Caution: This review contains spoilers on “The Big Four.”
It’s hard to believe we’re going into the final season of the “Agatha Christie’s Poirot,” with David Suchet as the beloved Belgian detective. The thirteenth season premiered last night on PBS MASTERPIECE with “The Big Four,” following Poirot as he unravels a series of murders, beginning with the death of a reclusive Russian chessmaster at a reception thrown by the Peace Party. The episode was written by Mark Gatiss, a name no doubt familiar to “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock” fans alike.
The film differs markedly from the novel, adding an original character in the form of young pencil-pusher Lawrence Boswell Tysoe (Tom Brooke), who predictably wants an exclusive on Poirot’s investigation. Hugh Fraser reprises his role as Captain Hastings makes an appearance, but only in a couple of scenes. His role of sidekick has been given to Assistant Commissioner Japp, portrayed admirably again by Philip Jackson. Though she is not in the novel, Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran) also returns. Check out their respective IMDb profiles and you’ll find that these three actors haven’t been on Poirot for about ten years. One might argue that the “Big Four” could playfully reference this reunion of actors (Suchet, Fraser, Jackson, and Moran) as much as the murder mystery itself!
The series has taken a darker turn since Poirot went on his own nearly ten years ago; the darker psychology is embedded in the Christie novels despite the light tone it takes up. Murder is a nasty business, as it’s often said in crime dramas. This installment leaves out the darker Catholic tones that have been so prominent in recent episodes like “Murder on the Orient Express.” While I am a Catholic, I found the references to be a bit forced and hardly a predominant part of the Christie novels, so it was a bit of a relief to see that “Big Four” focuses largely on stagecraft, deception, and identity.
Here, the threat of war and political conflict looms heavily, as the first killing takes place at the headquarters of the Peace Party, whose members continue to be connected to the crimes. There’s a brilliant series of shots with the newspaper headlines scrolling sideways along the screen, providing quick transitions from the murder scenes to Poirot’s investigations. The effect also serves to give the production a sleek, modern feel. It’s interesting how the murder plot finally gets tied to the strange gifts and notes being sent to fading actress Flossie Monro (Sarah Baxter).
While I disagree with Gatiss’ decision to change a number of elements from the novel in his adaptation (namely, what a disservice to Hastings), a few scenes stick out in their execution and build up in tension. Poirot’s examination of the chessboard was rather extraordinary in everything from the black floor mat and weighing scales to the final close-up of the electric current under the chess piece. Another stellar scene is the confrontation between Flossie and her once-spurned admirer, who is revealed to be Number Four. The third memorable scene is the replay of the flat explosion, which includes the audio of Poirot’s light and excited tone as he is setting the meeting over the phone. The conversation makes a wonderful juxtaposition to the action of Poirot’s realization that something is amiss and his decision to throw the cane and bolt. Indeed, it’s also a treat to see Poirot make a run for it, despite his expensive and tight-fitting patent leather shoes.
Splitting the Final Season: Free and Subscription Streaming
Poirot fans may (and should) take issue with one aspect of the release of this final season. Only two of the final five episodes are available on your local PBS station: “The Big Four” and “Dead Man’s Folly.” As the Wall Street Journal reports, the other three will only be available on Acorn TV. PBS has long been at the forefront of streaming quality and educational programming to audiences at a low cost, thanks to the generosity of donors. Viewers may remember A&E as the other network that aired episodes of Poirot. So why on earth does Acorn TV have the monopoly on most of the final season? It’s hardly a positive way to give Hercule Poirot his last curtain call when “Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case” premieres on August 25th.
Be sure to catch “Dead Man’s Folly” on August 3rd, in which we’ll see the return of the delightful Zoë Wanamaker as crime novelist Ariadne Oliver.