've liked him - maybe respect is a better word - better if he hadn't been making out with needy Sheila a week after Fiona gets squashed by a car. That said, this little romance leads to one of the funniest moments in Poirot series history in my opinion - when Poirot basically asks Colin if he needs a kick in the pants to go after Sheila, Colin pauses, and then pats Poirot on the arm in a hilariously condescending, no-of-course-not-papa type moment. I was rolling. :)

Overall, I found The Clocks is another solidly entertaining entry in the Poirot portion of the Masterpiece Mystery season. I love the attention to period detail, the cast chock-full of familiar faces, and the briskly-paced, engaging storyline. I'd love to hear your thoughts! :)


Elaine J. Dalton said...

Awesome review!! My family and I watched it on Sunday evening and I agree that the guy should have had more sense than to make-out with the girl so soon after his sweetheart was killed. ;)

Alexandra said...

Aha, *yes*. This is the one I saw on YouTube. :-)

It's been a while since I read this, but I remember watching this episode right after reading it and thinking that there was some major plot issues here. :-)

If I can recall correctly, there was no sweetheart plotline, which made more sense IMO because like you said it lessens the Colin/Sheila romance thing knowing his girlfriend just died.

Things are a bit hazy but I recall there being an insinuation about some kind of relationship that Sheila was involved in that was *not* in the book either...and some big huge plot twist that I loved that was taken out...argh, have to read the book again to remember.

On the positive side :-), this was one of my favorite Poirot performances by David Suchet...he nailed him in this episode, IMO. And the casting of Colin was lovely - he was one of my (many...ahem) AC hero mini-crushes (most of the guys always ended up being the murderers. Ack, I have hardened my heart now against her charming fellows...have to say she does a great job with her gentlemen characters. :-)), and I *really* really liked his portrayal of the character. Anna Massey was fantastic as Miss Pebmarsh...I don't remember her storyline being *quite* accurate (grin) but her portrayal of the character was spot-on, IMO.

And I LOL'd in the Colin/Poirot moment you mentioned. :-D

So this was actually one of my better-liked episodes :-), despite some glaring veering away from the plot...but it's Masterpiece Mystery adaptation, why should we be surprised? :-D

Unknown said...

@Elaine - Thank you! And glad I wasn't the only one... ;)

@Alexandra - I have a copy of this book "on standby," so I'm hoping to read it for myself soon!

Suchet was wonderful in this episode, wasn't he?! I can't wait to compare the Colin of the film to the one in the book. :)

Glad you enjoyed this film despite its differences from the novel!

Heidenkind said...

There has definitely been an improvement in the production of these Poirot episodes this year. Love it!

Race was awesome. I ignored the death-of-his-fiancee thing; obviously they weren't that close. ;)

Unknown said...

@heidenkind - Oh I know, me too! And thanks for confirming that I'm not imagining production improvements. ;) And seriously, I think you're right and Race felt guilty for being a heel more than anything else. Silly man. :P

Wendy said...

We just saw "Clocks" today Sept 4th. It was terrific. I have 2 questions. Could it have been Judy Dench playing the roll of the 15 year separated wife who identified the dead man? And Did Tom Burke seem to have a Hugh Grant presence in his last halting scene at the beach?


Unknown said...

@Wendy - For some reason a TON of comments fell through the cracks of my inbox - my apologies! In answer to your question, I'm pretty sure Dench wasn't in this film -- and I totally agreeing with you about Burke's Hugh Grant-esque presence! :)