Monday, March 5, 2012

"HERCULE POIROT'S CHRISTMAS" (1995) Review




"HERCULE POIROT'S CHRISTMAS" (1995) Review

I have been a fan of Agatha Christie's 1938 novel, "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" aka "A Holiday for Murder" for years - ever since I was in my early adolescence. When I learned that the producers of the "AGATHA CHRISTIE'S POIROT" series aired its adaptation of it back in 1995, I looked forward to watching it.

Written as a "locked room" mystery, "HERCULE POIROT'S CHRISTMAS" focused on Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot's investigation of the murder of Simeon Lee, a tyrannical patriarch of a wealthy family. The mean-spirited Lee, who had made his fortune in South African diamonds, summons his offspring to his country manor house for a Christmas gathering. He also requests that Poirot attend the reunion, but fails to give a full explanation for the latter's presence. Those gathered for Lee's Christmas reunion are:

*Alfred Lee, his dutiful oldest son

*Lydia Lee, Alfred's wife

*George Lee, Simeon's penny-pinching middle son, who is also a Member of Parliament

*Magdalene Lee, George's wife, a beauty with a mysterious past

*Harry Lee, Simeon's ne'er do well son, who has been living abroad

*Pilar Estavados, Simeon's Anglo-Spanish granddaughter


The sadistic Lee treats his family with cruelty and enjoys pitting them against each other. This is apparent in a scene in which he summons his family to his sitting room and fakes a telephone call to his solicitor, announcing his intentions to make changes to his will. Later that evening, a scream is heard by the manor's inhabitants before Lee's throat is cut in an apparent locked room. Although the old man was wheelchair bound, there is evidence of a great struggle between him and his murder. It is up to Poirot, assisted by Chief Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard and a local investigating officer named Superintendent Sugden to find Simeon Lee's murderer before the latter can strike again.

I would never view "HERCULE POIROT'S CHRISTMAS" as one of the better Christie adaptations I have seen. But I still managed to enjoy it. One, the television movie is rich with a holiday atmosphere, despite the presence of murder. In fact, I can honestly say that Rob Harris' production designs really impressed me. Along with Simon Kossoff's photography, they gave the movie an atmosphere of Olde England that suited the story's setting very well. I also enjoyed Andrea Galer's costume designs for the film. Instead of the early or mid-1930s, her costume designs for the female characters seemed to hint that the movie was set during the late 1930s.

"HERCULE POIROT'S CHRISTMAS" also benefited from a solid cast. David Suchet gave a first rate performance as Hercule Poirot, with his usual mixture of subtle humor and intelligence. He was ably supported by a very wry performance from Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp. The rest of the cast, aside from four, gave solid but unmemorable performances. For me, there were three standouts that really impressed me. Brian Gwaspari was a hoot as Simeon Lee's outspoken prodigal son, Harry. And he had great chemistry with Sasha Behar, who was charming and frank as Simeon's Anglo-Spanish granddaughter, Pilar Estravados. The producers cast veteran character actor Vernon Dobtcheff as the poisonous Simeon Lee. And he portrayed the hell out of that role, giving the character a richness and sharp wit that allowed him to practically own it. The only performance that failed to impress me came from Mark Tandy, who portrayed Superintendent Sudgen. I hate to say this, but Tandy's take on a character as memorable and imposing as Sudgen seemed lightweight. He almost seemed overshadowed by Suchet and Jackson and I suspect that the role would have succeeded better with a more imposing actor.

As I had stated earlier, I have always been a fan of Christie's 1938 film. This adaptation could have been first rate. But it had one main problem - namely Clive Exton's screenplay. He made two major changes to the plot that nearly undermined the story. I did not mind that he had reduced the number of characters by eliminating the David Lee, Hilda Lee and Stephen Farr characters. I DID mind when he substituted the Colonel Johnson character for Chief Inspector Japp as the case's senior investigator. As a member of Scotland Yard, Japp was out of his jurisdiction, which was limited to Greater London. This is a mistake that has appeared in a handful of other Exton adaptations. The screenwriter's bigger mistake proved to be the addition of a prologue set in 1896 South Africa. The prologue included a scene featuring Simeon Lee's murder of his partner and his seduction of a young Afrikaaner woman named Stella. Even worse, Stella reappeared as a mysterious guest at a local hotel in 1936 England. The addition of the South African sequence and the Stella character made it easier for viewers to eliminate a good number of characters as potential suspects . . . and dimmed the mystery of Simeon Lee's murder.

I managed to enjoy "HERCULE POIROT'S CHRISTMAS" very much. It featured excellent characterizations and a rich, holiday atmosphere, thanks to Simon Kossoff's production designs and Andrea Galer's costume designs. Director Edward Bennett did a great job with a superb cast led by a superb David Suchet. But several changes to Christie's plot made by screenwriter Clive Exton prevented this movie from being the first-rate adaptation it could have been.

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