Monday, August 27, 2012

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Series 3 Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
As seen on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery!, the impeccable Hercule Poirot is back on the case in these eleven mysteries from the hit series.  David Suchet returns to reprise his role as the definitive Poirot, portraying Agatha Christie’s beloved Belgian with intelligence and bone-dry wit.  Brimming with beguiling 1930s period details, these lavish adaptations look better than ever in this remastered edition.  Also starring Hugh Fraser (Sharpe) as the affable Captain Hastings, Philip Jackson (Little Voice) as Chief Inspector Japp, and Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon.

Film (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

I’m a big fan of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot character and I’ve enjoyed the books, the movies, and especially the television show starring David Suchet as the incomparable Poirot.  No other actor has played Poirot more than Suchet, and it’s been recently announced that he will finally be able to achieve his dream of filming every story written for Poirot when the series finishes filming in 2013.  While Albert Finney was good in Murder on the Orient Express as was Peter Ustinov in the further theatrical movies, but Suchet has captured the character like no other.  Before taking on the role, Suchet read all of the stories and took notes about every description and characteristic of the character.  As he described his process later, “What I did was, I had my file on one side of me and a pile of stories on the other side and day after day, week after week, I ploughed through most of Agatha Christie’s novels about Hercule Poirot and wrote down characteristics until I had a file full of documentation of the character. And then it was my business not only to know what he was like, but to gradually become him. I had to become him before we started shooting.”
That attention to detail paid off as he has now become the de facto Poirot for the public and has achieved the rare feat of playing a single character over a span of twenty-three years.  Over that period of time, the cast has changed over the years, with some characters coming and going depending on the the novels the show was based on.  Popular characters like Captain Hastings, Chief Inspector Japp, and Miss Lemon all disappeared when the series returned for the 2003 season, which was consistent with the plot-lines the shows were based on but it was unpopular with viewers.  It’s been difficult for fans of the show to watch it in any kind of semblance of order since it’s been released by a variety of studios but in a confusing hodgepodge of editions.  For the U.S. market, both Acorn Media and A&E Home Video have split the rights to the show with Acorn Media owning the rights for the 36 standard-length episodes, including the first nine double-length episodes, and the episodes broadcast since 2008.  The other movie-length episodes are distributed by A&E, who co-produced several of them.  (You can read my review of the Agatha Christie Poirot – Movie Collection Set 6 here). In a much appreciated move, Acorn Media has now released the first two sets of the series in it’s original UK broadcast order (review here) with more to follow.
Here is the list of episodes to be found on the Series 3 set:
  • The Mysterious Affair at Styles – Recovering from the horrors of World War I, British Army officer Arthur Hastings hopes to find peace and quiet at a country manor in the English countryside. But when the matriarch dies during the night from strychnine poisoning, Hastings enlists the help of an old friend staying nearby with other war refugees to help solve the murder: former Belgian police detective Hercule Poirot.
  • How Does Your Garden Grow - Suggestions of a Communist conspiracy cast suspicion on a murdered woman’s Russian servant. Meanwhile, Poirot has a rose named after him, and a ceremony at the Chelsea Flower Show makes him the centre of attention. Hastings receives a packet of seeds and develops hay fever.
  • The Million Dollar Bond Robbery – The London and Scottish Bank is sending a huge shipment of Liberty Bonds to New York on the liner Queen Mary. Poirot, who suffers terribly from sea-sickness, is asked to see the bonds safely across the Atlantic.
  • The Plymouth Express – An Australian shipping tycoon wants Poirot to check out his daughter’s suitors. Then the young lady takes a trip on the Plymouth Express, and Poirot finds himself investigating a jewel theft on the train.
  • The Affair at the Victory Ball - Poirot attends the Victory Ball, a costume party where you are expected to dress as someone famous, as himself. However, when two members of a party of six dressed as characters from classical Italian comedy are subsequently found dead, Poirot finds himself working with Chief Inspector Japp to solve the case. The solution to the deaths of Viscount Cronshaw and Coco Courtney is to be found in determining the correct time of death and identifying an impostor at the ball. Poirot takes to the airwaves and reveals the identity of the killer on a live BBC radio broadcast.
  • Wasps’ Nest – Poirot visits a garden fete, where a wasps’ nest adds to the tension. He meets the son of an old friend who has his girl-friend, a fashion model, with him, and Poirot soon suspects that they are both in danger. He has to solve a mystery which includes cyanide, failing brakes and mixed-up love lives.  Meanwhile, Hastings has a new hobby which Poirot finds helpful in cracking the case.
  • The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor - Poirot is summoned to Marsdon by the owner of a country inn there to solve a murder. But the inn-keeper is a would-be thriller writer, and to Poirot’s dismay the murder turns out to be fictional. Thankfully, though, there is soon a real (if seemingly supernatural) murder at the big house. Things get even more interesting when a young wife claims that a tree in her garden is haunted by a laughing ghost, and there are also signs of black magic from East Africa. Poirot lays a clever ambush to smoke out the killer,confident that he or she will turn out to be human.
  • The Double Clue - Japp (who is really worried that failure could cost him his job) seeks Poirot’s help in investigating a series of jewel thefts, and two remarkable things happen. Poirot falls in love (with the beautiful and clever Countess Vera Rossakoff) and he also meets a criminal intellect which he finds worthy of him. As the countess is his main suspect, Poirot spends most of his time with her – which for once leaves Hastings and Miss Lemon to do most of the actual detective work.  In the end, this case may have to be put down as the one that got away.
  • The Mystery of the Spanish Chest - Poirot is called in to help a woman who lives in fear of her husband, and he is invited to a dinner party which goes horribly wrong. Then Colonel Curtiss, the scar-faced prime murder suspect, even unwisely calls Poirot “a detective.” The detective finds that the murder mystery hinges on a duel fought ten years before.
  • The Theft of the Royal Ruby – Poirot prepares to spend a quiet Christmas on his own with a box of chocolates, but he has to give up his plans when the British government asks for his urgent help. Prince Farouk, a young member of the Egyptian royal family visiting London, has lost a famous ruby, and this is deemed to be a matter of national security.  The Prince unwisely lent his jewel to a strange young lady who promptly vanished with it, and Poirot forms a complicated plan to catch the thieves, harnessing misdirected romantic urges.
  • The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge – Hercule Poirot accompanies his friend Captain Hastings on a weekend shooting party at the home of Harrington Pace, but he isn’t having a very good time. He comes down with the flu and takes to his bed but when Pace is shot dead in his study, he rises to the occasion to assist Inspector Japp in solving the case. Pace was not very likable and treated those around him badly. He refused to acknowledge his illegitimate half brother, who worked on the family estate as the gamekeeper, refusing him even a small loan that would allow him to marry. His two nephews did not benefit from the family wealth having been told they may inherit something on this death.
By this point in the series, each of the actors have their roles down cold.  David Suchet, in particular, proves once again that he is the best man suited for the role.  In this series, we even see him as a young man in the movie based on Agatha Christie’s first novel with “The Mysterious Affair at Styles.”  It’s funny to see Suchet have such a grasp on the character that he play the detective as a younger man who is more carefree and less world-weary than he would become after seeing so many human failings.  It’s still unquestionably Poirot but it’s also a more fun version who doesn’t hide his emotions as well.  I’m not sure why Christie’s first novel with Poirot is in the third series set (you’d think it would have been the very first), but I’m glad it’s included nonetheless.  One thing I noticed watching this series is that case after case the cause of death was strychnine, which could become a drinking game every time that happens.  Christie sure liked killing off characters with it, but it’s funny that it’s become similar to the constant discussion of lupus on “House.”
This set stands apart from the earlier sets since it humanizes the character of Hercule Poirot while keeping his intelligence intact.  In the past, we’ve seen Poirot attempt to be a thief with humorous results, but this time we see him fall for the wrong woman.  Like Irene Adler for Sherlock Holmes, the jewel thief Countess Vera Rossakoff (Kika Markham) causes him nothing but trouble.  Rossakoff’s appearance in “The Double Clue” (the first of three over time) showcases a rare side to the detective and we see why he studiously avoids intimate relationships as they affect his job performance.  It’s times like that when Poirot is even more dependent on his companions Hastings and his personal secretary Miss Lemon who continue to share great chemistry together.  The mysteries are interesting, the cast is in fine form, and fans of the series will be all too happy to see Poirot’s first case in this next set continuing the broadcast order of the show’s episodes.

Video (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

These episodes are framed in their original broadcast ratio of 1.33:1 and presented in 1080p resolution.  When compared to the earlier DVD release, these remastered episodes look considerably better.  This set even looks better than the earlier Blu-ray sets as it has a much sharper picture.  There’s still some soft shots every now and then, but overall this is much better.  Colors are better defined and contrast is also improved.  Flesh tones look natural but occasionally veer to the pinkish side and black levels are fairly decent but not as dark as they should be.  These episodes don’t suffer from scratches or blemishes and for a show over twenty-five years old, this set look really good.

Audio (4 out of 5 stars) 

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Series 3 set’s uncompressed PCM 2.0 stereo mix also is a far cry better than the earlier home video release.  The dialogue is clear and crisp, and the scores by Christopher Gunning also sound wonderful (albeit the music is much louder than the rest of the show).  This is a mostly front channel delivery but the sound effects sound good and there’s no hiss or other audio issues to speak of. Fans of the show should be plenty happy with this new uncompressed mix.

Extras (0 out of 5 stars) 

There are no special features for either series set which is a shame for the fans and it will unfortunately bring down the final score.

Summary (3 out of 5 stars) 

This is another great continuation of the Hercule Poirot series and it’s even better seeing them in broadcast order.  David Suchet is the ideal Hercule Poirot and the supporting cast is also fantastic.  This Blu-ray set offers excellent audio and visual quality but it’s a shame that there’s still no extras to be found.  If you are a fan of the series then you should pick this up with no hesitation!
Order your copy today!

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