Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Poirot: The Big Four (BBC, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I turned on KPBS and watched the latest episode of Poirot, “The Big Four,” which given its origins in the seemingly endless series of mysteries by Agatha Christie about her insufferably annoying Belgian detective (don’t dare call him French!) Hercule Poirot (played by David Suchet, who acts this character as if he’s thoroughly bored with him) was actually surprisingly good. It’s set against the lead-up to World War II and centers around the efforts of a supposed “Peace Party” to stop that event from happening. At a public benefit for the Peace Party, reclusive Russian chess genius Savanaroff (Michael Culkin) is killed while in the middle of playing a game — electrocuted by the combination of a wired chessboard and chess piece, the sort of preposterously complicated murder method Christie was always overly fond of — and the two heads of the Peace Party, Abe Ryland (James Carroll Jordan) and Madame Olivier (Patricia Hodge), mysteriously disappear. Their disappearance and the subsequent murder of Stephen Paynter (Steven Pacey), who was having an affair with Olivier even though he was married, are supposedly connected to “The Big Four,” a terrorist organization led by Ryland, Olivier, a Chinese politician and a fourth, unknown person. Poirot, faking his own death (and underscoring yet again how much Christie owed to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and how much Poirot was Sherlock Holmes with a funny accent and an even more annoying manner!), ultimately learns that the Big Four was a figment of the demented imagination of Whalley (Peter Symonds), a young man who left home to join the theatre and became enamored of Flossie Monro (Sarah Parish), his old co-star in the Methuselah Theatre Company, who turned him down back then, so he decided to stage a series of crimes that would impress her enough to come back to him. Whatever Christie’s problems in coming up with believable characters, especially sympathetic ones, she did have a flair for psychopaths (one recalls Basil Rathbone’s performance in the Christie-derived Love from a Stranger) and Whalley is a reasonably convincing one, chillingly matter-of-fact in his weird determination to impress his wanna-be girlfriend no matter how many other people have to die for his plot to work