Monday, January 18, 2010

"Five Little Pigs" (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Growing up, I shared with my Mum a pleasure in reading the mystery novels of Agatha Christie. She enjoyed Miss Marple but my own tastes ran to Hercule Poirot and his "little grey cells." Years then decades passed, so my tastes altered and my reading partook of what (by virtually any standard) more sophisticated fare.

Yet I never ceased feeling nostalgia for Poirot and his cases.

Some years ago, David Suchet was hired in a brilliant bit of casting to portray the Great Belgian Detective (he himself would insist upon the capitals) and watching the shows in which he solved those cases was ever a delight. My darling, late fiancee shared a love of those programs and we started collecting the DVDs. And we agreed on which one was best.

Five Little Pigs was written and set in the 1950s but the filmmakers wisely took the story back to Poirot's more natural heyday, the 1930s. If one looks carefully, there are references to the growing crisis in Poland in a headline, which makes 1939 a good bet. A young woman hires the detective to solve the murder of her father--a crime for which her mother was executed fifteen years earlier. She needs to know the truth. It gnaws at her, poisons her life. She needs to know. Here the show makes another welcome change from the novel. On the written page, this young woman is engaged and seeks to soothe her fiancee's doubts that he is wedding the child of a murderer. Not a very loving fiancee, in my opinion--on top of being fairly stupid to boot. After all, the whole human race can call saints and sinners kin, of every description. Much stronger to make the motive behind young Lucy's actions her own pain, her own doubts about the memories she had of loving parents.

The whole structure of the case gives the story a lovely symmetry. Five people other than the victim and his wife were present that weekend. If the wife is innocent, it follows one of them must be the murderer, hence the title. Poirot interviews each in turn, and amid flashbacks we see them then as well as now.

What is so amazing about Five Little Pigs is how utterly and totally routed everything is in the emotional lives of the characters. Poirot's entire case depends upon understanding that, so what we get are amazingly nuanced performances in a top-notch script with superior actors. And a beautiful stylistic choice is made because the film involves really two sets of flashbacks. One is the very summer the crime took place, filmed in a golden haze. But then there are a few memories going further back, when the artist victim was an adolescent and friends with three people who would be present at his death. These memories are more disjointed, with an almost colorless palate.

But on to our suspects...

Elsa Greer, the victim's model and mistress, now a Lady but then the teenager who caused such a huge fuss by proudly announcing he was going' to leave his wife and marry her. Played by Julie Cox as an odd combination of fierce and fragile.

Philip Blake, the artist's best friend who was clearly devoted to him and cannot stop loathing the man's wife. Now a brittle but charming man, given to drinking much too much, but not to the point of actual drunkeness. Yet another marvelous performance by Toby Stephens.

Meredith Blake, Philip's brother and the victim's neighbor, not-so-secretly in love with both the wife and also with Elsa! Marc Warren did a wonderful job of portraying this oddly sensitive man with far more steel than others suspect, but also frankly less feeling (in clear contrast to Philip, who pretends to a stiff upper lip but sometimes seems on the verge of tears). These days a recluse.

Miss Williams was the governess of both young Lucy and the wife's younger sister, Angela. Played by Gemma Jones as almost the perfect Nanny/Dragon of the stereotype, yet with a tender regard for some that leads her to some beliefs she doesn't quite succeed in reconciling with her firm principles. Currently living uncomplaining in reduced circumstances.

Angela, the wife's young sister played by a relative uknown, Sophie Winkleman (been following her career ever since watching this movie). Of all those interviewed, the one other person utterly convinced of her sister's innocence. Her teen self was played by Talulah Riley, a highly intelligent but tempestuous girl who later grows into a very accomplished scholar.

The rich interplay of these characters is part of what makes the movie so engrossing. Philip, for example, with his oft-stated loathing of his best friend's murderer--it becomes clear this is a much more complex thing. In truth, he actually liked her very much but was jealous, and he spends rather a lot of time smothering the liking he still feels for her. Meredith, on the other hand, seems to have already figured out what really happened--or been on the verge putting it together but refusing to take the final step and see the implications. Elsa, despite being a middle-aged wife of a peer and a scandal magnet in her own right, remains at heart a girl out of her depth putting on a brave face.

On top of all this, the lines are witty, the photography gorgeous and the production design pretty much perfect. The tiny details are part of what makes it all work so well. Lucy, the girl who so needs to be able to feel her memories are not a lie, drives a convertible with the top down. Well of course. She is her father's daughter after all, a man who reveled in life. And equally naturally, when giving a ride to Poirot, her speed inspires him to hold his hat on with the tip of his elaborate cane! Marvelous!

More than that, I was left with a genuine desire to know what happened next? Will Angela and her old Governess now remain in contact? So much of Meredith's and Philip's emotional lives are pulled out from under them--how will they cope? The blitz is only a year or so away--I keep imagining Elsa refusing to go into the shelter, wanting to see the explosions and hoping one of the bombs will find her. And Lucy--what does her life hold now that she knows the truth of precisely how both her mother and father came to die?

Really, this movie is a gem. I cannot recommend it enough.


Anonymous said...

I'm going to have to re-watch this as I totally missed Marc Warren in it and I do love him in Hustle. This is one of my favorite Christie novels and I enjoyed this adaptation, though I thought the ending with the gun was a little forced and too showy.

Glad to see other Poirot lovers out there!

Juanita's Journal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juanita's Journal said...

I LOVE this movie. I just finished watching it for the second time, last night. A very emotional and satisfying tale. I think it's slightly better than the novel. However, I do believe that the scene with Lucy and the gun was a bit over-the-top.

By the way, the novel was first published in May 1942.