John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot is a True Mystery
It’s clear that the looming threat of Brexit has taken its toll on British exports, even extending to that hallowed cultural institution, the Agatha Christie TV mystery. The three-part BBC series The ABC Murders (now streaming on Amazon.com) stars John Malkovich as detective Hercule Poirot, a casting choice that’s less ABC and more WTF?
As it turns out, Malkovich disappears into the part. Unfortunately, so does Poirot. Christie’s charming, cuddly Belgian is unrecognizable in this aging, lumbering sad-sack. The once-great gumshoe has long since been reduced to hosting murder-mystery parties for rich dilletantes. His old amis on the police force have either retired or keeled over. Even his trademark flamboyant facial hair is sullied by cheap dye. Christie’s Poirot always enjoyed the finer things in life; his fastidious Continental tastes and mannerisms distinguished him in his adopted homeland. But this Poirot doesn’t seem to enjoy much of anything. He’s a world-weary Raymond Chandler shamus rather than an impish pot-stirrer. In fact, casting the reliably weird Malkovich as this dour, haunted has-been must have seemed like a no-brainer.
When a newspaper headline laments the “new and cruel age,” Poirot sighs: “Such vapid nostalgia for the gentle past. Cruelty is not new.” It’s a fitting sentiment for a historical drama that refuses to romanticize history, however much we viewers might want to escape the cruel present. Indeed, it seems to have been the guiding mantra for the filmmakers, who were also responsible for recent reboots of Christie’s And Then There Were None and Ordeal By Innocence that pushed past the chocolate-box prettiness often accorded the author to lay bare her heart of darkness. But those adaptations had visual flair and acerbic wit. The ABC Murders plods relentlessly and grimly, like its protagonist. Surely, there’s a happy medium between vapid nostalgia and the gritty realism of, say, The Wire.
A Particularly Corny Serial Killer
It’s an odd disconnect for this especially contrived and tidy Christie tale, concerning a serial killer who picks his victims according to the alphabet: Alice Ascher in Andover, Betty Barnard in Bexhill, and so on. He leaves railway guides open to the pages corresponding to the letter next to the bodies, just in case the theme wasn’t already explicitly clear, and literally telegraphs his murderous intentions to Poirot in advance. Much of the plot concerns Poirot’s attempts to convince a snarling, Brylcreemed young police inspector (Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint) to take the case—and the washed-up detective himself—seriously.
All the evidence points to a traveling salesman (Eamon Farren) with the initials A.B.C., a penchant for conveniently timed epileptic blackouts, and kinks kinky enough to shock even his landlady’s daughter, whom she rents out along with her dingy rooms. His guilt is so patently obvious (to the viewer, anyhow) that it’s clear from the get-go that it can’t possibly be him. But it’s hard to care about who the real killer is when the victims are uniformly unsympathetic. The story introduces the actual villain much too late to generate any suspense.
Nevertheless, you can see why this particular Christie novel must have seemed ripe for repackaging for the Brexit generation. She published it in 1936. It contains a timely undercurrent of rising fascism and immigrant-bashing that Poirot—who came to England as a World War I refugee in the novels—can’t help taking personally. “It’s not you,” a snooty neighbor reassures him when he side-eyes the British Union of Fascists pin on her lapel. “It’s the others—the ones that breed like flies.” Then as now, only certain immigrants were undesirable, even though the white men commit the most heinous crimes. As if to explain Poirot’s surliness, the series invents a secret scandal and a tragic backstory, complete with flashbacks to the German invasion of Belgium. It’s an unnecessary flourish; the past is never gentle. It’s not even past.