"APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH" (2008) Review
Looking back on the number of Agatha Christie movie adaptations I have seen, I find it surprising that only a handful of Christie titles have been adapted for the movies or television more than once. One of those titles happened to be the author’s 1938 novel called "Appointment With Death".
The most well known adaptation before the 2008 one had been produced and directed by Michael Winner some twenty years earlier. Released in 1988, the movie starred Peter Ustinov in his last appearance as the Belgian-born sleuth, Hercule Poirot; and is not considered among the best of Christie adaptations before the premiere of "Agatha Christie’s POIROT" around 1989. The production values of the 1988 version of "APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH" almost had a cheap, B-movie quality about it. Nevertheless, I feel that it is a masterpiece in compare to this recent version that starred David Suchet as Poirot.
"APOINTMENT WITH DEATH" told the story of Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the murder of a wealthy, middle-aged American woman named Lady Boynton (Mrs. Boynton in the novel). But screenwriter Guy Andrews made so many changes from Christie’s original tale that it would seem pointless for me to recap the plot. One, the victim is not a widow. Instead, she is in the middle of a second marriage to a British peer and archeologist named Lord Boynton. Only Lennox Boynton is her stepson by marriage . . . and his name has become Leonard. The others – Carol, Raymond and Ginerva (Jinny) – had been adopted before her marriage to Lord Boynton. And yes, Jinny is no longer her child by blood. Lady Boynton never spent time as a warden for a women’s prison. Instead, she was an astute businesswoman. The character of Nadine, Lennox’s wife, did not appear in this adaptation. Jefferson Hope was transformed from the Boynton family’s attorney, into an American traveler with business ties to Lady Boynton. Dr. Gerard’s nationality and profession had been changed from French psychologist to British medical doctor. The American-born Member of Parliament, Lady Westholme, became British-born world traveler Dame Celia Westholme. And former nursery governess Miss Amabel Pierce, became known as "Nanny"; Lady Boynton’s nervous and very reluctant henchwoman in the abuse of the murder victim’s many adopted children. Andrews also added a new character – a Polish-born nun, who had befriended Jinny, named Sister Agnieszka. However, Dr. Sarah King remained intact – in both characterization and profession. The story’s setting is changed from Petra to Syria. The novel featured a single killer. This movie featured two killers . . . and a different motive. These changes allowed Andrews to give the murderers a fate straight from the finale of 1937’s "Death on the Nile".
I have to make one thing clear regarding the changes made by Guy Andrews. I have nothing against a writer making changes from a literary source to accommodate a screen adaptation. There are some things that do not translate well to the screen. But I feel that most of the changes made by Andrews did NOT serve the movie’s plot very well. In fact, I would say that the opposite happened. Despite its B-movie atmosphere; the 1988 movie seemed like an elegant affair in comparison to this 2008 version. Mind you, the latter had some virtues. David Suchet gave a subtle performance as Hercule Poirot. Peter Greenhalgh’s photography struck me as beautiful and rich in colors. Even Sheena Napier’s costume designs managed to capture the mid-to-late 1930s quite well. Elizabeth McGovern’s portrayal of a British or Irish female seemed surprisingly competent, despite her being American-born. Both Tim Curry (as Lord Boynton) and John Hannah (as Dr. Gerard) gave entertaining performances. And I also felt impressed by Christina Cole (Dr. Sarah King) and Mark Gatiss (Leonard) performances as well. So, why do I have such a low opinion of this movie?
My main beef with "APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH" was the changes made to the story. I simply found them unnecessary. The change in the story's setting from Petra to Syria, created a small confusion. In the 1930s, part of Syria was under British control and the other half was under French control. Yet, the movie featured a very British Colonel Carbury (portrayed by Paul Freeman), who had French troops under his command. Confusing. And was it really necessary to include characters like Lord Boynton and Sister Agnieszka, who did not exist in the novel? No. Lord Boynton was nothing more than a red herring created to distract viewers of the teleplay. And Sister Agnieszka was used to include a subplot that was never in the novel and had nothing to do with the main narrative. Was it necessary to change the number of murderers from one to two? Again . . . no. By changing the number of murderers, Andrews changed the motive behind the victim’s murder from preserving a secret to an act of revenge. Worse, by changing the number of murderers and motive, Andrews complicated the plot to such a ridiculous level that by the end of the story, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief. Even more ridiculous was the convoluted method used by the killers to bump off Lady Boynton. Was it necessary to include a subplot about the sex slave trade, which had nothing to do with Lady Boynton’s murder? I would say no. Especially since the subplot was never included in Christie’s novel.
In the novel, Mrs. Boynton inflicted a great deal of psychological abuse upon her step-children and her daughter, Jinny. This movie had Lady Boynton bullying a hired nanny – Nanny Taylor - into inflicting physical abuse upon the many children she had adopted over the years – including Raymond, Carol . . . and Jinny. Was the change necessary? I certainly do not believe it was. Both the novel and the 1988 film made it painfully obvious how harmful Mrs. Boynton’s psychological abuse was upon her stepchildren. Apparently, Andrews, director Ashley Pierce and the producers thought it was not dramatic enough and decided to be more drastic by including physical abuse. To emphasize the horror of Lady Boynton’s domestic situation, they allowed Nanny Taylor to fall into a catatonic state following her employer’s death out of guilt. I found these changes unnecessary. I found the idea of Nanny Taylor remaining with the family after the children became adults irrelevant. And if I must be brutally honest, I was not that impressed by Angela Pleasance’s slightly hammy performance as the tormented nanny.
In a review of "MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS", the 2010 version of Christie’s 1934 novel, I had complained about the religious themes that permeated that movie. Apparently, "MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS" was not the first movie in the series to emphasize religion. The same happened two years earlier in "APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH". As I had stated earlier, one of the new characters turned out to be a Polish-born Catholic nun. I had to endure a sanctimonious conversation between her and Ginerva. Lord Boynton’s archeological quest turned out to be a search for John the Baptist’s head. I had never heard of anything so ridiculous. How was anyone supposed to figure out whether the head of John the Baptist or some citizen of the region had been found? And to make matters worse, once Lord Boynton thought he had found the object of his quest, he had Sister Agnieszka lead the rest of the party into a prayer over said skull. The scene struck me as too ludicrous to believe. The over-the-top choral music that permeated Stephen McKeon’s score did not help matters.
When it comes to adapting a novel or play for the screen, I have no problems with screenwriters making changes to the story or any of the characters . . . if those changes manage to serve the film. After all, some aspects of a novel or play do not translate well into film. But the changes I found in "APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH" struck me as unnecessary. They not only failed to serve the movie’s plot, I found them convoluted and over-the-top. The addition of a religious theme simply made matters worse. The movie had a few virtues – including a solid performance from David Suchet. But not even he could save the amount of damage inflicted upon this movie.