TV REVIEW- The ABC Murders: Sarah Phelps’ take on Hercule Poirot reveals a complicated past behind the facade

Since the completion of ITV’s long-running Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Sarah Phelps’ mini-series have ruled the small screen with Witness for the Prosecution, And Then There Were None and Ordeal By Innocence. These darker, psychological adaptations have been met with critique and praise alike, with Phelps’ bold writing choices controversially twisting characters and changing endings. The BBC’s retellings come with a dimmer colour palette and elaborate cinematography to match, and this version echoes modern thrillers like The Fall and Killing Eve, where the prime suspect (Eamonn Farron) is shown from the very beginning, leading the viewers on a more cat-and-mouse chase.

The ABC Murders aired on Boxing day, Phelps’ first version to star one of Christie’s most famous detectives. Considering the classic whodunnit format of the other Poirot stories, captured so well by ITV, ABC was a wise story choice for the BBC. Here, rather than a random murder within a country house full of suspects, the killer targets victims over the UK with alliterative names that live near an appropriate railway station. A sinister typewriter taps away polite messages about the crimes to Poirot, who living within an increasingly hostile atmosphere, receives them amongst racist hate-mail.

In politicising this version of Poirot, one finds the proud, clever, little man stripped of his pomp by an ungrateful public, his melodramatic act no longer considered entertaining. It’s a harsh reality, one that comments on the demonisation of refugees in Britain and acknowledges how Poirot often appears as an exotic caricature with parlour tricks and catch-phrases. This environment lends itself to the story, with A.B.C. taking offence at this ill-treatment, giving the police a puzzle that can only be solved with Hercule’s consultation.

The tall, greying stature worried me from the trailers, bringing back the memories of Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. The Hercule Poirot in that film was unrecognisable, taken entirely too seriously when the character’s ridiculousness is meant to lend itself to underestimation. Though Malkovich’s almost German accent wasn’t entirely convincing after David Suchet’s measured voice was so ingrained in my mind, he otherwise exceeded expectations with a downtrodden, solemn, Poirot to empathise with. The orderly way he tries to dye his beard epitomises how he clings to his past, but this is turned into another form of humiliation. Rupert Grint moves away from his Harry Potter days as an arrogant young Inspector, providing antagonism to establish the distrustful, xenophobic culture within the police.

I shan’t spoil any particulars of the case or the backstory because that takes the fun out of it, after all, one is sworn to secrecy after watching The Mousetrap and I think TV viewers should extend some of the same courtesy. I shall say that even if you know the story well, this is a refreshing evolution of the character, with a powerful history to justify his passion for justice. Despite the polarising Twitter comments, from my personal experience, Agatha Christie’s in-depth character studies allow for this kind of revisionism and reinterpretation, changing with the times so new surprises can allow fans of her stories to be continually shocked by the twisted minds she captured. Either way, the next project is Christie’s previously unadapted Death Comes At The End, an Egyptian mystery set in Thebes, 2000 B.C., so Sarah Phelps can continue her unconventional storytelling in less disputed territories…

 

by Fatima Sheriff

Fatima is a third year biomed at the University of Sheffield. For insight into her personality, her favourite films are: Bright Star, Paddington 2, Taare Zameen Par and Pride & Prejudice and in 2017 she listened mostly to the Hidden Figures soundtrack. Mainly she is an avid TV watcher, particularly shows with original concepts, witty writing and diverse casting. Examples include Legion, Gravity Falls, The Hour, Gilmore Girls, Sense8... and for more, her Twitter and TVShowTime are both @lafatimayette.

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