I’M loving John Malkovich as Poirot in The ABC Murders on BBC1, but not everyone is so entranced. The Mail on Sunday got its M&S undies in a twist over this adaptation by Sarah Phelps, accusing the supposedly pro-Remain writer of weaving anti-Brexit propaganda into her adaptation.
Phelps has form in fiddling around with Agatha Christie, having already taken murderous liberties with Ordeal By Innocence and Witness For The Prosecution, all after tinkering (superbly, as it happens) with And Then There Were None.
What Phelps does in her three-part Poirot that ends tonight is to introduce an early echo of the hostile environment towards immigration that we live with today. She does this by referencing British fascism in the 1930s and using that hostile insularity to introduce racism towards Poirot. Quite why this is anti-Brexit remains a mystery to me, if not to the Mail on Sunday.
Phelps tells the Radio Times online that she isn’t upset by the fuss, saying: “I just think people have got columns inches to fill.”
Writers often look at the past through a modern lens, and much historical fiction is written that way. Phelps could choose to write straight adaptations of Christie, but instead indulges in what you might all creative mischief. Good on her, too. The true Christie disciples might spill their cups of poisoned tea at such outrageous tinkering, but there’s no reason why these stories should be frozen in time, with every twist and notch preserved.
Anyway, John Malkovich is fantastic in the role, a growling revelation. The casting is itself a sort of joke or riff on immigration: an immigrant American is playing ‘our’ favourite immigrant Belgian detective: what a nerve.
Malkovich is much darker than David Suchet, who played Poirot for nearly 25 years over on ITV. You might have thought that Suchet had Poirot all sewn up, with his penguin-waddle and his funny little twirl of a moustache. Malkovich is darker, nastier and hemmed in by hostility, an unloved foreigner rather than a cherished one, and a man down on his luck and no longer respected for his clever ways with spotting a murderer.
The direction is dark, too: atmospheric, creepy and at times downright weird (no plot spoilers, but those shoes walking on that back, dear me). Everything looks fantastic in a gloom-drenched sort of way, and there is a winning cameo from Shirley Henderson as Rose Marbury, the world’s least appealing landlady.
Rupert Grint is rewarding too as Inspector Crome, a scowling young policeman who is initially hostile towards Poirot. The railway-timetable murders committed by the ABC killer are painted from a Grand Guignol palette that would surely have delighted Christie with its darkness, theatricality and horrifying detail.
And your views on Brexit should not colour your enjoyment of this dark delight. Not unless you are Nigel Farage; anyone know if this murderous alphabet goes as far as the letter ‘F’?