August 5
9:41 2014

PBS' Masterpiece Mystery continues its broadcast of some of the final adventures of Agatha Christie's brainy and eccentric detective, Hercule Poirot, with the movie-length (90 minute) version of DEAD MAN'S FOLLY, starring David Suchet in his signature role. Based on Christie's 1956 novel, this version stays relatively close to the original plot, with some judicious editing and re-interpretation. While not accompanied by his mainstay companions of many episodes (Capt. Hastings, Inspector Japp, Miss Lemon), this plot intertwines Poirot's likewise eccentric and charmingly maddening friend, crime writer Ariadne Oliver (Zoe Wanamaker). They inhabit a complex plot beset by double meanings and double identities, aided by strong production values including superb period costumes and a fabulous location: Christie's own Greenway Estate. Viewers familiar with Christie plot elements and ruses will probably catch on quickly to suspicious behaviors that scream: "look at me, I'm a clue", but they are likely to catch novices unawares. Identifying the villain is probably easier than identifying the motive here, and folly, whether of character or architecture, is an important theme. SPOILER ALERT: Eyes should be fixed on Sir George Stubbs (Sean Pertwee), whose hail-fellow-well-met demeanor is a thin veneer over a core of wickedness.

The episode creakily opens on a dark and stormy night, as Sir George and his wife Hattie arrive at their Devonshire country home, Nasse House, where she is quickly revealed to be a histrionic and insufferable type. Soon Poirot is on the scene, having been summoned post-haste from London by Oliver, who is writing a "mystery hunt" storyline for a fete hosted by the nouveau riche Stubbs on the grounds of his estate. Oliver, relying on her well-honed intuition, has got the wind up about various participants leaning on her to manipulate the original story for their own ends. Of course, she assumes that one of those ends will be an actual murder, and wants Poirot to prevent it. (Later we learn it is already too late.) This device allows Poirot to meet, observe, and subtly question a host of hangers-on, many of whom serve mainly as anemic pink herrings. These include the randy architect Michael Weyman, the secretary of a certain age, Miss Brewis, whose unrequited love for Sir George leads to an eye-rolling, barely tolerant acceptance of his wife, the stuffy MP Capt. Warburton and his wife, and Alec and Sally Legge, a young couple whose marriage is on the rocks. Of much greater interest is Lady Hattie Stubbs herself, who is beautiful but intellectually limited and focused only on money, clothes, and lifestyles of the rich and famous. There is also the tragic figure of Mrs. Folliat (Sinead Cusack), a war widow who also lost her two sons, and whose family owned Nasse House for generations; she is now reduced to living in the humble lodge on the grounds. Hattie was orphaned as a child while living in the Caribbean, and Mrs. Folliat became her guardian and ongoing interlocutor. You just know that anyone who pronounces, "The world is a wicked place" is bound to have a significant role as the plot unravels.

Hattie's obnoxious behavior crescendos when she receives a letter from her cousin, Etienne DeSousa, announcing that he will stop by for a visit after many years of separation. Poirot encounters a garrulous boatman (the mechanical amongst the elites), John Merdell, who confides that one of Mrs. Folliat's dead sons was a tearaway and not as saintly as she has let on. Sir George also snags Poirot and implores him to inform him if Weyman is, as he suspects, indeed after his wife. Our attention is also drawn to a pair of female trespassers, who irritate Sir George as he spies them from his bedroom window and converses with his unseen wife. (We've seen this ploy before.) When the fête begins in earnest, it is a crowded affair, and to Poirot's eyes, has a Diane Arbus-like grotesquerie about it. The suave and arrogant DeSousa arrives in the midst of the event, eager to see his cousin. Sir George bustles about, looking for his wife, and Poirot and Oliver take up the search, even checking out the boathouse where the "victim" of the scripted murder is designed to be found in a locked room. Of course, the "victim" is now a real victim: Marlene Tucker, a 14 year old Girl Guide with a fascination for true crime, has been strangled. (Watch for gill-laden references to the number 14 as a sidebar throughout the episode.) As Hattie appears to have vanished, the police are called in, headed by the aptly-named Inspector Bland.

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Elizabeth Peterson-Vita Elizabeth Peterson-Vita, Ph.D., is co-founder and Artistic Director of Actors Scene Unseen, a Charlotte-based theatre company credited with stage productions, radio theatre broadcasts, and audio CDs. She has directed over 45 productions, and has been nominated for, and won, numerous awards from the Metrolina Theatre Association. She is also an actor and free-lance writer, and has been a theatre and film reviewer for print and on-line media. ?Dr. E.?s? off-stage role is that of a clinical psychologist.


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