Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Three Act Tragedy (2011) is one of Agatha Christie’s earlier books and this adaptation is reasonably faithful to both the plot and the period, it being set in the 1930s with an interesting set of characters, some of whom are sufficiently wealthy to slum it in art deco style houses on cliff tops when not routinely dining at the Ritz or in Monte Carlo, while others put on appearances and trawl the social world in the hope of finding enough customers to stave off bankruptcy. It’s all wonderfully superficial as the cast zoom down to Cornwall or up to Yorkshire via their London pied-à-terres. The director, Ashley Pearce, also nicely plays with the mis en scène, shifting between the pleasing opening framing shots to create iconic images of 1930’s life, both “real” and theatrical, the stylised coroner’s court, and the sometimes beautiful interiors. The overall look and feel is right, reinforcing the rather luxurious world in which Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) and others of his class move so comfortably. In this context, it’s fascinating to watch Poirot breach protocol when talking with those in service. If he’s to extract useful information from them, he must be reassuring and, for example, encourage a maid to be more open and honest than she might otherwise be. Servants had to be invisible and so were often able to observe embarrassing or illuminating facts about their masters and mistresses. They would not hold on to their positions very long if they were too quick to gossip. I suppose Poirot gets away with it because he’s “foreign” and so inherently less intimidating than the British upper and upper-middle classes.
At the other end of the scale come the redoubtable Sir Charles Cartwright (Martin Shaw), a retired actor in the grand style and his life-long friend from university, Dr Bartholomew Strange (Art Malik). These are men of high social visibility and personal wealth so, in terms of casting, it’s very pleasing to see Art Malik in the role of an eminent psychologist with a major estate in Yorkshire and a purpose-built “treatment centre” in the grounds. He has restored the house and now is a respected local employer. The loose cannon floating through this world is the playwright, Miss Mills (Kate Ashfield). She’s nicely picked out from the crowd as a slightly eccentric and solitary observer of the world. Never really mixing, she would rather eavesdrop and accumulate details for her next play set in this artificial bubble of a world.
Although some other Christies do move around a little, this novel not only has Poirot and others charging across the English landscape courtesy of the railway service, there must also be a scene in Monte Carlo. This creates a slightly rushed feel, particularly as our detective must actually do the PI thing, stake-out a person of interest and then use the traditional, “follow that cab” line as if it was new. It’s always good to see our consulting detective get into the practicality of investigation rather than merely sitting in a room and allowing his little grey cells the chance to shine.
As to the mystery itself, it offers a pleasing case for Poirot to investigate. Indeed, in a way, it comes as almost a personal challenge to see through the necessary deceptions to arrive at the truth. However, the reveal is rather more staged than usual. One of the critical problems for any detective working outside the formal police force is the acquisition of sufficient evidence to guarantee a conviction. Having a gathering of all the suspects and then working through to a reasoned conclusion is one of the ways in which the problem can be overcome. Superintendent Crossfield (Tony Maudsley) literally lurking in the wings of the theatre in the hope of a confession is potentially good. Except Poirot and the Superintendent already have more than enough evidence to arrest the suspect before everyone arrives at the theatre. More importantly, Poirot goes out of his way to protect one potential witness but there’s another person probably more at risk, i.e. the one protected may know whodunnit but the other has certain knowledge. Although it’s not a major defect, it does make the ending less satisfying than it might otherwise have been. Overall, this is one of the better adaptations with David Suchet allowed to engage in a little self-parody at times and make us smile.
As a final thought, I offer a note of clarification. If we travel back eighty and more years, it was necessary to prove fault in order to obtain a divorce. It’s fairly obvious if one spouse commits adultery or deserts the other, this is a form of matrimonial “offence” and will justify a court finding that spouse at fault. But, if the spouse is insane, he or she has no ability to form any intention of wrongdoing. Finding fault in such cases is therefore more difficult. Today, we have no-fault divorce and a decree is granted if the marriage has irretrievably broken down. This avoids the problem where one spouse lacks mental capacity.
For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)