Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013) (Season 13, episode 1) sees the return of Ariadne Oliver (Zoë Wanamaker). While on a book tour, she’s buttonholed by Mrs. Burton-Cox (Greta Scacchi) who’s concerned her son is about to marry Ariadne’s god daughter, the allegedly unsuitable Celia Ravenscroft (Vanessa Kirby). The problem lies in the potential mental instability in the family. Her parents died in an apparent murder-suicide, and Mrs Burton-Cox wants to know whether the wife killed the husband or vice versa. Even though offended by the pushiness of this woman, Ariadne’s curiosity is piqued and, despite being warned off by Poirot, asks her god daughter what she remembers. The girl was twelve when the tragedy happened and was away at boarding school. Once the question is asked, however, she also asks Ariadne to find out what happened. So, with Poirot called into another case by Doctor Willoughby (Iain Glen) where his eminent father was killed in his own sanatorium, she sets off to Eastbourne to find elephants who might remember what happened all those years ago.
This Oliver safari leads us to an old friend who knew the Ravenscroft family in Sussex and an even older woman who was a nanny with ex-pat families out in India who knew the family. It seems there were troubles in Amritsar. One or more children may have died. The poor old thing keeps falling asleep. Who knows whether what she says is real. Then there’s the lady that used to char for the family in Sussex. She confirms the first woman’s story about Lady Ravenscroft wearing a wig and adds the snippet she went to Harley Street for treatment. Mental troubles, it seems. When Poirot’s attention can be diverted to the case, he and Ariadne talk to the now retired policeman who dealt with the case. He thinks it ought to be a murder-suicide, but worries there was no note. Aroused from his stupor, Poirot asks about the wigs and directs Ariadne to the shop to continue asking questions. Lady Ravenscroft had four wigs which was unusual. Most people only have two. And then three weeks after she took delivery, she died. Finally, Poirot talks with the surviving daughter. He offers the insight that the truth can be cruel given old sins leave a long shadow. Despite this warning, Celia Ravenscroft is determined she should know what actually happened. This leads us to a very effective piece of television.
Full credit must go to Nick Dear who wrote the script. To understand the man’s triumph, we need to consider the strength of the novel. This was published in 1972 by which time Agatha Christie was well past her best. Indeed, there are many signs her memory was beginning to fail, something that makes the choice of subject matter ironically appropriate. The idea of any investigator interviewing elderly people who can’t remember much about anything was something Christie herself was coming to understand. The relevance of elephants is twofold. We have the idiom in the title which is the supposed capacity of elephants to remember faces and places. In this instance, we’re to accept that old people “never forget” or have a memory like an elephant. However, the second use of elephants in this story reflects a folk tale from China and India in which a small group of wise but blind men enter a room containing an elephant. They each touch a different part of the beast and so come up with radically different descriptions of what beast is sharing their space. So here we have different people who each have a set of experiences of the past involving the same family. Each one therefore sees only a part of the larger picture and it’s not until all their views are collected and analysed that the key elements can be extracted from the mass of irrelevant detail and put together to form the complete picture.
So Nick Dear significantly tidies up the plot of the novel as designed by Christie and then adds a completely new subplot with a new murder in it. The result is coherent and compelling. Were she alive today, you have the sense Christie would have approved this expansion to her novel because, for once, it shows a rather tender side to Poirot. Too often he’s dismissive if not actively contemptuous of others. Here we see a mellower side, a man who might have married and protected his children. David Suchet gives a more restrained but powerful performance, offering emotional support to a family and those who were involved in a great tragedy. His interview with Zelie Rouxelle (Elsa Mollien), the French au pair now returned to Paris, is pleasing.
If there’s a fault with the adaptation, it’s the rather pointless melodrama of the attempt on Celia’s life towards the end. Having the police turn up in the nick of time is the ultimate cliché and spoils what was otherwise a well-paced plot. It’s also a relief to see Zoë Wanamaker given proper prominence in the first half of the episode. Ariadne Oliver is in the novel and Zoë Wanamaker deserves the space to develop the character. It’s sad the character has to slip quietly into the background once Poirot’s interest is engaged, but it’s his show rather than a partnership. She’s just a sidekick, albeit one with more brains than Captain Hastings. For once we get to see Whitehaven Mansions in their full glory with the south coast scenes, both contemporary and in flashback, done with appropriate style. Indeed, the flashbacks are essential to make the motive plausible. Unless we’re convinced this is a couple born and still espousing the cultural morality of the British Raj, we’re unlikely the find this plot scenario plausible. Having met such people as I was growing up, I can confirm this type of behaviour, while unusual, would have been possible. In a society where reputation was everything, families would go to unreasonable lengths to cover up indiscretions or worse. While this is extreme, it feels credible from what we see and hear about the couple. The relevant people might very well have gone along with this deception for a short time. . . until the burden became too much. All of which makes Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember a very impressive start to what’s billed as the final season of adaptations.
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: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)