Certain things are sacrosanct. They cannot – and should not – be trifled with. This is never truer than during the festive season when routine, rules and ritual take on even more importance. Christmas means turkey, crackers, Buck’s Fizz and Agatha Christie adaptations. And there’s no arguing.
Recent yuletide schedules have seen And Then There Were None and The Witness For The Prosecution stand out, with writer Sarah Phelps brilliantly adapting Christie’s classic works for television. This year Phelps took on the big one… Poirot. Specifically turning the 1936 novel The ABC Murders into three 55 minute slices of smart small screen sleuthing.
Speaking, as we were, of ‘sacrosanct’… Herein lies the rub. This flagship BBC triple-decker introduces a ‘new’ Poirot to us, John Malkovich. The trouble there? To many crime drama fans, David Suchet is the only true Hercule Poirot (ITV did make 70 episodes of the brilliant Agatha Christie’s Poirot, after all).
To some, the idea of anyone else playing the famous Belgian detective on television is borderline heresy. So The ABC Murders, which was shown across three consecutive nights on BBC One from Boxing Day, had quite the initial obstacle to hurdle. Luckily for everyone concerned, especially us at home, John Malkovich not only picked up the baton – he also sprinted around the track with it in record-breaking time.
It’s 1933 and we’re dealing with an older, less popular and more self-reflective and distant Poirot. Seemingly by design, Malkovich plays Poirot with fewer practised eccentricities and foibles, elevating the character from a studied and pretentious oddball to someone much more wounded and human. It’s a smart move that pays off. This isn’t a Poirot impression, it’s more of an evolution. This is old man Poirot, grey hair and all. One who is haunted by the past and beset by flashbacks.
John Malkovich not only picked up the baton – he also sprinted around the track with it in record-breaking time.
Living alone in London and now shunned by his former police ‘colleagues’, he’s drawn into a grim new case when a serial killer begins killing people alphabetically and writing to our retired investigator to tell him all about it. On taking the case to the police, Poirot finds he’s not nearly as welcome at Scotland Yard as he once was (“People don’t like their police being made to look like fools,” he’s told at one point). A once prized guest, his presence is now seen as merely a taunt to police that they cannot perform their jobs without his unique insight.
Taking the case away from Hercule is Inspector Crome, played by Ron Weasley himself, the grown-up Rupert Grint. The pair form an unlikely alliance in the end and share some nice scenes of verbal sparring, but there’s no palpable ‘clicking’ or overwhelming chemistry between Malkovich and Grint. Still rather young looking, Grint is perhaps ever so slightly miscast here.
As ‘the killer’, Twin Peaks’ Eamon Farren is excellent. A young travelling salesman with epilepsy, Alexander Bonaparte Cust (‘ABC’) is creepy but sympathetic. We soon learn that that sympathy isn’t misplaced as the plot progresses. We won’t spoil the twist for those of you that are yet to catch up with The ABC Murders on iPlayer, but suffice to say that all is not what it seems – though when is it ever with Christie?
Those viewers expecting a gentle trio of evenings were in for something of a shock. For this was ‘New Wave Christie’, a more updated and grisly approach to the Devon-born writer’s work. Created to some degree with ‘The Luther Generation’ in mind, The ABC Murders may be Agatha Christie, but this is no flowery David Suchet-style Poirot. People get hit, blood gets spilt and corpses pile up.
The staging, costumes and locations were perfectly pitched too. Throughout every second of its 165 minute running time, we were fully immersed in the time period. We were effectively living in 1933, such was the wonderful attention to detail. One thing that didn’t feel quite at home, however, was the steady trickle of rather subtlety-free references to Brexit and fascism.
this is no flowery David Suchet-style Poirot. People get hit, blood gets spilt and corpses pile up.
With so many peripheral characters supporting Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, you’d have thought 1930s Britain was a bubbling caldron of foreigner-despising totalitarianism. Racism and xenophobia existed at the time, of course, but to suggest that London was a real hotbed of fascistic activity is something of a stretch. Mosley’s ‘New Party’ never saw a single candidate elected to any council, ever.
A scene showing a train inspector dropping Poirot’s ticket on the floor upon hearing his Wallonian drawl is crowbarred in seemingly only to demonstrate a certain level of wokeness and adds little to the wider narrative. There was, no doubt, a point that could have been made here along these lines, but it required a much lighter touch.
More powerful in this regard was the exploration of the history of Poirot himelf. We learn that our detective’s drive to avenge the deaths of the innocent comes from his days as a priest in Belgium, where he watched the occupying Germans burn down his church and kill his congregation. While some Christie devotees won’t like Poirot’s story being amended (he wasn’t a man of the cloth in the source material), it doesn’t feel like a liberty was taken with the character. In fact, it felt right. The drive, the spirit, the dedication, the faith in himself… Poirot as a religious man makes perfect sense when you think about it.
All in all, though, this adaptation was a roaring success. Tense, patient, stylish well-acted and tightly plotted, we would happily see Mr Malkovich back in the role for future festive seasons.
And who knows? Perhaps a whole new generation of television viewers will end up only seeing John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot. Stranger things have happened.
Did you tune in for The ABC Murders? What did you think of Malkovich’s interpretation of the great Belgian sleuth? Let us know in the comments below…