TV Review: The ABC Murders

THE ABC MURDERS

Starring: John Malkovich, Eamon Farren, Rupert Grint, Freya Mavor, Anya Chalotra, Andrew Buchan
Director: Alex Gabassi
Writer: Sarah Phelps
Based on the novel: The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

Reviewed by Sidney Morgan

This review CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.

The fourth entry of BBC’s deal to adapt seven Agatha Christie novels is The ABC Murders, and is now available for North American viewers (Amazon Prime). In this iteration, Poirot has stopped solving crimes and isn’t sought out for assistance by the police. However, his curiosity is piqued when he receives an anonymous letter announcing that there will be a murder committed, and it’s not the only one he receives. Of note are the names of the victims, and the eventual identified locations of the murders. First killed is Alice Asher in Andover, followed by Betty Barnard in Bexhill. See what’s going on? The killer is choosing victims alphabetically, first and last name and killing them in a matching alphabetical town, that is listed in the ABC railway guide! That’s incredible dedication no? In any case, the case baffles Poirot as well as the local law enforcement. And if there’s one thing Poirot can’t do, it’s to ignore a challenge put before him in such an enticing way.

This time around, it is John Malkovich who is given the task of bringing to life the famous Belgian detective who takes pride in his grooming, especially his little moustache. Depending on whether you are a David Suchet, Peter Ustinov or Kenneth Branagh fan, you’ll definitely have an opinion. And judging from the comments across the net, it’s a divisive performance. And though I was initially skeptical, the context of the story made me realize that Malkovich actually gives an outstanding performance (though his accent leaves a little to be desired…).

Eamon Farren as Cust.

In The ABC Murders, Poirot has retired. Making matters worse, he’s been held in contempt by police and the public alike. And Japp’s no use to him as he’s died. And Hastings, Poirot’s longtime friend, is nowhere to be seen. So Poirot is alone. He has no friends. The public is against him, as is the police who believe he’s withholding information from them. In an absolute humiliating moment, the police search and ransack Poirot’s apartment, as though he was a common thief. If you happen to be new to the Agatha Christie stories, specifically those with Poirot, keep in mind that he is proud, arrogant, and an outstanding detective. On that backdrop – a broken-like Poirot – Malkovich gives life to the Belgian. He’s pensive and reminisces much about his past. He watches and thinks, but those little gray cells he so brags about are active as ever. No criminal teasing him this way stands a chance. Malkovich impersonates that soft intensity perfectly and makes him a great casting choice in this iteration.

Sarah Phelps took the liberty, to the chagrin and even anger of many, to alter some of the things from the novel in this adaptation. Already mentioned were the elimination of both Hastings and Japp, two close friends of Poirot. She also took quite a few liberties about his past, including two presumptuous ones. First, she made Poirot a priest during the first world war, something that has never been mentioned in any of the novels. And second, she made the police question whether he’d ever been part of the Belgian police force, when he’d actually been its head at one point. In the latter example, perhaps Phelps was trying to add to Poirot’s public discrediting, but what was the point of the former change? It’s always a risky proposition to change source material, and clearly, she’s dealt with a backlash from fans. Thankfully, she kept the main plot identical, including the identity of the killer, except that she added a contrived fifth murder. The motive for the murders are the same as well. Nevertheless, even with the changes, the story still works.

Rupert Grint as Crome.

The cast performs well. It was nice to see Rupert Grint as inspector Crome, even if his character was a jerk. There’s an arrogance tainted with jealousy in his performance. The confrontations between his character and Poirot are well done, as well as the eventual peace making and collaboration that takes place. Also performing brilliantly is Eamon Farren as Alexander Bonaparte Cust (A.B.C.). His performance screams “guilty” (perfect direction and acting), at least until Poirot comes into the picture. He’s acts creepy, which makes his stockings selling job that much more uncomfortable. But there’s a kindness and even sadness in him, traits that are highlighted in his interactions with his landlord’s daughter Lily (Anya Chalotra). Freya Mayor as Thora and Andrew Buchan as Franklin also give good performances, albeit in limited roles.

I enjoyed the cinematography. The juxtaposition of the Cust’s poor looking apartment and the luxurious hotel and Clarke home, in a way, underlines the motive for the murders. There’s also an intriguing take on the railway scenes. Sometimes they show a single line, in the middle of the woods while at other time there are multiple ones, crossing over from one to the other. Could it be that the former represents Poirot’s present life, while the latter represents the case? Even when scenes occur on board the train, the few people present don’t speak to one another. The isolation and separation could be a message about the times (recall that it is 1933, shortly before the second world war). On the other hand, it could be about the various characters who’ve been affected by the senseless murders and how they continue to live their lives, journeying on alone, but without an apparent destination. Either way, it really is well done.

Verdict

The ABC Murders is a dark adaptation of the source novel. The mystery is compelling, developing over the first two-thirds of the show. The last third, unlike many other entries, quickly solves the crime and spends some time on the aftermath, focusing on those who lost loved ones and on some of the principal players. It’s a different take than the three previous entries, but it works. You may not buy the motive for the murders, but if there’s one thing Agatha Christie understand and communicated quite well, it is human nature and the motivations they have to commit crimes. From this psychological approach, The ABC Murders works exceptionally well. Of course, as a whodunit, it masterfully lays the pieces in front of you and with the help of a little misdirection from the editing, makes an excellent mystery with a satisfying ending. So, with those expectations in mind, sit back and enjoy.

The ABC Murders is now streaming on Amazon.

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