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.
Happily for the plot, the former investigating officer on the Ravenscroft case, Bill Garroway, is yet another "elephant" who can fill in some of the blanks. The mysterious sister, Dorothea, indeed had a history of psychosis and violence, but she died three weeks before the Ravenscroft murders, sleepwalking and falling off a cliff while visiting with them. Mrs. Ravenscroft was herself briefly hospitalized right after this tragedy, and she and her husband died just three days after her return home. As Garroway says, (and as per Christie's philosophy in many stories), "old sins have long shadows". Celia meets with Poirot at Ariadne's suggestion; she resents his questions about Desmond's financial status and inheritance, and Poirot cautions that "the truth can be cruel". His instincts about following the money prove spot on when it is learned that Desmond's biological mother, a successful actress, killed herself over a year ago, and that her estate will go to Desmond if he marries before the age of 25, a point most dismaying for his siphoning adoptive mother.
On the Willoughby trail, Miss McDermott comes clean about her ongoing affair with the married doctor. However, she does not seem to know much about anything else, including her activities on the previous March 17 in Boston. Dr. Willoughby makes connections between the two cases: his father had indeed treated the sister Dorothea, and was intensely interested in her case, because she was a twin. At one point he thought her to be recovered, but she relapsed. General Ravenscroft paid for her extensive treatment out of guilt: he had first fallen in love with her, but sensing her incipient madness, married her twin sister instead. Dr. Willoughby's own moral weakness is shown up by the lack of a treatment file for Desmond; the adoptive mother paid for his treatment "in favors". The object of Desmond's adolescent love appears to have been a mysterious older French woman. Poirot recognizes that this woman is the key to both cases, and dramatically holds Desmond hostage at his own concert to get her address: it is Zelie, now living in Paris. Poirot hurries to her, and convinces her to share what she knows.
As Poirot imparts this newly acquired information with Ariadne, Desmond frantically appears on the scene, alarmed that Celia has apparently gone to the grounds of her old family estate, hoping to exorcize old demons. She is promptly attacked by a mysterious boyish figure on a balcony, but is dramatically rescued by the police, alerted by Poirot. He and Ariadne arrive, and he begins his trademark exposition of the solution. He sadly relates that the Ravenscroft case was indeed a unique murder-suicide. SPOILER ALERT: The crazed and jealous sister Dorothea actually killed Mrs. Ravenscroft, pushing her off the cliff. In her few remaining moments of life, she makes her husband and Zelie swear that they will not report this act. They push her body into the sea and Dorothea is made up (with the help of those many wigs) to look like her sister, though that does not fool her devoted dog. She believes she is "happily married" to her old flame, and Zelie is sent away so that she is not further compromised. Finally, General Ravenscroft walks out on the cliff with Dorothea, shoots her in a kind of euthanasia-cum-justice, and then takes his own life. Back in the present, Zelie joins them, and Celia's mysterious attacker is revealed to be Miss McDermott, aka Dorothea's daughter, who was visiting the Ravenscroft home all those years ago, and overheard the plot to kill her mother. Sent to Montreal by Zelie, she has spent most of her life planning revenge against Celia and old Dr. Willoughby, and is totally unrepentant. As Desmond's mother tries to barge in, the door is neatly slammed in her face. Ariadne observes that we, like elephants, have the power of memory, but Poirot gently corrects her, saying that mercifully, humans can also forget.
This particular episode of POIROT continues the dark themes that are typical of Christie's later work, but is infused with a wistful quality that is essential to winding down this character's journey. Much like elephants themselves, Poirot, as superbly played by Suchet, is edging towards a noble demise, sadly aware of the world's cruel ironies, and casting a long and large shadow in the pursuit of justice and redemption.
Photo Credit: Acorn Media