Monday, June 20, 2011

Poirot: Three Act Tragedy

Masterpiece Mystery (finally) kicked off its new season properly last night with a brand-new Hercule Poirot episode entitled Three Act Tragedy. I found this episode to be a thoroughly enjoyable, stylish entry into the Poirot film canon. Now, I have yet to read the original novel by Agatha Christie, but a cursory glance at the book's Wikipedia page reveals that - shockingly - this film seems to be a pretty faithful adaptation of Christie's story. Is this a new trend? (I'm not going to hold my breath. *wink*) Here's the episode summary from the PBS website:

When an elderly Cornish vicar suddenly drops dead at a party, everyone looks to fellow guest Hercule Poirot to solve the murder. But the Belgian super-sleuth sees no foul play, correctly predicting that analysis of the clergyman's glass will yield nothing more than the remains of an excellent dry martini.

Before long, however, Poirot is summoned back to England from his boredom among the palms and irksome children of Monte Carlo. Another death among the same revelers has occurred, this time, indisputably, murder.

With the help of two enthusiastic amateurs — his old friend, the retired stage actor Sir Charles Cartwright, and Charles's jaunty love interest, Miss "Egg" Lytton Gore, Poirot questions the dramatis personae, as Sir Charles calls the party guests. And as Sir Charles embraces his role, donning a pair of patent-leather spats, Poirot works to unravel a perplexing mystery, building a house of cards, tracking a missing butler, and even hosting his own sherry party — "That is a fashionable thing to do, n'est-ce pas?" David Suchet portrays the fastidious detective Hercule Poirot, with Martin Shaw as Sir Charles Cartwright and Art Malik (Upstairs Downstairs) as Sir Bartholomew Strange, in this adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel. (One episode; 90 minutes; TV-PG)

First of all, I just have to point out the hilarity in having Poirot conveniently be "best friends" with yet another random person who doesn't seem to know any of Poirot's other "best friends" from his previous stories (much like the penchant for having Miss Marple distantly related to everyone in England). The friend in question this time around is Sir Charles Cartwright, a famous stage actor on the brink of retirement, who has gathered Poirot and an assortment of other friends and acquaintances to his home for a cocktail party. Cartwright is played by Martin Shaw, who I love and adore because of his memorable portrayal of Chauvelin in The Scarlet Pimpernel television film series. Cartwright aspires to a May/December romance with young ingenue Miss Lytton Gore, known to her friends as Egg (I kid you not). Egg is played by Kimberley Nixon, who got her start on Masterpiece playing Sophy Hutton in Cranford, followed by a small role in the hilarious film Easy Virtue (my review). It is a testament to my love for Shaw that the forty year age difference between him & Nixon didn't seem *completely* unbelievable. The man has charisma. :)

Cartwright's other best friend is nerve specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange, played by Art Malik - last seen in Upstairs Downstairs as Mr. Amanjit, and here is nearly unrecognizable without all that hair. Dr. Strange, Egg, and Poirot are the guests of honor at Cartwright's cocktail party, and the shocked witnesses to the sudden death of the kindly vicar Reverend Babbington (Nigel Pegram). The reverend was elderly and harmless - despite the suddenness of his passing, Poirot writes off his death as an unhappy coincidence - until Cartwright brings him the news that his friend Dr. Strange has dropped dead in the same manner at a similar party, held for almost the identical guest list as the first. A closer investigation reveals that a murderer is on the loose - but the disparities between the victims, and the broad assortment of potential motives among the partygoers raise more questions than answers. With the help of his friends and "the little grey cells" Poirot is in a race against the clock to discover the murderer before he can strike again.

As is the norm for this series, the cast is packed with a slew of familiar British acting talent, though in this case most of them serve as investigative red herrings. In addition to the main players I've already discussed, Kate Ashfield, a Masterpiece vet, appears as the ambitious playwright and astute observer of human nature Miss Wills. Ashfield played the role of Miep Gies in The Diary of Anne Frank (my review) and appeared opposite Douglas Henshall in Collision (my review). Anastasia Hille is a Mystery veteran, having appeared in memorable episodes of Inspector Lewis and Foyle's War. Here is plays high-end fashion designer Cynthia Dacres, which is really just an excuse to show case some AMAZING period fashions - seriously, the clothes in this episode were fabulous! Cynthia's husband is a wastrel gambler played by Ronan Vibert, who played a critical role in the Inspector Lewis universe, and is also a Scarlet Pimpernel veteran along with Shaw, where he played THE BEST ROBESPIERRE EVER.

My favorite random cast appearance is Tom Wisdom in the largely thankless role of Egg's rejected lover Oliver Manders. TOTAL EYE CANDY (at least he provides Egg with a nice back-up plan). Wisdom has appeared in modern classics like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (just so you know, I loved that movie) and in the category of so-bad-they're-awesome movies, The Dragon Chronicles: Fire & Ice. The latter is hilariously, wonderfully bad and I love every second of it. Wisdom also bears a more than passing resemblance to Ben Barnes, a.k.a. Prince Caspian. Thoughts?

 Barnes is on the left, and Wisdom is on the right. Amazing, no?

Three Act Tragedy is a stylish, well-constructed little film, and it ranks as one of my favorite Poirot episodes to be released in recent years. I loved the impression the film gave, that it was very intentionally filmed like a play - right down to Shaw's tendency to deliver his lines as though he's declaiming Shakespeare from the stage of the Globe Theatre. From the "scene change" moments featuring items like critical newspaper headlines, to the spotlights that stopped the action to shine on a murder victim, the whole film felt like a deliciously stylized 1930s-era play. And the "reveal" at the end of the investigation is perhaps one of my favorite Poirot moments ever. Suchet lets Poirot relish, just a bit, the detective's moment in the spotlight when he hijacks a play rehearsal. I've always gotten the feeling that Poirot thinks the world revolves around him, and for a few fantastic moments in Three Act Tragedy it does, and my favorite Belgian detective holds his audience captive.

If you caught this episode, I'd love to hear your thoughts! Especially if you've read the novel - based on the summary info online, I'm still rather shocked by how faithful the film seems to have remained to the book's essential elements. I thoroughly enjoyed this episode and look forward to revisiting it in the future!


Anne Mateer said...

We were SO frustrated to find that our local PBS station didn't air this last night! Ugh! Surely they'll make it up to us soon. :)

Unknown said...

@Anne - Oh now, what a tragedy (no pun intended)! Especially since it was such a good episode! I hope your station reschedules it, or perhaps you can watch it online. Would love to hear your thoughts! :)

Alexandra said...

Ooh, ooh, ooh! This was one of my favorite AC mysteries!!!!! And accurate? Yipee!!!! Now I've gotta see it! :-)

And wow, I really liked Kimberly Nixon in Cranford, and she seems to handle the period look here very well. Can't wait to see it...

Elaine J. Dalton said...

Barnes and Wisdom are probably brothers with different stage names. My mom thinks Hollywood is a private club open only to family members. ;)

Heidenkind said...

This was a pretty good episode, I thought. The cinematography and the framing of the shots were both excellent.

I liked the very end where Poirot was like, "Poirot only investigates; he does not judge." Uh, really? Didn't you just spend the last half hour screaming at the guy about what a lying liar he was? Cuz that sounded a little judgy.

Unknown said...

@Alexandra - Well, based on my sketchy Google searching, it seems fairly accurate. ;) I'd love to hear your perspective on the film!

@Elaine - LOL! While I totally get where you're coming from, I don't think they're actually related...I'd love to know for sure though.

@heidenkind - Yay, glad you saw this one too! And Poirot's double standards cracked me up too. ;)