Despite great turns from John Malkovich and Rupert Grint, The ABC Murders is still let down by tedious, sledgehammer-subtle social commentary and a mystery that puts style over substance.
The Sarah Phelps Agatha Christie adaptation is becoming something of a British Christmas tradition, which I suppose makes sense given how many of us want to murder our in-laws. I missed the latest offering – a three-part treatment of The ABC Murders – for reasons that include being very drunk for almost the entire holiday period, but luckily it’s now on Amazon Prime Video. Naturally, I went to conduct an investigation of my own.
The famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is now being played as a sulky old-timer by John Malkovich; between this and Bird Box, Mile 22, The Wilde Wedding and Unlocked, I’m thoroughly enjoying Malkovich’s late-career embrace of the “grumpy old bloke” persona, and long may it continue. His talents for seeming lonely, fed-up and intolerant of stupidity are particularly welcome here, as The ABC Murders is one of those adaptations that attempt to contemporise a classic story by drawing excruciatingly on-the-nose parallels with modern-day socio-political issues, including in this case the immigrant furore and a general fear of otherness expressed through Poirot’s status as a mucky foreigner and, potentially, a charlatan who lied about his past to STEAL OUR JOBS.
Thus, Poirot totters around a version of early-30s pre-war Blighty in the hysterical grip of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, a kind of proto-UKIP that enjoyed similarly moronic public support and an equally abysmal electoral record, and rather rapidly became something of a joke. It’s an odd choice for a spectral social bogeyman that’ll likely annoy both Christie purists and those who find such blunt-force message-mongering rather tedious, but it’s something of a credit to The ABC Murders that this all never becomes quite as annoying as it sounds.
This is, partly, thanks to Malkovich, whose Poirot endures personal and professional discrimination but never seems to care too much about it, secure as he is in the knowledge that he’s clever and his detractors are idiots, which is generally a solid operating principle. And despite his moroseness he remains clever; particularly well-suited to the murder-mystery he quickly finds himself embroiled in, even if the local coppers don’t trust him and would rather ignore his implacably-accented deductive reasoning – for a while, anyway.
There’s only so long the murders can be ignored once they start, especially since the murderer seems so keen on letting Poirot know about them in advance. In amongst Poirot’s adoring fan letters and bitter hate mail are missives from a young weirdo who is working up the courage to bump off alliterative victims – Alice Asher in Andover, Betty Barnard in Bexhill, and so on – whose lives in some way relate to that of Poirot himself. The personal connection between the detective and the killer is nothing new, nor is the stubborn idiocy of the local police as a way of making the hero seem cleverer and more capable, but Christie’s fondness for unreliable structuring and last-minute swerves keeps things interesting, even though the presumed killer is introduced early in the first episode and followed around throughout.
His name is Alexander Bonaparte Cust, a baby-faced stocking salesman played with weirdo relish by Eamon Farren. Lodged in a grimy boarding house where the deeply unpleasant landlady pimps out her pretty daughter, and quite clearly nursing plenty of deeply-rooted psychological issues, if he isn’t exactly sympathetic you can at least see why he might want to commit murder. But he’s a less compelling antagonist for Poirot than Inspector Crome, a bitter copper who openly despises the detective, and is played by Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint in a manner that suggests any broomsticks on his person have been inserted firmly up his arse. In some ways The ABC Murders is worth watching just for this enjoyably against-type performance, which is certainly a bit more nuanced than a killer whose initials are ABC committing murders according to the alphabet.
Beyond that, and of course Malkovich’s grumpy leading turn, there are perhaps less reasons to seek out The ABC Murders than I might like. It’s stylishly presented and evocatively dour, but it never really works as the profound study of alienation it’d quite clearly like to be, and by the third episode the mystery gets a bit too knotty for its own good. There’s some stuff to enjoy, and the journey through the inequalities of British society and the fractured lines of a tattered mind can be scenic – I’m just not sure the destination is worth the effort it takes to get there.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.