The Agatha Christie bus is well and truly back in service this year with Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express adaptation just behind us. Christie enthusiasts have another gem lurking in the shadows, this time in the form of Crooked House, one of Christie’s own favourite novels and one, quite surprisingly, which has never been adapted for the screen before.
Christie’s venture into a darker more twisted murder mystery is adapted by Downtown Abbey’s Julian Fellowes as well as Tim Rose Price, and its French director, Gilles Paquet Brenner, gives his own pinch of French spice to the novel which was originally based in the 40’s. Paquet Brenner shifts the tone by placing us in 1957 on the cusp of a society shift and layering its visual power angle into a modern classic Agatha Christie noir offering.
“It’s right after the Suez Canal Crisis which was an important time in your country. It’s also the beginning of Rock n’ Roll and there was a huge society shift and a sort of rift between younger and older generations, I thought it was a very interesting time to explore in the film.” – Gilles Paquet Brenner.
Crooked House has gone through a few changes, from the very outset, this still has most of the Christie hallmarks, from its upper-class murder suspects to its sprawling country house. The one difference comes from the stories private detective, Charles Heyward (Max Irons), struggling, wet behind the ears and seemingly out of his death even though he has previously worked for MI6, he is called upon by his former lover Sophia (Stephanie Martini) to investigate her wealthy Greek grandfather’s, Aristide Leonides, suspicious death. Although there is clearly a conflict of interest, Charles has no other choice but to take the case on.
“I think Agatha Christie, by its very nature, would appeal to a modern audience. Look, you’re never going to draw the crowds that want to watch 3 hours of Avengers, but you are going to draw a crowd who are perhaps interested in traditional kinds of cinema where the shift of an eye means a lot, or where cinematography comes into play and stories are told far more subtly and slowly. Christie has endured and is made into TV and films so much because they are finely crafted and finely engineered pieces of work.” – Max Irons
On his arrival, Charles is met with a frosty reception from a household of Leonides family members as he tackles the unenviable task of questioning the family. All of the family suffer from bouts of bitterness, jealousy and resentment, but all with one thing in common, a complete indifference to the matriarch’s death.
Alongside, Sophia is her Father Philip (Julian Sands), his alcoholic lush and failed actress of a wife Magda (Gillian Anderson) and her siblings Eustace (Preston Nyman), who hates everyone in typical teenage fashion, and the bored and inquisitive Josephine (Honor Kneafsey) who likes to play Holmes to Charles’s Watson.
The family doesn’t stop there, we also have Sophia’s uncle Roger (Christian Mckay), Aristides favourite child who is completely useless in running a business, his icy queen of a wife, scientist Clemency (Amanda Abington), the formidably frightening but with a heart of gold aunt Lady Edith de Haviland (Glenn Close), Aristides much younger fragile American widow Brenda (Christina Hendricks) and her secret lover and tutor Laurence (John Heffernan).
“It was incredibly great [to work alongside Glenn Close]; I get to pay a detective so I get to watch. The lesson, that we all know, in theory, but in practice, it’s another matter [as young actors], that less is more, it’s all in the brain, it’s all in the eyes, that’s about it. If you have those thoughts it shines through. With someone like Glen, There is a dinner scene, she does nothing, but does everything. The rest of us are acting our socks off, and consequently overdoing it but all you want to watch is Glen, so it’s a real reminder. It was a real treat.” – Max Irons
Residing under the same roof, each part of the family are sectioned off into their own private residential rooms, ones that are decorated in such a way to reflect the personalities of each character. The use of well placed, vibrant colours, from hairstyles to the women’s costumes signifies certain traits of each character, from Sophia’s red dress of confidence verging on a modern woman with an element of danger too, Brenda’s bubbling pink to give her an air of innocence. The fine detailing is as important in telling the story as the narrative.
“I prefer it that she is this self-driven, quite controversial woman who just needs to get this sorted out and does it despite what anyone else thinks” – Stefanie Martini
As with any Murder Mystery, Crooked House doesn’t come without its clichéd moments, it builds on a simmering temperature with its predictable questioning procedures as the family secrets unravel themselves. Our characters all reveal motives in wanting Aristides dead, from a secret affair to his malicious and confining treatment but none have any redeeming qualities in which makes you want to route for their innocence. Even more so when the narrative becomes as dull as dishwater, especially for its male characters who could all do with the same injection of life the female cast have been given with their more than interesting and at times quirky personas.
Christie’s endings and subsequent revelation of the murderer have always come with a surprising twist, but here we’re all lead down the completely wrong garden path. Its notably dark and shocking conclusion comes with an invigorating sting that recaptures the attention, lifting its spirit back into the fold after its waning narrative leaves you wanting. A little more attention to dialogue could have revived this story back from the dead much earlier in Christie’s unconventionally dark mystery.
Agatha Christie’s Crooked House airs 9pm Sunday 17th December on Channel 5