Spoiler warning: details about the murderer lie below!
Mustache-twirling Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is a beloved character in literature, in cinema and on TV. Recently he’s been re-imagined as a Hollywood action hero by Kenneth Branagh in a slightly strange but ultimately well-received version of Murder on the Orient Express. So now to the BBC’s Christmas drama schedules, a big part of which has been Agatha Christie adaptations by Sarah Phelps. Over the past few years she’s brought us Ordeal by Innocence, And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution. Ginger and restrained adaptations are not Phelp’s style. How do you rip up the rule book but stay true to the source material?
It turns out all you need to do is wait. The passage of time makes characters different people, more fragile and sympathetic, more human. John Malkovich portrays the great detective as a weary yesterday’s man – the ying to David Suchet’s dapper and self-important yang. He’s dismissed as just another nosy parker by the young and very serious Inspector Crome (Rupert Grint). The world has moved on since Poirot’s celebrity heyday. This is all done in an extremely heavy-handed fashion as Poirot’s retired police pal Japp literally drops dead in front of him. Alright, alright, we get it – everyone is mortal. Poor old Poirot is lonely; in desperate need of a Scooby gang – despite first appearances he’s no good at coping with life alone and forgotten.
Enter the murderer who remembers Poirot at the height of his powers and wants to play a game. By letter he tells him he’s off to kill a series of people throughout the UK whose names start with each letter of the alphabet in turn and it’s up to Poirot to figure out the connection between the seemingly random victims stop him. What an effort from the murderous mastermind to troll Poirot pre-Twitter. Think of the expense in stamps alone!
The dodgy character we’re introduced to at the outset is young salesman Alexander Bonaparte Cust, Mr ABC himself, who looks to be epileptic with gaps in his memory and rather enjoys a spot of private bedroom violence. Cust’s nasty landlady is a bit Harry Enfield (Rooms for Reginald? Habitation for Harold? A bed for Bertram?) The cliched East End boarding house setting where she abuses her own daughter is seedy in the extreme. The whole environment is thoroughly unpleasant, as is the anti-foreigner sentiment that Poirot and his foreign born compatriots are living through in 1933.
Inspector Crome and his officers think Poirot and his country house Cludo murders are ridiculous. The detective and his real-life creator’s achievements are mocked and belittled as rich people problems the real world can’t possibly relate to. Although I would definitely watch a show called “twitching guts in the conservatory” and frankly I’m surprised Netflix hasn’t picked it up already. You’ve got to see Crome’s point – murder mystery parties (where Poirot met Sir Carmichael Clarke and his messed-up family back in the roaring 1920s) do seem in terribly bad taste, but maybe it’s just the period version of doing Celebrity Big Brother. After all, when the real detective work dries up Hercule’s still gotta eat.
A brief word on the victims – Mrs A gets hardly any screen time at all and Miss B will be particularly hard to grieve for. This scheming heart breaker has to be one of the nastiest characters in any of the Christie adaptations. Why is she so foul? Was this a Phelps addition or did Christie make her this unsympathetic? A girl like Betty sets up a typical woman-hating serial killer nicely and makes for a titillating corpse, but then resolutely male Sir Carmichael snuffs it too in grizzly fashion. Perhaps our killer is less obvious that first thought?
Poirot himself struggles throughout the whole piece, weary and lost, accused of being an untrustworthy foreigner despite having lived in and served the UK for decades. His personal past in Belgium is investigated and speculated over reflecting the darkening mood of a hostile nation. And of course, reflecting the current political mood in Europe and the USA. Seeing the 1930s presented in this was punctures the patriotic myths we have of our glorious past. It makes sense that a buttoned-up man who is famously concerned about his appearance (watching his black beard dye ‘melt’ is particularly tragic) would be repressing something terrible from his time as a refugee in World War 1. Some reviews have mentioned Malkovitch’s accent but to my ears it sounds fine. If you can be mid-Atlantic, surely you can be mid-Channel too.
Poirot’s mysterious past haunts him throughout the three episodes, really, really slowly. These ghosts are all old age pensioners and his subconscious doesn’t have proper ramp access. There’s no rush to get us a resolution to his private pain, and in general the pacing is far less frantic than Phelp’s other productions, in danger of getting a bit tedious in places.
The murders are well planned – the killer even goes to the trouble of bringing his own props – up until D for Doncaster where he makes a mistake and kills the wrong man. When exactly does this series of 26 murders become a cry for help? “Please catch me Poirot! X and Z are going to be impossible, and let’s be honest, J and I are going to be pretty difficult too!”.
The twist ending was extremely well done. I didn’t work out who the killer was despite realising they must have the wrong man as old Cust was locked up with 40 minutes of story remaining. As for Poirot’s wannabe nemesis his motivation wasn’t anywhere near as deep and meaningful was we’d hoped. Mentioning no names, the actor’s performance was perhaps a little too restrained. I would have liked a little spark of villainy rather than just a methodical pursuit of his ultimate goal. But all in all, Phelps and co did a superb job, bringing us another fantastic-looking high quality drama and making a complicated transformation look easy.
The ABC Murders are available to watch on iPlayer until the end of February.