BWW Recap: POIROT: ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER Testifies to Pathos
Fans of Agatha Christie's brilliant Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, can content themselves with the remaining three new episodes of David Suchet's career-capping portrayal, now being streamed by AcornTV. ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER, the 90 minute reworking of Christie's 1972 novel (here more successfully set in 1938), features Poirot and his irritating friend, crime write Ariadne Oliver (Zoe Wanamaker) in an adaptation that remains long on incredible plot (the chestnut of twins and unrecognized identity) but finds its success in nuanced, layered performances. This episode includes sufficient red herrings to divert the casual Christie viewer, but there are fewer superfluous characters. This tighter core of suspects renders the still-complex intersecting plotlines easier to follow and savor than some previous outings. SPOILER ALERT: Pay attention to Dr. Willoughby's research on twins as a key to the original murder, and to secretary Marie McDermott's bland disregard for St. Patrick in solving the second.
In 1925, a (note well) seemingly happy middle-aged couple goes for a walk with their dog near the white cliffs of Dover. We hear shots and the next crane shot shows them both sprawled on the promontory. Our interest piqued the scene shifts thirteen years into the future, where we encounter Ariadne Oliver being feted as "Crime Writer of the Year". She is accosted by a dreadful woman, Mrs. Burton-Cox, who wants her to solve the riddle of the Ravenscrofts' deaths on that cliff: if indeed a murder-suicide, who shot whom? The motive for her persistent and obnoxious questions stems from the fact that her son, Desmond, is going to marry the Ravenscrofts' daughter, Celia, who is Ariadne's goddaughter. Ariadne feels compelled to sort this out, and seeks Poirot's advice for how to proceed. Poirot is called away by the dire difficulty of yet another friend, Dr. Willoughby, and strongly advises Ariadne to steer clear of the whole thing. We know that is not to be.
An earlier interpolated shot of a night watchman finding a body strapped into a filled bathtub in a musty, abandoned cellar reveals this to be the fate of the unfortunate Dr. Willoughby, after first being coshed on the head. The setting is the Willoughby Institute, and the good doctor was a semi-retired psychiatrist. Poirot, a friend of the family, consoles the son, the younger Dr. Willoughby, who was staying overnight in his on-site apartment. Completing the picture is Dr. Willoughby's doubtfully American assistant, Miss McDermott.
Hooked on her quest, Ariadne meets with Celia over tea for the first time in many years. Her quasi-fiancé Desmond is a concert pianist, and his overbearing mother is a nightmare. She can shed no light on her parents' deaths, as she was shielded from much knowledge of it as a young child. There was, to her knowledge, no quarrel, no attack, and no motive, the equivalent of a locked door mystery en pleine aire. She begs Ariadne to learn the truth. Ariadne again seeks Poirot's help, but he is too busy with the Willoughby case; he exhorts her to go to the scene of the crime and make inquiries of people who knew the Ravenscrofts, as they are the "elephants" with long memories. Ariadne does just that, meeting a series of aging characters (family friend, former nanny, former char, wigmaker), who can offer no coherent story, but suggest fascinating tidbits about the Ravenscrofts' daily lives and histories. We learn of a young French girl, Zelie, who worked in the household as General Ravenscroft's assistant, and that Mrs. Ravenscroft had been ill and had an inordinate number of wigs. She also apparently had a murderous sister (previously unknown to Ariadne), with a psychiatric history. Poirot zeroes in on the important clue of the dog that seemingly did something in the nighttime, namely biting his mistress, although he was supposedly devoted to her.
In his parallel investigation, Poirot learns more about the scene of the Willoughby crime: the unused basement was a former hydrotherapy treatment room, a now-discredited and cruel psychiatric intervention. The crime reflects specialized knowledge as well as vengeance. But surely that cannot apply to Ms. McDermott, the filing clerk from Boston who minds her p's and q's and whose work goes from A to Zed, though she cannot reconcile her movements the night before quite so neatly. After Desmond is attacked one night, he also seeks out Poirot, revealing that his ghastly (adoptive) mother believes the assault was not random. He also mentions that when he became emotionally attached to someone as an adolescent, his mother's jealousy led her to take him for treatment with the younger Dr. Willoughby.