'The ABC Murders' May Have Agatha Christie Purists Frothing at the Mouth

Even nostalgia for Ziggy Stardust doesn't save a Hulu crime thriller with an earth-shattering secret, and a BBC mini-series again raises the question: Why is Agatha Christie back in vogue?

John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot in "The ABC Murders." A rather ho-hum mystery whose big reveal is likely to elicit a rather underwhelming “meh.”
BBC

What is it with David Bowie songs and TV shows? First it was “Life on Mars” (both the excellent British version and the dire U.S. remake a decade ago) and now “Hard Sun,” which finally reaches Israel (Hot HBO, Thursdays at 22:00, and Hot VOD) nearly a year after debuting in Britain and the United States.

It was not worth the wait. Writer-creator Neil Cross (best known for the “Luther” crime novels and TV series starring Idris Elba) was inspired by “Five Years,” the opening track on Bowie’s 1972 classic album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” But while that song poetically imagines the beginning of the end (“News had just come over / We had five years left to cry in / News guy wept and told us / Earth was really dying”), this pre-apocalyptic crime thriller may have you pining for an extinction-level event to make it all stop.

Agyness Deyn and Jim Sturgess in "Hard Sun." Both detectives have more baggage than your average airport terminal, but that doesn’t make them interesting. BBC One / HULU
BBC One / HULU

Jim Sturgess (“One Day”) is DCI Charlie Hicks, a thirtysomething police officer fighting crime and a dodgy London accent, neither with much success. Into his working life comes doe-eyed DI Elaine Renko (Agyness Deyn), a young police officer with a hilariously uncanny knack for calling crimes.

The most mismatched crime-fighting duo since Turner and Hooch (kids, ask your parents) unwittingly stumble upon a literally earth-shattering secret that only British intelligence knows about: The end of the world is indeed nigh, due to a mysterious event known only as Brexit – sorry, “Hard Sun.” Some nasty folk at MI5, led by Grace Morrigan (Nikki Amuka-Bird, who also starred in “Luther”), will do anything to make sure the secret never gets out, lest it trigger pandemonium around the globe and mild frustration among the British public.

Over six episodes you will hear the words “What is ‘Hard Sun’?” repeated numerous times, and it’s a question you will be asking about this misconceived show. (Despite the presence of Prof. Brian Cox, the renowned English physicist, as a consultant, the amount of actual science here is less than zero.) What seemingly starts out as a conspiracy theory thriller or disaster series (think “Deep Impact” or “2012” set solely in London – and there is no mistaking the location thanks to the 137 or so shots of the glistening Shard building, which has clearly replaced the “Gherkin” as the city’s building du jour) disappointingly morphs into something far more “Luther”-like, with various serial killers appearing and disappearing over subsequent episodes.

I’m not the world’s biggest “Luther” fan, but the first couple of seasons of that are far superior to anything on show here. There’s one potentially interesting “spree killer” storyline about someone having a very bloody crisis of faith upon returning home after trying to help refugees, but that soon becomes laughable. And just when you think you’re over the worst of the craziness, a really bonkers killer plotline (and not in a good sense) appears out of nowhere in the final episode, seemingly just to make things a bit more complicated for our quarrelsome cops.

Although Cross gives both detectives more baggage than your average airport terminal, that doesn’t make either of them interesting. Deyn is saddled with some of the clunkiest dialogue outside of a Transformers movie (“MI5, they take the truth and fold it into whatever shape they want. … It’s like, I don’t know, origami”), although she has to bow before the awfulness of this particular one: “I’m thinking that in five years this is all gone. Shakespeare and The Sex Pistols, and Mozart, Twitter, Cary Grant, the Teletubbies. It’s all gone.”

I can maybe imagine 49-year-old writer Neil Cross saying that, but not the young journalist in the show who’s forced to utter it with a straight face.

Bowie’s “Five Years” does make an appearance early on, but the show doesn’t get remotely close to matching the grandeur and artistry of that particular song. And no, in case you’re wondering, the alien messiah in “Moonage Daydream” does not make an appearance – although he wouldn’t have been the most far-fetched character here, if he did.

Ho-hum mystery

There is more conventional mystery in another British mini-series now showing on Hot VOD – “The ABC Murders,” the latest lavish adaptation of a dusty Agatha Christie novel from the BBC (following “And Then There Were None,” “The Witness for the Prosecution” and “Ordeal by Innocence”).

The biggest unsolved mystery for me is why Christie’s dated detective stories are suddenly back in vogue. Every time I walk past the theater where “The Mousetrap” is approaching its 70th year in the West End, I have the overwhelming urge to shout “He’s not really a police officer!” as tourists line up to go in. And I wanted to shout other things when I wasted two hours of my life on Kenneth Branagh’s narcissistic 2017 adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express,” but it turns out that even in Israel there are some things you can’t do in a movie theater.

I read “The ABC Murders” as a kid and have fond memories of it, but this adaptation is completely overblown and unengaging. John Malkovich stars as Hercule Poirot, although here he looks more like Michael Stipe’s dad (again kids, ask your parents) than the great Belgian detective with the famous mustache and powers of deduction.

The action (I use the term generously) is set in 1933 and is stretched out over three hour-long episodes thanks to the introduction of a completely outrageous backstory that may have Poirot purists frothing at the mouth. There are also unsubtle attempts to compare anti-immigrant attitudes in the 1930s with present-day England. For example, a frequently sighted poster at railway stations implores the public: “March for England. We must stem the alien tide. March for your country and your blood.”

Poirot himself, meanwhile, is portrayed as an unwanted and unloved foreigner, but with no real pathos (upon being told to “Piss off, Froggie,” he dejectedly responds, “Nineteen years I’ve lived here and still people think I’m French”).

Malkovich generally tries to underplay the drama, which makes for a particularly uninvolving show as our hero wrestles with demons from his wartime past in Belgium. The biggest problem, though, is that the mystery itself is all rather ho-hum and the big reveal is likely to elicit a rather underwhelming “meh” from viewers. The script by Sarah Phelps, who has become the go-to writer for Christie adaptations, strives too hard for contemporary relevance in a story that was written as a mild diversion. It’s like trying to shoehorn Shakespeare into the Teletubbies (verily, how will we cope when they’re both gone?).

The series also suffers from excessive production design. The letters from the taunting killer to Poirot are composed on a typewriter whose every keystroke sounds like an explosion as it hits the page and is depicted in fetishistic detail. It’s just one of many examples of style over substance – a problem shared by another previous Christie adaptation, “Witness for the Prosecution.”

If we must see more of these adaptations, let’s drop the period elements – steam trains, red telephone boxes and lines like “This bloke’s off his crust!” uttered by none other than Ron Weasley (parents, ask your kids) – and update the stories to the present day. It worked with Sherlock Holmes, so maybe there’s life yet for the likes of Poirot and Miss Marple as modern-day sleuths. It would be criminal to do otherwise.