Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Poirot: Hallowe'en Party

Poirot concluded what - in my opinion - has been its most entertaining run in years on Masterpiece Mystery with a rather out of season, but wildly entertaining, adaptation of Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie. Here's the story summary from the PBS website:

"I saw a murder once...I did! I did!" boasts a clumsy, disliked girl at a Halloween party. For this, she is ridiculed and dismissed. But before the party's end, she is dead, snuffed out in an apple-bobbing tub. Party guest Ariadne Oliver — never again to consume another apple — summons her old friend Hercule Poirot for help and the gallant sleuth is only too happy to oblige. With the dubious help of the grisly old village witch and the wildly speculative mystery writer Oliver, Poirot must investigate old sins and discover the connections between a years-old stabbing, a Russian au pair, and a forgery to unmask a dangerous killer, all before another corpse surfaces. Adapted by Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) and based on the novel by Agatha Christie, Hallowe'en Party stars David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, ZoĆ« Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver, and Deborah Findlay (Cranford).
I never really paid that much attention to the name Mark Gatiss until Sherlock aired on Masterpiece last year, and I was smacked full upside the head with the realization that the man is, apparently, a genius. So I went into Hallowe'en Party with high expectations after learning that Gatiss penned the script, and I have to say I was not disappointed in the least. This episode was based on yet another Agatha Christie novel I have yet to read (shocking, I know), but I loved this presentation. The story and characters felt fully realized and the sense of drama and atmosphere was superb. I've never been one for "celebrating" Halloween, but I like I good spooky film (in the Christie vein, anyways), and this film did such an excellent job evoking fall, the fun of costumes, and spooky stories that I can see myself making an annual tradition of watching Hallowe'en Party.

This story once again features the mystery writer Ariadne Oliver. Fantastically played by Zoe Wanamaker, Oliver is really a delightful foil to the always proper and reserved Poirot. It seems a little odd to say that Poirot has "chemistry" with anyone, but Suchet and Wanamaker play off each other so well in their respective roles that their scenes together are a joy to watch. They bring a real sense of camraderie and history to Oliver and Poirot's friendship. Wanamaker has appeared three previous times as Oliver in a Poirot adaptation - the first time in Cards on the Table, back when A&E was airing Poirot films, and the second and third outings on Masterpiece in Mrs McGinty's Dead and Third Girl. When McGinty initially aired on Masterpiece two years ago (my review), I was not that impressed with the episode (though I will admit it improves on DVD). I am planning to review Third Girl soon (I promise! *wink*). As far as Ms. Oliver goes, the fourth time may be the charm, as I thoroughly enjoyed Wanamaker's sly humor and dry asides throughout the storyline.

Hallowe'en Party opens with a motley assortment of children and adults gathered at Rowena Drake's home for a party. The opening twenty minutes or so were fantastic simply on the basis of the sheer amount of period detail crammed into every frame of film. From the home and its decor to the costumes and games the children played, Mrs. Drake's party was like a little time capsule of 1930s Halloween festivities. Rowena Drake is played by Deborah Findlay, who should be a familiar face to fans of Masterpiece. Findlay played Miss Phoebe in Wives and Daughters, appeared in episodes of Foyle's War and Inspector Lewis, and plays Miss Tomkinson in Cranford. It's a credit to both the script and Findlay's acting talent that I totally bought into her character arc for this film (look at me, trying to avoid spoilers...). :P Rowena's children are basically filler (and largely unlikable) characters, but it's interesting to note that Edmund is played by Ian Hallard, who appeared in Marple: The Sittaford Mystery, while Frances is played by the much more familiar Georgia King, who has appeared in Jane Eyre, The Shadow in the North, and Little Dorrit.

When the universally maligned Joyce (Macy Nyman) is found dead, face-first in the apple-bobbing tub (how's that for drama?), Ariadne calls Poirot for assistance in the investigation, since she's laid up with a bad cold. Just prior to her death, Joyce claimed to have seen a murder once - an assertion that's universally dismissed as ridiculous until she's found murdered. I found this crime pretty shocking - perhaps some fellow Christie aficionadoes can help me out. I can't recall another story where a child's murder is central to the investigation. Surely I'm forgetting something - so please chime in!

En route to investigate, Poirot meets gardener extraordinaire Michael on the train, who suggests that he talk with the local gossip Mrs. Goodbody (Paola Dionisotti) to see if there could be any truth to Joyce's incredible claim. Michael is played by Julian Rhind-Tutt (isn't his name AWESOME?!), who I must confess to thinking is rather handsome here - and more's the pity since he seems to have a predisposition to playing less-than-heroic characters. *sigh* He's appeared in Marple, Stardust, The Shadow in the North, and Merlin, to name a few of his credits.

Mrs. Goodbody wastes no time in enlightening Poirot as to the town's dark secrets - and this, people, is one of the many reasons I love Agatha Christie's stories (and these films, even when they deviate from the source material). NO ONE could take a seemingly idyllic small-town setting such as we find in the beginning of Hallowe'en Party and slowly peel back layer by layer of subterfuge and secrets to reveal the dark and tangled motives for murder found beneath a cheerful veneer. *delicious shivers all around*

There are a couple of notable cast members that I simply cannot go without mentioning. First up, it was great to see the venerable Timothy West as the town's Reverend Cottrell. West appeared in the quiz show-themed episode Your Sudden Death Question of Inspector Lewis last year (my review) and played Sir Leicester Dedlock in the absolutely sublime Bleak House. It was also fantastic to see Sophie Thompson, Emma's sister, on-screen again, even if it was in a rather thankless and under-utilized role as the unfortunate Joyce's mother. Thompson should be a very familiar face to fans of period drama - she played Miss Bates in the 1996 Emma, and appeared in Gosford Park and Nicholas Nickleby.

As Poirot uncovers the roots of Joyce's murder, he discovers that the foolish words that doomed her were rooted in a history of affairs, forged documents, and murder - juicy stuff here people, these are the ingredients of Masterpiece Mystery melodrama at its best! *wink* I thoroughly enjoyed watching this episode unfold, and high praise to Gatiss for a sharp script and to the actors and production team for delivering such a delicous, atmospheric period piece. If you watched this episode, or you've read the novel, I'd love to hear your thoughts. This has to rank as a favorite Suchet-as-Poirot performance - he really seemed to be on fire this episode, and Poirot was by turns positively brimming with his trademark incisiveness, dry wit, warmth, and quirkiness. :)

This run of Poirot episodes has been simply outstanding. I will always find something to enjoy in even less-than-perfect Poirot films (can't really beat David Suchet in his element, eh?), but the three films aired on Masterpiece Mystery this season have really set the bar high as far as quality and sheer entertainment value. Here's the link round-up:


Diane said...

I loved the new Sherlock Holmes series on PBS. Can't wait for the next season to come out. :O)

Alexandra said...

I'm wracking my brain here, but I think this is one AC I haven't read. (GASP and everything). But I love Adriane Oliver...I love that Agatha Christie wrote her as a caricature of herself, and I love the way she pokes fun at herself through her. :-)

Now this means I've got to go put this one on hold at the library. Dunno how I missed it. :-)

Unknown said...

@Diane - Me either! Loved Sherlock! :) Thanks for stopping by my blog!

@Alexandra - Color me shocked, I can't believe you haven't read Hallowe'en Party - you were my big hope for comparision discussion! ;)

Heidenkind said...

I think Three Act Tragedy was my favorite from this season, but I never would have guessed the murderer in this one! And I love Ariadne Oliver. :)

Unknown said...

@heidenkind - I'm waffling back and forth between Three Act Tragedy and this one has my favorite. I thought the murderer reveal in this one was really pretty well done!