While I do not note every new Suchet Poirot production, the adaptation of Three Act Tragedy (2010)  demands attention and consideration. I think it may well be the best of the Suchet Poirots, which is a very large claim, and an excellent piece of television drama  in its own right. Both direction (by Ashley Pearce) and script (by Nick Dear) are very fine and the acting of Suchet himself and Martin Shaw, superb. The following analysis will contain spoilers.

As a book Three Act Tragedy is a typically brilliant piece of Christie plotting ,but cannot be counted among her greatest for the interesting reason that the motive, comparatively rarely for Christie, is love and she is not particularly good at conveying that. The adaptation solved this by giving the story an additional twist; it made Poirot and Charles Cartwright (Martin Shaw) old friends. To briefly recap the story. Poirot is staying with Sir Charles Cartwright, a renowned theatrical knight (of somewhat hammy propensities) in Cornwall. At a dinner party the local vicar drinks a cocktail and dies, but nothing is found in his glass and death is ruled as being from natural causes. Poirot himself does not believe it was murder, as he does not see how the vicar could have been picked out given that he selected from a tray of identical drinks. Then Sir Bartholomew Strange a prominent psychiatrist (or ‘nerve specialist’) is murdered in similar circumstances at his own house at a dinner party with an almost identical group of guests – the only absentees are Poirot and Cartwright. Cartwright enlists Poirot’s help in tracking down the murderer, suspicion falling on Strange’s new butler Ellis, who disappeared leaving only some blackmailing letters. Cutting through a good deal of investigation, in the course of which Cartwright proposes to and is accepted by ‘Egg’ Lytton-Gore, the much younger girl he loves, Poirot finally reaches a solution – it was Cartwright who committed the murders, he was Ellis (playing a part) and the murder of the vicar was a dress rehearsal ; it did not matter which of the guests died  apart from Egg, whom Cartwright gave a cocktail to, or Strange who never drank them. This conclusion makes space for the book’s splendid last paragraph where Poirot discusses the case with his sidekick Satterthwaite; the latter realises with horror that he might have been posioned, Poirot replies that there is a much worse possibility – it might have been him!

In terms of faithfulness the adaptation dropped Satterthwaite and one of the guests (neither of whom are in the least way important) but otherwise made only very minor changes to the plot. However it made a decisive emotional shift by making Poirot and Cartwright old and good friends; part of the process of Suchet’s humanisation of Poirot, which has been going on for a very long time. The production was centred around a theatrical conceit. Thus the film began with a shot of a theatre, both victims faces in death were finally picked out by a spotlight, the denouement took place in the same theatre in which the film began. Like all the Poirots it was of course magnificently mounted and staged, but here some inventive and interesting camera-work and editing techniques were thrown into the mix. The exhumation of the vicar was particularly effective using clunking and loud sound and slow motion to bring home the reality of this procedure; in fact it had never really struck me before just what a grisly business this must be. The acting was all good but at the heart of the film (I say film but I am of course using this as shorthand for ‘television drama production’ which is the accurate and correct title but I am too lazy to type) lay the performances of Suchet and Shaw. The importance of Marin Shaw was not only that he is an exceedingly good actor, but that the aura which he brings (for British television audiences at least) is that of fundamental honesty, as seen in his most recent roles as Judge John Deed and Inspector George Gently. The production therefore used his theatrical persona to mislead those who were not familiar the story. However the real strength of his performance was that he managed to pull off the idea that he was always to some extent giving a dramatic performance, that this was part of the character’s nature; doing this without just appearing to be giving a bad performance is a difficult trick. Suchet was especially magnificent. I suppose we now tend to take for granted the immensity of his achievement as Poirot. He has given this figure, who frankly is really something a semi-comic cardboard cutout in the books, a persona, a gravitas, a profundity which has evolved and almost imperceptibly taken shape as the years and productions have gone on. Here it was to be seen in its full magnificent flowering.

All of these things came together in the dénouement, which was a real climax and high-point. The cast of suspects gather in the theatre in the belief that they are going to see a dress rehearsal of one of their number’s plays. Instead the curtain rises and forward steps – Poirot; indulging his taste for the theatrical. Cut. The suspects are gathered in chairs on the stage with Poirot in the spotlight. Rather than follow his traditional practise of laying false leads and accusations he plays the scene very straight; it is a duel between him and Cartwright. And it is clear that he is speaking with deep sadness and a sense of betrayal as well as anger. When all is explained and evidence produced (Cartwright needed to murder Strange because he was the only person who knew that Cartwright had a wife who was immurred in an asylum and from whom he could not therefore get a divorce) Poirot declares – referring back to an earlier quote from Cartwright – ‘your revels now are ended’ – emphasising once again theatricality. Cartwright steps forward and gives his performance – ‘I did it for love’ – which manages to be both theatrical and sincere (we have no idea where the boundaries lie) before leaving the theatre for the last time. Finally the rest of the cast depart and after the dialogue with Muriel Wills about the possibility of either of them having drunk the poison (she standing in here for Satterthwaite on the book) we are left with Poirot alone on stage – and the camera pulls around so ends on his back staring out into an empty theatre. This entire scene was riveting – of course as exposition of a brilliant Christie plot, but also emotionally due to the strength of Suchet and Shaw’s performances, and technically due to the excellence of script, conception and execution.

Three Act Tragedy is a magnificent piece of television drama; it is in my view the best of the Poirot series to date (which is, as I have said before, a very large claim) and demonstrates once again the near miraculous nature of Suchet’s work in turning such a two-dimensional character into a three-dimensional one. In so doing he provides new insights into Christie’s work in terms of both its strengths and limitations. Sometimes the adaptations fail and point up a book’s strengths; sometimes, as here, they triumphantly succeed and point up a particular book’s weakness.