Finding ways of filming Agatha Christie’s novels for television is a challenge as her books are so widely read and many have been made into feature-films already, making the stories familiar to many. Appointment with Death, an entry into the 11th season of PBS’s and BBC’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot is taken from one of Christie’s most popular novels. Set in the Middle East, the tale weaves together elements of murder (of course), family ties, love and deception. Unlike the 1988 starry film version with Peter Ustinov, this dramatization of the novel takes some extreme liberties with the novel, often at the detriment to the narrative, which results in a somewhat unsatisfying reveal and conclusion.
David Suchet is back as the legendary Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Suchet has been playing this role since 1989, and is fantastic. He’s masterfully combined Poirot’s extreme ego with his strong sense of morality and righteousness. In one of the many changes from the source material, the story takes place in Syria (the original took place in Jordan), at an archaeological dig. Lord Boynton (Tim Curry, Rocky Horror Picture Show) is leading the dig, searching for the remains of John, the Baptist. His expedition is funded by his tyrant of a wife, Lady Boynton (British actress, Cheryl Campbell), who drags her three children (Tom Riley, Emma Cunniffe and Zoe Boyle) and her maid (Angela Pleasence, daughter of Donald) along. Lord Boynton also has his son from a previous marriage, Leonard (Mark Gatiss) helping with the expedition. Arriving as tourists are the beautiful doctor, Sarah King (Christina Cole, Hex), the pious nun, Sister Agnieszka (Beth Goddard), expansive American, Jefferson Cope (Christian McKay), and an old acquaintance of Poirot’s from a previous case, Dr Theodore Gerard (John Hannah). While driving to the dig site from their hotels, our group of travelers are met by the dashing and eccentric Dame Celia Westholme (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People).
As with most BBC mysteries, this one is littered with familiar faces, and most of the character actors blend well into the film and disappear into their characters. Curry, arguably the most famous of the lot, is surprisingly low-key as the dedicated, if pompous archaeologist. As his wife, Campbell doesn’t have all that much to do except be loud, monstrous and unpleasant, which she does aptly. Riley, Cunniffe and Boyle are good as the put-upon children, who are chaffing under the vice-like grip of their domineering mother. McGovern dons a respectable British accent and has some fun with the flashiest of the roles (after Poirot, of course).
The screenwriter, Guy Andrews (whose highest profile work has been with the BBC dramedy, Lost in Austen), takes lots of liberties with the plot, cutting out characters, and throwing in new ones. Unfortunately, these changes don’t always work – the inclusion of Sister Agnieszka, for example, is particularly superfluous – her character adds some intrigue, but then in the reveal, her back story and contribution to the mystery are minimal. Also Andrews tooled around with the murder itself – changing the motive and the method. And when the mystery is solved, the fallout comes off as mawkish, hysterical and begins to resemble a daytime soap opera.
Even though the film is a disappointment, it’s still not a complete time-waster. In the grand tradition of the BBC, the scenery is fantastic (save for a couple of scenes that are obviously done in front of a blue screen). Filmed in Morocco, the filmmakers recreated prewar Syria with its French colonial influences. The inclusion of extras and period cars and period costumes gives the film the appropriate authentic feeling of the 1930’s. And while the score can go a bit too far with its world music flourishes, overall, there is a decent hand of restraint in the portrayal of indigenous culture (as restraint as the nationalistic Christie would allow). There is a strange current of religion and Catholicisim that is revealed at the end, once all the characters’ fates have been settled and the folks are on their respective ways – Poirot even gifts one of the innocents with a rosary, and gives a brief speech about faith and God, which feels a bit forced.
While it isn’t one of the better-made episodes of the Poirot series, this is still worth-watching for a pleasant diversion for a couple of hours.