Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Agatha Christie's Poirot - The Big Four - Episode Review

And so it begins. The gang is officially together again for the first time in thirteen years (though also the last, for Japp and Ms. Lemon.) Unfortunately, it’s only for a few scenes in this eccentric but enjoyable addition to the Poirot series. The Big Four was Agatha Christie’s attempt at a conspiracy thriller, mixed among the usual Poirot body-in-the-library cases. She couldn’t quite leave that format behind, and her conspiracy conveniently takes the shape of multiple murders in country houses. Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard’s adaptation is at its strongest when it is focusing on these quirky, clever episodes.

Because of the relative insignificance of the terrorism (especially in light of our own age), it’s a little hard to build up a conspiracy thriller feel around the mysterious Big Four gang. Gatiss and Hallard give it a good try, but like Christie, can’t quite shake off the limitations of Poirot’s format.

It’s 1939. World War II is brewing, and a group called the Peace Party has formed to foster good faith between nations. It is led by an American millionaire (isn’t is always), Abe Ryland, and a French scientist, Madame Olivier. But beneath their veneer of benevolence, lurks a more sinister purpose—or so claims Tysoe, a journalist and conspiracy theorist, played a bit blandly by Tom Brooke (you may remember him from Sherlock and Foyle’s War.)

Tysoe plants these doubts in Poirot’s mind just after a murder drags the private detective into the tale. It also drags in Poirot’s friend, Assistant Commissioner James Japp, and with him a welcome return to a lighter style of story. Japp (played by a marvelous Philip Jackson) brings out a shadow of Poirot’s humorous side, and though both have mellowed over the years, Japp mostly remains a solid, determined, working-class presence, even in fancy togs.

The two investigate most of the cases together, dashing across England and meeting a variety of the usual British character actors, hamming up their parts with style (notable is Sarah Parish as Flossie Monro). As the ending approaches, enter Poirot’s other friends (with the exception of Ariadne Oliver, who we will see next week), his butler George (David Yelland, who I just realized was the Prince of Wales in Chariots of Fire), his friend Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), and his former secretary Ms. Lemon (Pauline Moran). The latter two have a few wonderful moments, especially at the beginning (“Good Lord!”), though later in the narrative feel a little tacked-on.

The conclusion itself is cheesy and predictable (and might have worked well with a better villain), changed significantly from the book, which was equally cheesy (and hopelessly politically incorrect), but more exciting, ambitious, and the only time Poirot foiled a plot for world-domination (like Achille, it would have been fun but unrealistic.)

I tend to think there could have been a better and more interesting compromise (and one that wasn’t so reminiscent of last season’s Three Act Tragedy,) but it was a manly attempt at wrestling to earth Christie’s absurdity. Still, even with all the trimming, it can’t quite overcome its own ridiculousness, and the strong disparity in the subject matter from Poirots usual style. Nevertheless, it's a fun excursion into the Poirot universe, and reuniting with old friends is always a pleasure.

Since it’s Mark Gatiss, I kept looking for connections to Sherlock and I wasn’t disappointed—besides the Reichenbach parallel, Poirot gets a mind palace sequence. 

My review of next week's episode: Dead Man's Folly.

3.5/5 stars

Hannah Long

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