“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.

 

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1600s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1600s: 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1600s

1. “The Man in the Iron Mask” (1977) – Richard Chamberlain starred in this entertaining, yet loose television adaptation of Alexandre Dumas père’s 1847-1850 serialized novel, “The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later”. William Bast directed.

2. “The Musketeers” (2014-2016) – Adrian Hodges created this television series that was based upon the characters from Alexandre Dumas père’s 1844 novel, “The Three Musketeers”. The series starred Tom Burke, Santiago Cabrera, Howard Charles and Luke Pasqualino.

3. “Shōgun” (1980) – Richard Chamberlain starred in this award winning adaptation of James Clavell’s 1975 novel about an English sea captain stranded in early 17th century Japan. Co-starring Toshiro Mifune and Yoko Shimada, the miniseries was directed by Jerry London.

4. “The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders” (1996) – Alex Kingston starred in this adaptation of Daniel Dafoe’s 1722 novel about the fortunes of an English criminal named Moll Flanders. Adapted by Andrew Davies, the miniseries was directed by David Attwood.

5. “By the Sword Divided” (1983-1985) – John Hawkesworth created this historical drama about he impact of the English Civil War on the fictional Lacey family during the mid-17th century. The series included Julian Glover and Rosalie Crutchley.

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6. “The First Churchills” (1969) – John Neville and Susan Hampshire stared in this acclaimed miniseries about the life of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough and his wife, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. David Giles directed.

7. “Lorna Doone” (1990) – Polly Walker, Sean Bean and Clive Owen starred in this 1990 adaptation of R.D. Blackmore’s 1869 novel. Andrew Grieve directed.

8. “The Return of the Musketeers” (1989) – Richard Lester directed this adaptation of Alexandre Dumas pere‘s 1845 novel, “Twenty Years After”. Michael York, Oliver Reed and Kim Cattrall starred.

9. “Lorna Doone” (2000-01) – Amelia Warner, Richard Coyle and Aiden Gillen starred in this 2000-01 adaptation of R.D. Blackmore’s 1869 novel. Mike Barker directed.

10. “Jamestown” (2017-present) – Bill Gallagher created this television series about the creation of the Jamestown colony in the early 17th century. Naomi Battrick, Sophie Rundle and Niamh Walsh starred.

Five Favorite Episodes of “THE MUSKETEERS” Season One (2014)

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Below is a list of my five favorite episodes from Season One of “THE MUSKETEERS”, the BBC’s historical action-drama based on Alexandre Dumas, père‘s 1844 novel. Created by Adrian Hodges, the series stars Tom Burke, Santiago Cabrera, Howard Charles and Luke Pasqualino:

FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “THE MUSKETEERS” SEASON ONE (2014)

1 - 1.09 Knight Takes Queen

1. (1.09) “Knight Takes Queen” – Musketeers Aramis and Athos are forced to protect Queen Anne from assassins hired by Cardinal Richelieu at a convent, after King Louis XIII expressed disillusion with the Queen’s inability to have children. Meanwhile, Porthos and d’Artangnan race back to Paris to gather more Musketeers to come to their aid.

2 - 1.06 Exiles

2. (1.06) “The Exiles” – Aramis and d’Artagnan try to protect a young woman and her baby, who are sought by armed men. Both mother and child are sought by both Cardinal Richelieu and the King’s treacherous the exiled Marie de’ Medici. Tara Fitzgerald and Amy Nuttall guest starred.

3 - 1.10 Musketeers Dont Die Easily

3. (1.10) “Musketeers Don’t Die Easily” – In the season finale, a rift develops between d’Artangnan and Athos, when the latter in a state of drunkenness takes his estranged wife Milady de Winter hostage and learns about her brief affair with the younger Musketeer.

4 - 1.05 The Homecoming

4. (1.05) “The Homecoming” – A drunken Porthos is framed for murder in his old neighborhood, Paris’ Court of Miracles slum. When his three colleagues seek to exonerate him, they stumble across a real estate conspiracy regarding the neighborhood.

5 - 1.02 Sleight of Hand

5. (1.02) “Sleight of Hand” – The Musketeers engineer d’Artagnan’s imprisonment in a cell with a notorious criminal named Vadim. The latter has a plan to use the visiting Queen Anne to escape and start a revolution. But his plans proved to be more criminal than political. Jason Flemyng guest starred.

“THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” (2004) Review

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“THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” (2004) Review

I might as well say it. Agatha Christie’s 1942 novel, “The Body in the Library” has never been a particularly favorite of mine. Nor have I ever been that fond of the 1984 television adaptation that starred Joan Hickson. So, when ITV aired another adaptation of the novel, I was not that eager to watch it. But I did. 

“THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” proved to be a slightly complicated tale that begins with the discovery of a dead body in the library of Gossington Hall, the home of Colonel Arthur and Dolly Bantry. The body turns out to be a peroxide blonde in her late teens with heavy make-up and dressed in a satin gown. The police, led by Colonel Melchett, Chief Constable of the County, first suspects a local St. Mary Mead citizen named Basil Blake, who has clashed with Colonel Bantry in the past. However, Colonel Melchett discovers there is a living, breathing peroxide blonde in Blake’s life named Dinah Lee. Superintendent Harper of the Glenshire police becomes a part of the investigation, when he reveals the identity of the corpse as eighteen year-old Ruby Keene, a professional dancer who worked at the Majestic Hotel Resort in Danemouth. Ruby’s body is identified by her cousin Josie Turner, another professional dancer at the Majestic.

While both Colonel Melchett and Superintendent Harper investigate Ruby’s death, Dolly Bantry recruit her old friend and neighbor, Jane Marple to conduct her own investigation. Both the police and Miss Marple discover that another old friend of the Bantrys – a wealthy guest named Conway Jefferson, had reported Ruby’s disappearance. During the last year of World War II, Jefferson’s son and daughter were killed during a V-1 attack; leaving him physically handicapped and his son-in-law Mark Gaskell and daughter-in-law Adelaide Jefferson widowed. Since her arrival at the Majestic Hotel, Ruby had grown close to Jefferson. Their relationship led the latter to consider adopting Ruby and leaving her his money, instead of his in-laws. But despite their strong motives, both Mark and Adalaide had alibis during Ruby’s murder. Also more suspects and another corpse – a sixteen year-old Girl Guide – appear, making the case even more complicated.

Kevin Elyot’s screenplay featured changes from Christie’s 1942 novel. Like many “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE”movies, “THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” is set during the 1950s. Certain characters from the novel, including Miss Marple’s old friend Sir Henry Clithering, were eliminated. Jefferson’s family is killed during World War II by a V2 rocket, instead of in a plane crash. Jefferson’s son and Mark Gaskell were RAF pilots. And one of the murderers’ identity was changed, leading to an even bigger change that will remained unrevealed by me. But do to Elyot’s well-written screenplay and Andy Wilson’s colorful direction, the changes did not affect my enjoyment of the movie. And that is correct. I enjoyed“THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” very much. Mind you, I did not find it perfect. Following the killers’ revelation, there was a scene in which the latter were being booked by the police that I found a bit silly and over dramatic. Also, a part of me wished that Miss Marple’s exposure of the killers could have occurred in their presence and in the presence of the other suspects. But . . . considering the circumstances and emotions behind the two murders, I could understand why Elyot did not.

“THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” proved to be one of the most colorful and lively Miss Marple productions I have ever come across. And I find this ironic, considering my feelings for the original novel and the 1984 television movie. First of all, I have to give credit where it is due – namely to director Andy Wilson. Not only did his direction infuse a good deal of energy and style into a story I had previously dismissed as dull. More importantly, he maintained a steady pace that prevented me from falling asleep in front of the television screen. Martin Fuhrer’s photography of the British locations in Buckinghamshire and East Essex certainly added to the movie’s colorful look. Production designer Jeff Tessler did an excellent job of re-creating the look and color of a seaside British resort in the 1950s. But the one aspect of movie’s production that really impressed me were the movie’s costumes designed by Phoebe De Gaye. They . . . were . . . beautiful. Especially the women’s costumes.

The performances were first rate. “THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” proved to be Geraldine McEwan’s first time at the bat as Miss Jane Marple. Ironically, the 1984 version of this story proved to be the first time Joan Hickson portrayed the elderly sleuth. And like Hickson, McEwan immediately established her own style as the soft-spoken, yet uber-observant Jane Marple, by injecting a bit of eccentric behavior and habits into the mix. Joanna Lumley gave a deliciously vibrant performance as Miss Marple’s close friend, Dolly Bantry, who gets caught up in the murder investigation and the glamour of the Majestic Hotel’s atmosphere. Ian Richardson struck the right emotional note as the physically disabled Conway Jefferson, who re-focused his feelings upon the doomed Ruby Keene, after years of dealing with the loss of his family. Both Simon Callow and Jack Davenport gave funny performances as the two police officials in charge of the case – the occasionally haughty Colonel Melchett and the sardonic Superintendent Harper. Mary Stockley gave a subtle performance as Ruby’s cousin, the no-nonsense Josie Turner, who has to deal with the death of a close relative. Jamie Theakston had a great moment in a scene that featured Mark Gaskell’s conversation with Miss Marple about his character’s difficulties in dealing with the loss of his wife and friends during the war and his financial difficulties since. Tara Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Jefferson’s daughter-in-law, Adelaide, struck me as warm and very sympathetic. Ben Miller did a great job in portraying the colorful, yet slightly pathetic personality of Suspect Number One Basil Blake. And James Fox had a small role in “THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY”, but he did a very good job in conveying Arthur Bantry’s embarrassment over the discovery in his library and the gossip directed at him.

The flaws featured in “THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY” struck me as minimal, in compare to the movie’s virtues. More importantly, Andy Wilson’s direction and Kevin Elyot’s screenplay infused an energy into this adaptation that seemed to be lacking not only in the 1984 movie, but also in Christie’s novel. This might prove to be one of my favorite Miss Marple movies to feature the always talented Geraldine McEwan.