“THE A.B.C. MURDERS” (2018) Review

“THE A.B.C. MURDERS” (2008) Review

Years ago, I had once compiled a list of my favorite novels written by Agatha Christie. One of those novels was her 1936 mystery, “The A.B.C. Murders”. The novel led to a movie adaptation, a radio adaptation and two television adaptations. One of the latter was the three-part miniseries that was adapted by Sarah Phelps for the BBC.

“THE A.B.C. MURDERS” is a rare tale from Christie. In it, Belgian-born sleuth Hercule Poirot helps Scotland Yard investigate a possible serial killer named “A.B.C.”. The killer uses this moniker in the letters sent to Poirot before committing a murder; and leaves an ABC railway guide beside each victim. Although there are several mysteries written by Christie that features more than one victim, “THE A.B.C. MURDERS” marked the first of two times in which the victims have nothing in common whatsoever.

Phelps made some significant changes to Christie’s novel. One, this version omitted Captain Arthur Hastings from the plot. I found this incredible, considering Hastings had served as the first-person narrator for the 1936 novel. Chief Inspector Japp made an appearance, but his character was killed off via a heart attack in the miniseries’ first episode and Poirot found himself working solely with Inspector Chrome, who was also in the novel. The Mary Drower character, who was related to the first victim, Alice Ascher, was also eliminated. Phelps made changes to the Donald Fraser and Thora Grey characters. Phelps included more detail than Christie in the story’s Doncaster murder and added a fifth murder (at Embsay) to the story. She also added a romance for the Alexander Bonaparte Cust character in the form of his landlady’s daughter. Phelps explored and changed Poirot’s World War I backstory. She also made sure that the first three murder locations had some relevance to Poirot. He had helped deliver a baby aboard a refugee train that stopped in Andover. He had visited the Bexhill café where the second victim, Betty Barnard, would later work. And he had once attended a party at the home of Sir Carmichael Clarke, the third victim.

I was surprised at how beautiful the miniseries’ production looked. Although the novel was first published in 1936, Phelps had decided to set her adaptation in 1933. I thought Jeff Tessler’s production designs did a superb job in re-creating 1933 England. A beautiful job. And his work was supported by Joel Devlin’s excellent photography, which struck me as colorful and sharp; along with Andrew Lavin and Karen Roch’s excellent art direction. Another aspect of “THE A.B.C. MURDERS” that impressed me were Lindsay Pugh’s costume designs. I thought she did an excellent job in creating costumes for characters that varied in both class and gender in 1933 Britain. This also included costumes for characters that were impacted by the Great Depression, regardless of class.

When it comes to Sarah Phelps’ adaptations of Agatha Christie novels, I have mixed views. I really enjoyed her 2015 adaptation of Christie’s 1939 novel, “And Then There Were None”. I cannot say the same about her adaptation of the author’s two other stories, “Witness For the Prosecution” and Ordeal By Innocence”. How did I feel about “THE A.B.C. MURDERS”? I am very grateful that Phelps had basically stuck to Christie’s main narrative from the 1936 novel. Unlike “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE”, she did not completely revise the narrative by changing the murderer’s identity or motive. And unlike “WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION”, she did not change the fate of the story’s main protagonist.

However, there were a few changes that I liked. One, she included more detail into the story’s fourth murder at Doncaster . . . at least more detail than Christie did. In doing so, she prevented this part of the narrative from being irrelevant. And two, she included a fifth murder. Phelps did not have to do this, but I thought it filled the narrative rather nicely. I noticed that the movie went out of its way to get rid of both Arthur Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp. I thought I would be upset about this, but . . . I was not. Their lack of presence did not harm the narrative. More importantly, it allowed Poirot’s relationship with Japp’s replacement, the slightly xenophobic Inspector Crome to develop from a conflict to a working relationship with a hint of a possible friendship. This did not bother me since Poirot had to deal with a hostile Crome in the novel. And I feel that Phelps’ portrayal of their relationship was better handled in this miniseries.

Unfortunately, Phelps used minor changes in the story to continue her campaign to make her Christie adaptations more edgy and angst-filled. These minor changes included transforming the Donald Fraser character into this publicity hound trying to profit from the death of his fiancée, Betty Barnard. What was the purpose of this change? To criticize those who try to profit from the death of others via publicity? I found this irrelevant and unnecessary to the story. The miniseries also featured a potential romance between stocking salesman Alexander Bonaparte Cust and his landlady’s daughter, Lily Marbury. In the novel, Lily was Cust’s friend and nothing more. For some reason, Phelps thought it was necessary to create a romance in order to convey the idea of Lily walking on his back in heels as a means to release some psycho-sexual need to remove his pain. What was the point of this? To make Cust more interesting? What really irritated me was how Phelps changed the character of one of the supporting character by making that person knowledgeable of the killer’s identity long before Poirot . . . and an accessory. Why? To make that character more interesting perhaps? It made me realize that this change made it easier for viewers to identify the killer before Poirot’s revelation.

The movie made one last change that I disliked . . . Poirot’s personal background. Christie had indicated in many of her novels and short stories that before becoming a private detective, Poirot was a police officer in Belgium. For reasons that still astound me, Phelps had changed Poirot’s background from former police detective to Catholic priest. Worse, she had created this mystery surrounding some major trauma during World War I that led him to leave the Church and become a crime fighter. What on earth? The problem with this character arc is that it had nothing to do with the main narrative. It played no role in Poirot’s discovery and revelation of the actual killer.

I will say this about “THE A.B.C. MURDERS”. It did feature some excellent performances, save for one. John Malkovich was the second American actor to portray Hercule Poirot, the first being Tony Randall in 1965. I found his Gallic accent slightly questionable. But I still admire his portrayal of the Belgian-born detective and found it refreshingly subtle without any theatrics or histronics. Many have complained about Malkovich portraying the most dour Poirot on screen. I do not agree. The actor did an excellent job of conveying Poirot’s grief over Japp’s death, his weariness from the never ending encounters of British xenophobia and his personal ghosts from World War I. But I never regarded his Poirot as “dour”. Frankly, I found David Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot in the 2010 television movie, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” rather depressing. I thought Rupert Grint gave the second best performance as the slightly xenophobic Inspector Crome of Scotland Yard. I have a confession. I have always been impressed by Grint as an actor and at times, thought the HARRY POTTER franchise did not provide any real opportunities for him to convey his skills, aside from one particular movie. But I was really impressed by how he had conveyed Crome’s journey from an angry and narrow-minded police officer to someone more open-minded, less angry and more willing to trust Poirot.

There were other performances from “THE A.B.C. MURDERS” that impressed me. Eamon Farren gave a first-rate performance as the beleaguered Alexander Bonaparte Cust, a bedraggled traveling salesman who seemed to suffer from epileptic seizures. Anya Chalotra struck me as equally impressive in her portrayal of Lily Marbury, the daughter of Cust’s landlady, who has been forced by the latter to prostitute herself for extra money. Tara Fitzgerald gave a very emotional performance as Lady Hermione Clarke, the ailing widow of the killer’s third victim, Sir Carmichael Clarke. I could also say the same about Bronwyn James’ portrayal of Megan Barnard, the sister of the second victim, Betty Barnard. James did an excellent job of conveying Megan’s initial infatuation of Betty’s fiancé, Donald Fraser and her jealousy. I found Eve Austin’s portrayal of the shallow yet flirtatious Betty rather skillful and memorable. Freya Mayor gave an interesting and complex performance as Sir Carmichael’s ambitious secretary Thora Grey. And Andrew Buchan seemed to be the personification of the literary Franklin Clarke, the sexually charming, yet eager younger brother of Sir Carmichael. The miniseries also featured first-rate performances from Jack Farthing as Donald Fraser, Michael Shaeffer as Sergeant Yelland, Lizzy McInnerny as Betty’s mother, Mrs. Barnard, Christopher Villiers as Sir Carmichael Clarke and Kevin R. McNally as Japp. If I could name one performance that I found unsatisfying, it would Shirley Henderson’s portrayal of Cust’s landlady, Rose Marbury. I found her performance rather theatrical and filled with too many exaggerated mannerisms.

I did not dislike “THE A.B.C. MURDERS”, but I did not love it. There are aspects of it that I admired, including the production’s visual style, writer-producer Sarah Phelps’ adherence to the story’s main narrative and an excellent cast led by John Malkovich. But I also feel that Phelps had added too many unnecessary minor changes to some of the characters and the story. And I suspect that she did this in another attempt to relive the glory of 2015’s “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE”. The 1939 novel was a rare creation of Christie’s. If Phelps wants to write and produce another mystery on that level, I suggest she consider adapting a novel from another writer . . . perhaps P.D. James. Or she should consider creating her own mystery.

 

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