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Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)

December 4, 2013 Leave a comment

In Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013) (Season 13, episode 4) we find Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) depressed. He laid a trap for Marrascaud, the notorious thief and murderer. When the dust settled, the painting was stolen and the young woman who was bait wearing the jewelled necklace, was murdered. With a reassuring smile, he had promised the nervous young woman she would be safe. Her death is on his conscience and produces psychosomatic symptoms. He’s therefore driven to part with ten guineas for medical advice which is uncompromising. “Either get another case which puts your life in danger or give up the profession. You’ve had a good run. Yes, you’ve paid the price of not having a wife and children, but you’ve more than compensated in the good you’ve done. Go away! Better still, go on a holiday.” or words to that effect.

Leaving the doctor’s expensive surroundings, the agency car is waiting to drive him home. When he leaves it to Williams to drive him wherever he wants, the man breaks down and tells him a story of lost love. Overcome with quixotic romanticism, Poirot says he will travel to Switzerland to recover the young maid who has been so cruelly whisked away by a thoughtless mistress. As he waits for the funicular to take the guests up to the Hotel Olympus, the police warn him that Marrascaud is thought to be on his way to the hotel. It’s rumored the thief has stashed the loot in this retreat. For this to be one of the true labours of Hercules, our great detective must confront the greatest criminal Europe has seen for years. Indeed, in psychological (and mythical) terms, he’s the only one who can defeat this thief and murderer. Perhaps a Freudian psychologist should name a complex after Hercule to describe a man who sacrifices family and friendship in pursuit of one goal after another. For these purposes, it would not matter what the nature of each goal. It’s simply an obsession never to be beaten at whatever is attempted, no matter what the price to be paid in social terms. Obviously there have to be some boundaries in this pursuit. There are laws to be obeyed, the dictates of conscience to be observed. That Poirot himself may end up looking vain and smug when he succeeds despite these limitations, is just one element of the price to be paid.

The cast assembles for dinner

The cast assembles for dinner

Looking at this episode with a dispassionate eye, I think the script by Guy Andrews bites off more than it can comfortably chew for a single episode. As a collection of twelve unconnected short stories, it’s clever to be able to rework three of them together, “The Erymanthian Boar”, “The Arcadian Deer” and “The Stymphalean Birds” with lesser elements from “The Girdle of Hippolyta” and “The Capture of Cerberus”. But what starts well, increasingly lacks coherence as we work through to the end. The problem is structural. All our initial attention is focused on the malevolent Marrascaud as “The Erymanthian Boar”. “The Arcadian Deer” is grafted on as an improbable motive for Poirot to travel to this particular resort. The fact our master criminal has picked the same resort is a horrendous coincidence compounded by the presence of Harold Waring (Rupert Evans) whom we also meet in the set-up. He’s an awfully nice young man who works for the Foreign Office. When his boss gets into a little bit of bother, our innocent agrees to take the heat. So simply because the script needs a victim, he falls prey to “The Stymphalean Birds” scam, i.e. this element feels like padding to fill in time while we wait for Poirot to identify Marrascaud and recover the loot.

As to the Swiss resort, somewhat remarkably, the interiors and terrace scenes were shot in Halton House, Halton, Wendover, Buckinghamshire. Stock shots of the funicular at Saint Hilaire du Touvet were added where necessary with green screen work to create the illusion of snow-capped mountains in Switzerland. In the best Mousetrap tradition, all guests and staff are cut off from the outside world by an avalanche. This leave us with Katrina Samoushenka (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) under the care of Dr. Lutz (Simon Callow). Alice Cunningham (Eleanor Tomlinson) is revealed as the daughter of Countess Rossakoff (Orla Brady) which reignites old memories in our hero. Had they become lovers, Alice could have been Poirot’s child. Thematically we’re into the realm of redemption and the extent to which love should influence our decision-making. When he was young, Poirot let the young Countess Rossakoff go. He spared her not because he was her lover, but just because he was Poirot. It was the sense of what might have been had they not been set into their roles — there’s a nice touch with the cuff links at the end.

In this story, the unsophisticated and love-lorn driver stands in for the young Poirot. The driver’s naive loyalty and trust is rewarded once the couple overcomes the limitations of their social status and roles in life. We’ve seen an older overconfident Poirot fail to keep his promise to a young woman. Hence, even though he catches the villainous Marrascaud, it doesn’t make him feel any better. At its best, the arrest is nothing more than revenge. Fortunately, the world-weary Poirot finds a balm for his depression in the romantic love of these youngsters. This leaves us his final discussion with Countess Rossakoff. She asks him for one more favour. For a few seconds, he’s tempted. Had he chosen differently all those years ago, they might have shared a great love. Then his little grey cells reassert themselves. He sacrificed romantic love and the sentimentality that can go with it so he could become a better detective and, by his standards, a more honourable man. Once he might have redeemed her. Now she’s a career criminal and cannot avoid arrest this time. In a sense this makes a very appropriate penultimate story to Curtain. Here Poirot has all the evidence needed and let’s the law take its course. In Curtain, he confronts the limitation of his role if he’s forced to acquire sufficient evidence to gain a conviction in court. So what here begins with failure in brightly lit London opulence, explores options in a rather dark and sombre hotel, somewhat in need of refurbishment, and ends in bright sunshine back in London. There’s a different and altogether darker ending in Curtain.

Putting this together, The Labours of Hercules slowly runs out of steam as the plot limitations are exposed, but it succeeds rather admirably as a vehicle for exploring Hercule Poirot’s strengths and weaknesses as a human being. In metaphorical terms, the Swiss hotel that has seen better days captures the now fading grandeur of the detective whose pride went before his fall.

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: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
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)

Emma (2009)

April 8, 2012 2 comments

This is a four-part version of Jane Austen’s classic Emma (2009) starring Romola Garai as our misguided heroine and Jonny Lee Miller as the long-suffering Mr Knightley. Sometimes, I despair of the BBC. It collects all this licence money and could spend it making original drama or adapting any number of wonderful books. Yet it persists in remaking “classics” as from the pen of Jane Austen. At this point, I’m not commenting on the worth of this particular adaptation, but questioning whether any rehashing of old favourites is a good way of spending our money. Frankly, I see no good reason why production companies should continuously strive to produce the “definitive” version of any classic when we already have more than adequate versions in hand. It all seems so unnecessary in cultural terms. This is not to deny a market for any drama that is reinterpreted for our time. I’ve sat mesmerised in theatres up and down the country as new shafts of understanding about human nature cross the centuries from the quill pens of outstanding playwrights and pierce my befuddled brain. But, more often than not, these productions have been radical, relocating the play to different times and, on occasion, reshaping the language to fit. I can imagine the outcry if the BBC were to offer a modern-dress version of Emma. People would feel uncomfortable without the period costumes and props. They might actually have to listen to the words and watch the action reinvented for contemporary England. New objectivity might then offer a better measure of the quality of the story and what it has to say to us about human nature.

Michael Gambon, Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller looking like a family

My first impression is that Jonny Lee Miller looks and/or acts the wrong age as Mr Knightley — although, at my age, everyone on television looks generically young. He’s supposed to be thirty-seven as against Emma’s twenty. This gives him the benefit of experience and also explains why Emma would not immediately think of him romantically. Unfortunately, at first sight, this pair look to me about the same age and strike sparks off each other much as you would expect from bickering lovers. This is not taking anything away from either performance. But the casting does blur a rather important element in the story, cf this is the reason why Marianne Dashwood (aged sixteen) does not immediately favour Colonel Brandon (aged thirty-five), who does look his age in Sense and Sensibility (2008).

Blake Ritson looking for love (and enough money to live on)

The second problem with adapting this book is that, as written, we largely get to see the world through Emma’s eyes. The actual form of the narrative complicates the task of adaptation since, although it’s nominally in the third person as told by an omniscient author, the readers are left with many incidents involving Emma as an unreliable narrator. So the readers can either feel some degree of sympathy for her as she blights her own life and that of Harriet Smith (Louise Dylan), or they can detach themselves and make a more objective judgement of her vain and stubborn self-deceptions. Yet, once you have the camera as an objective third party observer, you can see more clearly what’s happening. This makes it more difficult to have any sympathy for her. She comes over as selfishly manipulative and rather unattractively domineering. This is reinforced by the performance given by Romola Garai. She appears somewhat cold, making it more than obvious why Mr Knightly would be so annoyed by the rejection of poor farmer Martin’s proposal of marriage.

Rupert Evans deceiving everyone as to his amorous imtentions

Now we have the two key developments in Emma’s misjudgment of Mr Elton (Blake Ritson), the amorously smarmy vicar, and her willing acceptance of Frank Churchill (Rupert Evans), the prodigal son. She’s suitably shocked by Elton’s proposal and deeply embarrassed when she must confess to poor Harriet. Of course, the girl is devastated, but humble enough to take most of the blame for allowing herself to think someone of higher status could ever fall for her. His month-long conquest of a replacement adds to her despair. The arrival of Jane Fairfax (Laura Pyper) allows us to see more clearly how awful loneliness has made her aunt, Miss Bates (Tamsin Greig), a rather sad bore. We are hitting the right notes, but there’s a certain lack of coherence. It’s as if the director couldn’t quite decide whether to present Emma sympathetically. So, for example, when Mr Knightley watches Jane Fairfax play and sing at the Cole’s party, there’s ambiguity. If we watch objectively, he may show romantic interest. If we watch from Emma’s point of view, she would never think him interested in Jane.

Box Hill Incident with Tamsin Greig holding forth

We now come into the finishing straights as the awful Mrs Elton (Christina Cole) arrives on the social scene and tries to take over, while Frank Churchill flirts with Emma and rescues Harriet from the gypsies. Poor Harriet. Her heart is all a-flutter again, giving Emma yet another opportunity to misunderstand. Mr Knightly is now physically appearing more his age (or perhaps I’m just beginning to see him as older) and continues to warn Emma about the relationship between Frank and Jane. Emma, of course, cannot see it. The feel of the adaptation is improving. The final episode pulls the fat out of the fire. This takes its time with the strawberry picking at Donwell Abbey, the trip to Box Hill, and the consternation of Highbury when Frank Churchill’s engagement to Jane Fairfax is revealed. The humiliation of Miss Bates is nicely handled as is Mr Knightley’s condemnation. It’s also good to see Michael Gambon playing Mr Woodhouse as slightly more normal, still grieving for his wife. Too often he’s played as a silly old hypochondriac.

On balance, we have one of the better Austen adaptations once we get past the first episode. In this instance, the BBC has not completely wasted our licence money (although asking ITV to rerun the 1996 version starring Kate Beckinsale would probably have been as popular). Indeed, the BBC’s efforts were recognised on an international stage when Emma won an Emmy for Best Hairstyling. This strikes me as a good basis on which to value this production’s contribution to art. The costumes are a feast to the eyes, the locations dazzle and the music is sumptuously apposite. But Romola Garai’s hair is world class. So there you have it. Emma (2009) is a difficult book to adapt and, as adaptations go, this effort by Sandy Welch gets the job done. We can cavil at Romola Garai’s portrayal of the heroine and wish the character came over as more sympathetic but, given our more modern sensibilities, perhaps she doesn’t deserve to be seen as sympathetic. Perhaps, until the bubble of her world bursts, we should always see her as smug, selfish, manipulative and somewhat cold.

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