Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1990)
Dramatised by Clive Exton, Directed by Ross Devenish; 103 minutes
Cast: David Suchet as Poirot, Hugh Fraser as Hastings, Philip Jackson as Inspector Japp
Transmitted as Episode 1 of the third season of ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot, this was only the second feature-length adaptation in the series up to that point (after the previous year’s two-part Peril at End House) and was by way of being a one-off special to commemorate seventy years since Poirot’s first appearance in print. The whole series is, of course, impeccably cast to the extent that it’s very hard to imagine anyone other than David Suchet and Hugh Fraser playing the central roles. Philip Jackson is also entertaining as Japp, despite not resembling Christie’s physical description of the character. The rest of the cast are well-chosen too, with every single mannerism and quirk of appearance, gesture and voice present and correct from the novel. Indeed, the whole script is very faithful to the original text, from which whole chunks of conversation are lifted verbatim – a testament to Christie’s flair for natural-sounding dialogue, which must be a dramatiser’s dream.
The film looks lovely, with the distressed brickwork of Styles court glowing in the sunshine, adding to a sense of the house as not only an ancient familial seat but also an eternal rural idyll. This is aided by the beautiful score by Christopher Gunning, whose use of strings, piano and woodwind (particularly a charming clarinet solo that attends Hastings’s arrival at the house) contributes to the peaceful tranquillity of the rural setting. I couldn’t explain exactly how the score contributes in this way, but it does have that effect for me – indeed, the BBC Radio 4 Miss Marple radio series does the same with its use of an excerpt from Mozart’s clarinet concerto as the theme tune, seamlessly evoking the quiet country village of St Mary Mead.
Faithful though it is to Christie’s novel, a few changes have been made – mostly, one suspects, in a forgivable attempt to make the story more palatable to modern tastes. As well as entirely omitting the character of Dr Bauerstein, John’s relationship with Mrs Raikes is more explicitly platonic in the film than in the book. In the novel, Mary simply seems to forgive John for an infidelity of which she was earlier totally convinced. In the film, it is made abundantly clear to the audience (and revealed to everyone at the trial) that the lady simply wanted to borrow money from John. There is room for doubt, but it is heavily implied (in a way that it isn’t in the novel) that nothing untoward occurred. In the novel, however, it is simply the fear of losing her husband forever – to the gallows rather than to another woman – that compels John to seek reconciliation with Mary and Mary to forgive him. Both of them are compelled to come to their senses and realise (despite the fact that this is, we are told, a loveless marriage) that the marriage bond is all. It echoes Christie’s belief that the power of the marriage bond is enough in itself – a belief so strongly-held that it perhaps helps us to explain why her own husband’s infidelity would lead, a few years after the novel’s publication, to her complete nervous collapse.
A further change is that Mrs Inglethorp is John and Leonard’s mother here – not their stepmother. I’m not sure what I think of this change. On the one hand, it gives the crime a greater emotional resonance, evoking the terrible spectre of matricide and raising the dramatic stakes at John’s trial. At the same time, however, it sidesteps some of the more interesting socio-historical issues surrounding the ‘correct’ flow of inherited wealth. It makes it more about eternal family values and less about the way in which Edwardian social expectations have been upset by the unusual case of a stepmother getting in the way of the sons’ inherited wealth. It also robs Alfred Inglethorp of some of his inherent ‘wrongness’. Here he is a mere interloper and suspected fortune-hunter. In the novel (although the idea is barely explored) he is also a Freudian menace – the new husband of a woman who was never really the boys’ mother to begin with, his usurpation of the family seat places the father-figure at a further remove, rendering it, instinctively, even less tolerable.
Like every entry in the Poirot TV series, a lot of the appeal lies in the lavish attention to period detail and this is no exception. The film takes pains to signal its wartime setting, differentiating itself not only from the viewer’s present, but also from the uniform 1930s setting of the rest of the TV series. Archive newsreel footage and an impressive opening shot of London complete with old-fashioned routemaster buses, marching soldiers and horse-drawn cabs, remind us that this is Edwardian London at war. Indeed, the setting is very much a character in its own right, lingered over in a manner that is gratuitous perhaps (the steam train that carries Hastings to Styles is a prime example) but adds to what I am unashamed to recognise as at least part of Christie’s appeal – the way in which her novels are now enjoyed as windows onto a version of the past, as charming museum pieces.
The use of the newsreel footage also reminds us that Hastings is a soldier who, for all his bumbling upper-middle-class complacency, has seen some terrible things – and, as a lieutenant here, our knowledge that he will later be a Captain also points to the distinguished career he has ahead of him. For me, this helps to explain why he will later spend so much time enjoying the opportunity afforded by his retirement to enjoy his accumulated wealth by doing precisely nothing, whilst also seeming very ready to leap into action at the required moment. In this he resembles more than ever Conan Doyle’s Doctor Watson, especially as dealt with in the BBC’s recent Sherlock, as a character at once nostalgic for the thrilling action of the theatre of war and suffering from the horrors witnessed there. Watching the ‘new film’ from the front, the camera zooms in on Hastings’s eyes. Later Hastings’s dreams of the front (represented by the same footage) bleed into the waking world as he is roused from his troubled sleep only by Mrs Inglethorp’s dying screams –a neat line connecting the disruptive effect of the war with the disruptive effect of murder on the Styles household.
The news footage continues, from its report on developments at the front, to inform its audience of the arrival of refugees from Belgium. This prepares us (in a way the novel doesn’t) for the insane coincidence of Poirot, whom Hastings mentions at dinner, actually being conveniently on hand to investigate the crime – but it also helps to tie Poirot and Hastings together as partners not only in criminal investigation but also in the first-hand experience of war – Poirot has fled an invading army just as Hastings has fought one. A foreign power has ravaged Poirot’s country (a little detail in Suchet’s performance is a very slight wistfulness that creeps into his voice at one point when he mentions Belgium) whilst Hastings has been injured defending his. It also points to the fundamental difference in their character – Poirot is a man whose country has been torn apart by a chaos that offends his very philosophy, whilst Hastings has made a career of taking part (albeit on the ‘correct’ side) in the chaos of war. It should come as no surprise when, later, Poirot’s professed disenchantment with a countryside that represents nature at its most disordered finds its antithesis in Hastings’s response: ‘that’s why I like it’.
When Poirot is first seen in person, it is also at an earlier point than in the novel, making use of the visual medium’s not having to rely on Hastings’s presence to narrate something before it can be shown. Poirot here is outlandish even among his fellow refugees – they go to the pub instead of trying, as Poirot does, to learn about local customs or to cultivate a sense of ‘order and method’. Yet this is also a neat insight into Poirot’s character, as his academic mind (his orderly, methodical approach) distances him from the very thing he succeeds objectively to understand – he comprehends the British custom of going to the pub, but does not, like his fellow countrymen, immerse himself in it. Instead, he examines it forensically and from a distance.
This is part of the skill with which Exton dramatises the novel, showing us what Christie’s prose is usually content merely to tell – this isn’t to criticise the novel, merely to suggest how the film succeeds in adapting the novel to a different medium. Thus, the discomfort Hastings feels after Evelyn Howard’s departure is nicely conveyed in a new scene where the family wait, at dinner, for Mr Inglethorp to finish his dessert, all the while looking daggers at the man – a sufficiently repellent metaphor of the complacency with which Inglethorp views his ascension to head of the household and of his unthinking disregard for the family whose inheritance he has usurped. Hastings tries to break the ice by commenting that it’s ‘almost too hot’. This irritates Inglethorp, so that Hastings feels compelled to explain that he ‘shouldn’t be surprised’ if there’ll be a thunderstorm. The metaphor here is hardly subtle, but it’s a nice way of getting across the melodramatic premonition of dread that Hastings tells us of directly in the novel.
Other ways in which Hastings’s sensational manner of telling the story find their way into the film include the Doctor’s announcement that Mrs Inglethorp’s death looks like strychnine poisoning. This is a particular highlight of a pleasantly OTT performance and makes up for the excision of some of Hastings’s more fanciful suggestions, such as the idea of Mrs Inglethorp being afraid of demonic possession. Similarly, the Coroner, having been asked if he thinks the fact of Mrs Inglethorp having made a new will on the very day of her death rather a coincidence, delivers the line ‘I fear there is no coincidence here’ in very overstated fashion, aided by a timely CHORD OF DOOM in the musical score. In fact, the way in which the supposedly objective reports of the Coroner and the Doctor yield to the sensational beats of the television detective plot echoes the way in which Hastings’s written account, in the book, fails to keep the objectivity of his account separate from the very sensationalism it is meant to combat.
Another rather nice way in which the film plays into the book’s themes is its similar use of Hastings’s determination to suspect only people from outside his own social circle – and the way in which this reinforces his unconscious xenophobia. Although the film keeps Hastings’s line about his own system of deduction progressing, ‘of course’, rather further than Porot’s, it reinforces it with a dextrous scene in which Poirot and Hastings significantly correct each other’s language. Hastings dismisses with an easy flick of the hand Poirot’s suggestion that Leonard and John have not been cleared of the crime – ‘Oh! I don’t imagine they had anything to do with it!’ – and offers a complacent and unsupported theory about how the burnt will must have been the work of Alfred Inglethorp. Poirot ironically comments that his friend has a ‘good grasp on the case’, only to have Hastings correct him: ‘grip’. In the very next scene, Poirot tells Hastings that there are actually only two very important facts in the case – the state of the weather on the day of the crime and the unusual elements in Mr Inglethorp’s appearance. Hastings counters: ‘that’s ridiculous’. No, Poirot rejoins, ‘it is momentous’. Hastings’s correction is prosaic, setting Poirot’s speech back onto the conventional path of grammatical regularity and the conventions of word use – precisely as his theory about the crime reinstates conventional social expectations. Poirot’s correction, on the other hand, insists on seeing things differently, focusing on the way in which the English language can change the way things look merely by applying a different point of view, or even a different adjective. What to one person is ‘ridiculous’ might, if viewed differently, seem ‘momentous’ to another.
Unfortunately, this also precipitates another puzzle. Since no-one has yet been told about the fake Inglethorp’s visit to the local dispensary, how on earth can Poirot have deduced the man’s appearance to be of particular moment? This may be a clever point on dramatist Clive Exton’s part regarding Poirot’s instinctive distrust of appearances – he has already sussed that Inglethorpe’s singularly suspicious appearance is clearly too good to be true. Either that or it’s something of a cock-up in the ordering of the scenes. Given that other important evidence and explanations are missed out (most prominently the reason for Inglethorp’s incriminating letter and most of the clues pertaining to the facts about the new will) I’m afraid I’m inclined to think the latter.
A similar problem – a lack of signposting as to where Poirot’s deductions actually come from – is also endemic in the explanation of the way in which the crime was committed. The trick with the strychnine is helpfully dramatised, taking advantage of the visual medium to show viewers how quickly the application of the bromide causes the poison to precipitate. At the same time, however, the fact that Mrs Inglethorp’s medicine contained strychnine is signposted much earlier in the novel and is only rejected as a solution to the crime because no one can work out exactly how it could have becomes lethal. The film could have done with a similar signposting – here, Poirot’s deduction appears to come from nowhere.
In the film, the war – as the film’s audience, if not its protagonists, will be aware – is in its final stages. The action is moved from July 1916 to August 1917 and there’s a brief mention of the first American troops having arrived in France. The film-makers have the benefit of hindsight, denied to Christie, who wrote in 1916 with no end in sight. In the film, the happy ending is aligned with a historical resolution, which we know will happen shortly. Miss Howard and Mr Inglethorp also have a pleasingly melodramatic ‘I’m not sorry! And I’d do it again in an instant! Ha ha ha!’ moment when the truth is revealed – much more satisfying than in the novel where they’re reactions to being discovered are not given. Along with the film’s changes to the details of John’s relationship with Mrs Raikes, it also contributes to the viewer’s willingness to accept an unproblematically happy ending for the novel’s other characters. In these new historical and narrative circumstances, one feels much more inclined to accept the ending on its own terms, rather than to baulk at it as a convenient resolution – to take even more pleasure in the fact that the Cavendish family, unlike the murderers, will live happily ever after.