Sacre bleu! I expect this week’s episode to most divisive among fans of the original work, n’est ce pas? Not surprising as it is, in many ways, at odds with itself; just as the sinister Mr. Shaitana’s party divides the room into two halves, so too does the episode share a similar dichotomy.
We waste no time in cutting to the chase: Mr. Shaitana, a rich mysterious man with a penchant for photography invites eight people to a dinner party; four detectives (of a sort) and four people who may or may not have gotten away with murder in the past. A lovely evening is had by all, and by “lovely” I mean “dinner full of veiled threats followed by two games of bridge in separate rooms with the host partaking in neither”. Also, there’s a creepily weird photo portrait of Shaitana himself hanging in the parlor. I mean… so many hands.
Just as both bridge games are wrapping up, Mr. Shaitana is found dead in a chair in the murderers’ parlor, stabbed through the heart with a stiletto. There’s also some suspicious residue in the bottom of his brandy glass, and it appears that one of the four “murder players” has killed again. Poirot, Superintendent Wheeler, novelist Ariadne Oliver and secret agent Col.
Race Hughes join forces to ferret out the pasts of each of the other guests.
Playing bridge in the murder room are Amazonian adventurer Major Despard; the smooth-talking Dr. Roberts; the on-edge Mrs. Lorrimer (a terrific Lesley Manville); and the mousy, nervous Ann Meredith. All four are hiding something from their past that Shaitana seems to know about, and all four deny killing the man.
In a nice bit of timing, right about the point in the episode that you’re thinking that the classic Christie move would be to have one of the detectives be the murderer, the episode has Poirot and Col. Hughes identify Superintendent Wheeler as another possible suspect (an invention of the screenplay, and it won’t be the last).
Again here as in prior eps, each suspect is well-drawn and distinctive, and the show uses multiple interviews from the four detectives to expand our knowledge of each bit by bit.
Wot I Liked:
I mean, talk about a killer (HAR!) premise. It’s gamey, it’s mysterious, and it sets all the pieces up right out of the gate. By this point in the series, I sound like a broken record praising the supporting cast but here again they’re all well portrayed and vivid, with the weird exception of the Col. Race stand-in, who just doesn’t get much to do.
And speaking of vivid, let’s talk about Zoe Wanamaker making her debut as Ariadne Oliver. She’s a gust of fresh sea air blowing into the series, playing Oliver as the confident, self-assured author she is, opinionated and not afraid to say what’s on her mind, 30’s attitudes towards women be damned. Wanamaker delivers Oliver’s lines with a pitch-perfect mixture of acidity and bemusement, and she makes a terrific companion for Poirot; she’s clearly smart, and a keen observer. Oliver jumps off the page in the novels, and Wanamaker does no less here, trading zingers, gathering fodder for her next Sven Hjerson novel and eating apples merrily throughout.
The first half here hums like a finely tuned sports car; the fast setup gives way to the crime with a quickness, and in short order we’re interviewing suspects and trying to recreate the events of the room, comparing perspectives, and getting to know our murder candidates. It’s all incredibly tantalizing and laced with gallows humor, much like the book. Alexander Siddig – a mesmerizing presence here – plays Shaitana with an opaqueness that feels almost alien, and it’s hard not to feel like the you the viewer are just another pawn in his scheme.
Also, Foyle’s War favorite Honeysuckle Weeks makes an appearance as Ann Meredith’s housemate/school chum Rhoda who may or may not know that Meredith killed her aunt. Weeks is bright and magnetic as per the usual.
Suchet is in fine form here, too, as Poirot asks each of the suspects seemingly unimportant questions in an attempt to divine the psychology and behaviors of the potential killers by how they play bridge (a subject on which I know nothing). Little moments like him rearranging desks and adjusting figures on mantelpieces (or making sure others do – the scene with Dr. Roberts’ secretary is terrific) also ring true, and at this point Suchet knows the character so well he hits the bullseye with Poirot’s arrogance and intellect in every scene.
Wot I Not Liked:
Riiiiiiight about halfway through the episode, things get weird, and the script starts to go off the rails in terms of taking liberties with the source material. Familial connections are introduced, motivations are invented wholesale (more on this in a bit), one murder is left out completely and one of the murders flips the identities of murder and victim.
I mean, it’s a significant deviation from the book, especially when the motives are factored in.
About those motives.
The murderer, Dr. Roberts, kills Shaitana because he feared he was going to expose the murder of a patient with whose husband he had a homosexual affair. Along the way, Rhoda attempts to murder Ann Meredith in a jealous implied lesbian rage. Oh, and the Superintendent burgles Shaitana’s house to retrieve photographic evidence of his homosexual affair with Shaitana. Literally all of this is invented in the adaptation.
Look, I get that homosexuality still had to be kept under wraps (and was still criminal in England at the time), and that’s fair game as an axis on which to spin a drama, but this hews dangerously close to the “homosexuals are all social deviants” trope and taken as a whole felt thuddingly distasteful here. Changing Roberts’ motive to what we see here would have been perfectly fine on its own, honestly; it’s an unexpected subversion of what we’ve been led to believe was the “Craddock Scandal”, and a good twist.
But then you stack it up with Rhoda’s attempted murder switcheroo (which felt gratuitous) and the Superintendent’s affair with Shaitana (what now?), Major Despard (the guy who gets the happy ending and the girl)’s implied distaste for gays, and it’s hard not to feel like someone behind this had a worldview that looks salaciously reductive at best and distressingly homophobic at worst, especially when you keep in mind that all of this is one hundred percent an invention of the adaptation.
The problem isn’t that they added homosexuality to the text; it’s that they did so in such a way that portrays all of the gay characters in such a negative light, with the lone exception of the photographer who develops Shaitana’s pictures. It’s entirely possible I’m being oversensitive, but it felt sort of… ugly, even with Poirot’s gesture of kindness towards Supt. Wheeler at the end.
More importantly, I’m still baffled as to why they felt the need to jettison or rewrite so much of the book, especially when they follow it pretty much note-for-note through the first half. The book is breezy, tight, and funny, and there’s nothing much in here that improves upon it, save perhaps removing a deus ex machina here or there and establishing Lorrimer as Ann’s mother to strengthen the credibility of her trying to take the fall for her (though, again, this comes at the cost of excising her murder entirely).
I get it to some degree – you want to keep the four (er, five) suspects in play for the length of the episode, and not kill off half of them before the reveal – but my God, this just felt like someone read Cards on the Table and loved the premise but got bored with it halfway through.
I also have a problem with Shaitana’s drug use and the way it’s revealed, because Poirot carries this absolutely key piece of knowledge around with him for the entire episode, until it’s revealed via flashback during The Denouement; once again I realize it’s done to preserve an aspect of the mystery for the viewer, but it comes out of absolutely nowhere at the end, to tie up a motive that – I’ll say it again – didn’t need to be there in the first place.
So in the end, I’m torn on this episode; I stand by my assertion that the first half is a remarkably juicy bit of Christie, with a delicious setup and promising beginning. And Wanamaker establishes Ariadne Oliver as her own right out of the gate, and is a delight to watch.
If you haven’t read the book – and can get past the aforementioned somewhat problematic portrayal of
If you have read the book, then you very well may be scratching your head at why they even bothered to adapt it in the first place if they were going to rearrange so much of it. There’s liberties taken to keep even those familiar with the source material guessing (which I appreciate), and then there’s this, which is an order of magnitude greater than almost any other page-to-screen transition we’ve seen in the series thus far. Christie purists should be on guard.
Next Week, on Poirot: You’re not gonna believe this, but someone’s changing their will again, and someone’s getting left out! We all know someone’s going to end up dead, the question here is will it be before or… “After the Funeral”?!?