Thursday, January 24, 2019

Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders (Still, More or Less)

England wasn’t so merry in the 1930s. The economy was depressed, nativism was on the rise, and war was brewing. Worst of all, the world’s most famous detective had lost his mojo. However, a game-playing serial killer just might get Hercule Poirot back in his groove. The Belgian sleuth must solve his most personal case yet in Amazon Prime’s three-part miniseries, The ABC Murders (trailer here), directed by Alex Gabassi, which debuts next week.

Poirot has suffered some bad press and his old comrade at Scotland Yard, Inspector Japp, has retired. Young Inspector Crome resents Poirot for making the Yard look stupid—and he isn’t shy about expressing his feelings. Consequently, Poirot’s reception is decidedly chilly when he tries to report the mocking poison pen letters he has been receiving from a psychopath simply calling himself “ABC.”

It turns out alphabetization is a thing for this killer. He is sequentially working his way through the alphabet, killing a victim whose initials match the first letter of the town or municipality where they reside, leaving behind a copy of the ABC railway guide book. The killer also seems to have a thing for Poirot, because each murder is committed in a town Poirot visited.

Gone are the days of Peter Ustinov jovially munching truffles and escargot as the Belgian detective. John Malkovich’s Poirot is guilt ridden and angsty. He also has a tragic backstory no fan ever cared to ask for. Poirot should glide through life enjoying all the finer things, not waste time wallowing in self-pity.

Malkovich is excellent as the dour, depressed Poirot. This is some of his best work in years, but, ironically, he is much more entertaining preening and chewing the scenery in crummy movies like Unlocked than when offers up a rigorously disciplined performance, like his Poirot. Regardless, it is a pleasant surprise to see Rupert Grint looking and sounding like an adult as the stressed out Crome. Eamon Farren is suitably twitch and clammy as the ominous Cust, but it is just doesn’t feel right to see Tara Fitzgerald (Sirens, Hear My Song) playing her fifty-ish age as ailing matriarch Lady Hermione Clarke, Poirot’s greatest fan.

Gabassi and the design team seamlessly recreate thirties England, but fans do no want a dark and moody Poirot. They want sly elegance and a chance to vicariously enjoy the sleuth’s luxurious lifestyle. Frankly, screenwriter Sarah Phelps vastly overstates the popular following of Oswald Mosley and his fellow black shirted demagogues during the 1930s in the UK, but at least she refrains from rewriting Dame Agatha’s original ending, unlike what she did with Ordeal by Innocence. It is compelling to watch Malkovich wrestle with Poirot’s inner demons, but ABC is just too dark and didactic to satisfy admirers of Agatha Christie. Recommended only as a quick fix for British mystery addicts, The ABC Murders starts streaming next Friday (2/1), on Amazon Prime.