The ABC Murders episode 1 review: a chilly, compelling Poirot mystery

John Malkovich is Poirot in the latest BBC Christmas Agatha Christie adaptation by Sarah Phelps. Spoilers ahead in our episode 1 review...

This review contains spoilers.

Hurray! The BBC has treated us once again this Christmas to a bleak and chilly Agatha Christie adaption over three parts. There’s really no reason why such fare should seem to fit so perfectly with the festive season (unless you’ve just had a three hour fight over the remote control with less keen family members and have considered committing murder yourself) but it absolutely continues to work in this first episode of the Poirot mystery The ABC Murders.

Except, once again, a bit of deft adapting has brought a new perspective to a story that many might already think of as one of the strongest of the Suchet Poirots. But time has moved on for this take. Poirot is old and lonely, played with a tired watchfulness by John Malkovich. It’s not all as depressing as that sounds; there are hints of the humour and vanity that have made Poirot so entertaining in the past, and a few flashes of deductive reasoning that make us think that the famed abilities are still intact. And, of course, he remains an expert in the field of murder-mystery.

The twist is that Poirot lives in a version of England that hates experts. The year is 1933 and the British Union of Fascists is growing in power. Signs are posted on every dingy brick wall proclaiming the need to take back control and put Britain first and so on – nobody wants to be told what to do by some foreigner; yes, this is uncomfortable viewing, and writer Sarah Phelps (who also adapted And Then There Were None and The Witness For The Prosecution for earlier festive Christie viewing) creates a setting that feels downright hostile while drawing careful parallels with modern events. There are some powerful moments when we witness discrimination against Poirot in action, and see that tired, shuttered expression creep over his face. His distaste for such stupidity in people has remained, but he has grown weary of trying to fight it. His brilliance is no longer enough.

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If you can’t tell already, I really liked Malkovich as Poirot, although I can see how his performance might well divide opinion. The accent in particular is most interesting; there’s a hint of something continental about it, but Malkovich’s instantly recognisable accent also remains in place, creating a strange hybrid that persuades me as much as his mannerisms of a man out of place, who seems to belong nowhere. Living alone, he waits for the postman and receives fan mail, hate mail – and disturbing letters from a man who is getting up the courage to commit murder and wants Poirot to know all about it.

Then the murders start. They follow a pattern. The first victim is Alice Asher, in Andover. The second victim is Betty Barnard, in Bexhill. Does this murderer mean to exhaust the alphabet? His motivation is unknown to us, but we’ve already seen his face and followed his actions. Setting up his typewriter in a shabby boarding house, coveting young women and obsessing over his plans, he’s a stocking salesman called Cust. Played by Eamon Farren, Cust is a creepy and involving figure. Emotions pass easily across his face and he looks very young at times, but is never less than sinister. We don’t see him commit any of the murders, but watch him interact with his victims before he strikes. They belittle him and end up with their throats cut, or strangled to death by one of his stockings. The deaths, then seen afterwards through the eyes of Poirot, are horribly vivid.

Although Cust is a great character it’s actually Poirot’s relationship with the police force that intrigued me the most in this opening episode, due in no small part to Rupert Grint’s performance as Inspector Crome. Crome makes no secret of despising Poirot, and it would be easy to view him as a fool because of this. But Grint plays him as an intelligent man who is bitter, jaded by his own experiences. We’ll have to wait to find out if his hostility towards Poirot – whom he views as a charlatan who has lied about his own past – can slowly thaw. Will they become a crime-solving duo? Something in the atmosphere makes me really doubt it, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

Speaking of atmosphere: this adaptation has it. Director Alex Gabassi has brought a stylish, suspenseful feel to the script that reminded me times of Hitchcock in the use of the colours red and yellow as splashes of danger in an otherwise washed-out world, and the sudden change of angle at times. For instance, there was a great sequence towards the end of this episode dealing with one Sir Carmichael Clarke (potential victim alert) and his family. With his wife seriously ill, his over-friendly personal secretary was asked to telephone the doctor. She hesitated over the phone; the extreme camera angle looked up at her indecision and at the stairwell behind her, the lines of the banisters reflecting the web of deceit in which she found herself. Fabulous stuff.  

I’m looking forward to lots more of this style, and a continuation of strong performances, in the next two episodes. With the identity of the murderer in no doubt the question becomes: how will he be caught? This is warming up to be both a battle of intellects and a study of alienation. Bleak, chilly stuff, yes, but compelling.

The ABC Murders is now available to stream in the US on Amazon Prime Video.