The ABC of Brilliance

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Every now and again you come across an acting performance so good it takes your breath away. This has just happened to me, and not in the least where I expected it. Hollywood blockbuster? Indie movie? Nope, it was a quiet, dark TV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders which aired on the BBC over the Christmas/New Year holiday.

I didn’t get a chance to watch it then but recorded the three episodes, not because I was particularly looking forward to it but because it was Christie, and crime, and well… why not? My main concern was that they’d cast John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot, which seemed like a decision so odd as to border on insanity. And indeed I saw several reviews of the series which said he was terrible, wooden, emotionless, and pretty much every other negative adjective you could think of. So I wasn’t expecting much. Until I started watching the first episode.

I last read the book over 30 years ago and couldn’t remember much about it, beyond the basic plot points and characters. The deaths, the typed letters sent to Poirot, the trail that seemed to follow the letters of the alphabet. So when those same reviews mentioned that the new series had strayed massively off-piste from Christie’s novel, I wasn’t too bothered. And apart from one or two suggestions of er, unusual sexual preferences and one kinky sex scene that I could quite easily have done without, I honestly couldn’t see where the joins were. If the writer, Sarah Phelps, did make wholesale changes, I didn’t spot them and the main storyline seemed to follow events in the book pretty closely. It was dark, it was gritty, it was gripping, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

But the revelation, and the element that will stay with me long after I’ve forgotten the rest of it, was Malkovich’s performance. It was absolutely brilliant. He didn’t need to be overly emotional, to shout and scream and rave or chew holes in the scenery to get his message across. It was all in his eyes, his demeanour, his utterly believable quiet dignity, and it packed a punch that walloped me right between the eyes. In the process, he turned Poirot from a borderline caricature, ‘funny little man with a moustache’, into a hurting, driven human being. And he’s the first actor I’ve ever seen who’s managed that.

I won’t give away the plot because of spoilers, and because I’m recommending watching the series if you haven’t seen it yet. There were one or two niggles towards the end, and I was left wondering how Poirot had worked out some of the details that it didn’t seem he could have known about. (I will just mention the backgammon.) But overall this was top-class drama and a fascinating adaptation of a much-loved classic. And if Malkovich doesn’t get a Bafta for his performance I’ll be very cross!

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