Sarah Phelps does not hold Agatha Christie as sacrosanct, that much is for certain. Her fourth BBC adaptation of the Queen of Crime is, like the ones before it, a version stripped of the source material’s cozy charms. It is, in fact, her most anti-nostalgic adaptation to date, drawing distinguishable parallels between the rise of fascist movements in the 1930s to today’s tense climate, which is dominated by the Brexit conundrum. The xenophobic undercurrents in Christie’s original works are ramped up here, and her celebrated creation Hercule Poirot (played with statuesque solemnity by John Malkovich) is now a considerably weakened figure. He is older, haunted, and met with hostility by the younger generations (here represented by a scowling Rupert Grint as Scotland Yard’s new top cop). Christie did write Poirot as a man past his prime in her final novels, but The ABC Murders was written at the peak of her career, and considered one of her very best tangles. The Poirot in the book is, like Christie, hitting his stride. He is loved and admired by the world at large. He has a reason to be fastidious and eccentric, perpetually dusting off his suit and complaining about asymmetrical foods. Phelps does away with all of that. Poirot’s glory days are of no interest to her, but the books with the older, sadder Poirot are not prime Christie. So marrying the best of both worlds makes sense, and yields something of considerable interest.
Phelps reinvents Poirot for our time. She leaves the showboating to Kenneth Branagh and instead settles for a more tortured soul, living on foreign soul and feeling a stranger even in his own home. There is a new backstory to compliment this more staid interpretation, and while it will leave purists fuming, it has a ring of reason to it. A man with deep religious convictions who believes he has failed in his role would likely find another that would yield similar levels of atonement. Such a man would also seek to rid the world of the same evil he once witnessed in his past. We never hear a mention of “little grey cells,” and we must assume they exist, and that this Poirot’s mastery of detective work comes from a preternatural gift for deduction. Maybe it was God’s final gift to him when he left Belgium, and the position he was once ordained to. Phelps does not fill in the lines, nor does she really need to. Enough is left unsaid for us to imagine these things.
The plot is a relatively faithful reflection of the novel, without any drastic changes like in Phelps’ previous effort Ordeal by Innocence. The most noticeable difference is that some of the characters are more unpleasant—a Phelpsian penchant, apparently, as this is nothing new. She affords no one a happy ending. As always, we leave these people in more or less the same way we’re introduced to them: sad, sour, and trapped in miseries of their own making. I suppose it’s a fool’s errand to wish for a less misanthropic outlook in whichever adaptation Phelps helms next (I hear she is sitting out the next one, which will be the first-ever filmed version of Christie’s only mystery set in Ancient Egypt). These grittier interpretations of Christie do not always have to teem with horrible personalities. Even the victims deserve to be pitied, at least. Here, few of them seem worth our pity. Some of them barely exist as characters, while others (like the second victim, a flirtatious young waitress) are far more loathsome than they ought to be. When the mystery centers particularly on the deaths of innocent people by a presumed madman, the fact that they’re not very nice in their own right makes you wonder why you should even care. That’s something Phelps could work on. Realism and empathy are not mutually exclusive.
What works, though, is that her Poirot is a compelling figure. We follow him no matter how cold and cruel the mystery is. John Malkovich brings the requisite gravitas and accent, and we’re off to the races, watching with rapt attention as he goes to work. The mustache and the preening are left behind for something fresher and bolder, and the risk is worthwhile. I only bemoan the fact that Malkovich will never reprise the role again.