Boxing Day. “Poirot’s on”, someone older, closer to the Quality Street, and more comfortably sat in the living room tells you. And as you hear the words your thumb automatically ghosts over your remote, Ouija style, as you recall what channel number ITV3 is, while in your ‘little grey cells’ a whole search engine of images pop up, all of them of David Suchet. The only difference between them is that sometimes he’s wearing a hat.
And who could blame you? Poirot on film is its own experimental beast, right down to the moustache (looking at you, Sir Ken) but Poirot on TV? That’s Suchet’s domain, staked out across 14 years and 70 episodes. The man owns it.
But wait! Poirot’s on, and it’s not a channel with ads, and it’s not Suchet. It’s BBC One, and another of the glamorous Agatha Christie adaptations which began with 2015’s superb ‘And Then There Were None‘ (followed by 2016’s ‘Witness For The Prosecution‘ and then the delayed ‘Ordeal by Innocence’). This year, in its otherwise timid festive schedule, the Beeb’s gambling big and giving the famous detective a new, famous face.
John Malkovich, eh? An impressively big name, but not your obvious pick for the famous Belgian detective. But it works really rather well. So much so that after a couple of minutes you start to forget that it’s him and fall into the character. Even the accent is good – only the odd elongated vowel reminding you of his role as Pascal Sauvage in ‘Johnny English‘.
Screenwriter Sarah Phelps, whose take on Christie’s stories has brought a whole new audience to them, has made this Poirot an interesting construction; distanced from what readers and viewers have come to expect without sacrificing the core components of the character. His best days are behind him and now he cuts a lonely, troubled figure. The sense of isolation is quickly intensified early on when his old chum Japp (Kevin McNally) conks out among his cabbages. Stranded between his former life and a darkening future, Malkovich brilliantly encapsulates Poirot’s quiet determination in the face of his own weariness and the world’s hate.
And there’s a lot of hate being thrown Hercule’s way, with his character receiving ‘Foreigners? Boo!’ mail on a daily basis. It’s the tip of a xenophobia-focused streak running through this adaptation, with Phelps keen to highlight any possible parallel to Brexit, Trump, and modern Western politics in Stabilo Boss Yellow, to the point where the story has even been shunted back two years so the rise of the British Union of Fascists can be included.
There are inflammatory posters on the streets, racist landladies, and even a sign that his reluctant partner Inspector Crome (an excellent and almost unrecognisable Rupert Grint) may be a nationalist, as he tells the Belgian, ‘People don’t like it when the force are made to look like halfwits by a foreigner’. Some will hate this attempt to connect two points in time. Some won’t. It might be 50-50. Or 48-52. Frankly, it’s such a toxic issue on both sides right now that it’s amazing Phelps approached it at all. Thankfully it doesn’t poison an otherwise intriguing story.
Poirot’s chief foe isn’t someone waving a flag; it’s the mysterious killer ABC, taunting him via typewriter with grisly alphabetical murders. Right from the start you’re meant to put the finger on the unfortunately named Alexander Bonaparte Cust. It even spells it out for you on screen, which seems unnecessary hand-holding. Thin, uneasy and wide-eyed, Eamon Farren’s Cust looks almost alien in every situation he’s placed in: the dim boarding house, the cafe, the bar. From the first shot of him he is painted as the outsider, the culprit. A Bad Character. A Bloody Criminal. Awkwardly Blundering Chap. You get the gist.
In fact, we almost spend too much time on Cust. So much that it feels like a well-constructed bluff designed to take our attention away from the Clarke family and their troubles. That’s easy to forgive when the puzzle we’re presented with comes in such lovely wrapping.
For it looks terrific, in line with the BBC’s previous adaptations, but it’s not the stately homes and Art Deco cocktail lounges of Hercule’s heyday. Grime and claustrophobic gloom have replaced glamour, with carefully curated dismal shades of teal or tobacco yellow haunting the lens of many shots. This isn’t a world Suchet’s Poirot would dip his neatly-waxed moustache in, but based on ‘The ABC Murders’ strong start it’s one that the audience will. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Malkovich and his beard at another Christmas in the future.
Contributed by Rob Smedley
The ABC Murders Continues Tomorrow at 9.00pm and Concludes on Friday at 9.00pm.