Review by C.J. Bunce
Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders is now available for streaming in the U.S. on Amazon Prime. Christie is renowned for the cozy mystery novel, but the 2017 three-part BBC series upends the cozy qualities of Christie’s trademark storytelling with the seemingly obligatory modernizing of the classics through a dark and grotesque filter. If you’re revisiting Christie through the lens of something like Edgar Allan Poe, then it might make sense to you to swap out your familiar vision of the enduring detective hero Hercule Poirot for someone known for his whispering, creepy, and pretentious characters. Someone like John Malkovich. If you’re lucky, as was director Alex Gabassi (The Frankenstein Chronicles) and screenwriter Sarah Phelps (EastEnders), you might find Malkovich in one of his finer performances.
Malkovich, in a most reserved and dialed back performance, is perfect as Poirot at the end of his career, disgraced, derided, and reviled, shunned instead of adored in a time when the native Belgian was reviled in England in a wave of anti-immigrant hatred. He is dark, moody, uncertain, nearly off his game as he begins to receive in his batch of daily love and hate mail a single set of letters from an unknown sender with violent intentions. Now retired (this is Poirot in 1933) he seeks the aid of Scotland Yard, always helpful in the old days, to find one Inspector Crome, a twenty-something inspector played by 29-year-old Rupert Grint. Poirot is out and Crome is in, until Crome realizes Poirot’s warnings of a killer taunting Poirot with murder victims and towns following laid out alphabetically were all spot on. At last Grint makes his move into a mature role, and he does it believably well, holding his own opposite the incomparable mystique of Malkovich. Joining Grint from the Harry Potter films is Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle) as the vile landlady of a creepy young man whose initials are A.B.C., played by Eamon Farren (Winchester, Twin Peaks), and who the story follows in parallel to Poirot’s pursuit.
Unfortunately the potentially interesting switch-up to the Modern is mired in unnecessary irrelevancies, including attempts at ambience at the expense of furthering the plot. So prepare for overlong frames of lurid, exaggerated, repulsive, and vulgar wallowing in fluids, leering at every fathomable excess, regurgitations too numerous to count, an odd sex torture scene, tasteless dwelling on spilled urine and worse. It becomes difficult to look over and around these additions to try to hone in on the point of the whole thing, the part that works: Christie’s clever mystery story. Not surprisingly none of the excesses were in Christie’s original mystery. The distractions are unfortunate, because Grint shows promise as a classic British character type he could possibly bank on for future roles, and Malkovich gives a good effort at an updated take on the character, complete with an acceptable mix of accents.
Supporting roles are cast well and also performed with nuance. Andrew Buchan (Cranford, All the Money in the World, Broadchurch) is particularly charming as a character involved in the life of one of the murder victims, but Tara Fitzgerald (Requiem, Brassed Off, Sirens) is not given enough screen time to shine as Lady Clarke. And the story skips over what could have been quite fun, a team-up reunion of Poirot and Inspector Japp, played by the versatile character actor Kevin McNally (Supernatural, Valkyrie, Life on Mars, Pirates of the Caribbean, Shackleton, Doctor Who, Young Indiana Jones, The Spy Who Loved Me, I, Claudius).
There’s some good mystery here with Christie’s original resolution. Is she turning in her grave at this adaptation? Maybe. But maybe Dickens, Shakespeare, and Shelley are, too, at their numerous expanded adaptations, and maybe it doesn’t matter. This retelling has plenty of good ideas, but too much gooey naturalism can spin a mystery into the horror genre. If that appeals to you, this may be for you.
Recommended for diehard fans of Malkovich, Grint, and Shirley, and anyone curious to see what Agatha Christie stories might look like written by a modern crime TV writer, check out The ABC Murders, now streaming here on Amazon Prime and BritBox. Or read the original novel, available here at Amazon.