Last week, I wrote about Agatha Christie’s novel Crooked House. I wrote about it because last year it was announced that finally – finally! – a movie would be made based on this, one of her darkest titles. The announcement came close on the heels of another revelation that Kenneth Branagh would be remaking Murder on the Orient Express. As you can imagine, my reactions ran pretty much thusly: for one upcoming film, I stood up and did bell kicks. For the other, I put my head in my hands and said, “Why? Why? Why?”
How was I to know I’d gotten my signals crossed?
The new Branagh film turned out to be, for the most part, delightful. Thus, you couldn’t imagine the tingles of anticipation I felt as December 22 approached, when Crooked House would be released in the States. This followed upon the movie’s premiere in Italy, as well as its presentation on British television. So I was absolutely –
Hold it right there! In all the excitement, I had failed to notice a new mystery brewing. If Hercule Poirot had been put on the scent of this case, he would have made a list of three questions:
- One: Why did the film version of one of the most famous mystery writer’s most famous mysteries premiere in Italy?
- Two: Why did the second best selling author of all time (after Shakespeare) – who happened to be British and proud of it! – have a movie hotly anticipated by her British fans first show on TV?
- Three: With a premiere in U.S. movie houses imminent, why did Crooked House show up on iTunes for home rental and purchase a few weeks ago?
I did not need Poirot’s little grey cells to put the clues together and come up with the solution. My problem was that, like Charles Hayward, the hero of Crooked House, I was too emotionally invested in the Tragedy at Swinly Dean to focus on the truth. And yet, the truth was staring me in the face all along . . . .
The movie was a stinker.
I couldn’t wait for the 22nd, so I rented the movie on iTunes. Now, as a lifelong fan of Christie, I probably found more to like here than your average moviegoer. Yet I could lay you odds that the American reviewers are going to crush this film in the theatres, and the audiences – or lack of them – will do the rest. And I will understand why this occurs: the movie is . . . it’s just . . . well, bear with me while I explain it to you.
Bear with me, though: a review is only one person’s opinion. For those of us who love Christie, any new movie is a chance for us to get together, even virtually, and celebrate her continued popularity. I’ve already seen other fans online praise this movie, and to them I say: no matter how I go about delivering my personal evaluation, it is merely a disagreement with yours. I mean to cast no aspersion on your own opinion or taste. I say this because sometimes people who disagree with me feel offended, and I would rather engage in that disagreement from a point of mutual respect. And I’m going about this way too long, but you see – we’ve all been waiting for a movie version of this one for a long time!!
The other thing I want to mention to detractors is that there are two ways to approach the review of an adaptation: that of a general lover of movies and that of a purist. Starting with the latter, the question arises: was the movie faithful to the book? The answer is that it was faithful enough. The screenplay followed the general story and cut very few plot points. I would go so far to say that, as it proceeded, the movie became more and more faithful to the book and delivered the ending you would hope for and expect.
That said, there were niggling changes made that annoyed me to tears. I’ll mention some of them here, but I do understand that no screenwriter is under obligation to be totally faithful to the source material. Indeed, we have learned that this can be a serious detriment to the quality of a film. (First two Harry Potters, anybody?) Plus, there’s a reason that most people generally acknowledge a book to be superior to the film version: there are a million things you can do in writing that you can’t easily accomplish on screen – subtle things about character and relationship, about inner thoughts and perceptions.
So the biggest thing that bothered me was that the delicate ambiguities about character found in the novel were sanded down to be more . . . well, conventional. Everyone in the family became more overtly rotten, including the late Aristide, whom we never meet. This was purely a choice of Julian Fellowes’ script because the film was uniformly well-cast (if sometimes miscast), and the actors were expertly delivering what they had been given to say. Frankly, I’m not surprised by this. Fellowes’ Downton Abbey was often entertaining, but compared to some of the great Edwardian soap operas of old, like Upstairs, Downstairs, it simplified the history and created relatively uncomplicated characters who often behaved the way they did because the plot dictated they must.
Magda (Gillian Anderson) and Philip (Julian Sands) were particularly odious, nasty to each other and to their children throughout. It made the truly important moments from the novel, like Magda’s nasty supplication to Sophia after it is revealed she has inherited everything, less startling. The possibility that Magda might have a sense of Josephine’s nature and that this is why she wants to send her youngest to a Swiss school is vacated; Anderson’s Magda is too hung over and bored with her family to want them around. Philip’s grappling with his feelings for the father he felt neglected him are understandably simplified here, but we end up with a second-rate writer and a wastrel, who is living at Swinly Dean because of gambling debts.
Characters like Clemency and Eustace are made so consistently nasty that it’s hard to watch them on the screen. Roger and Glenda remain the “nicer” characters, I guess, except that Roger’s emotional responses are so inconsistent as to make him seem like two different characters. Brenda is interesting: they cast an American actress, Christina Hendricks, whom I enjoyed very much in Mad Men. They made her an exotic dancer from Vegas instead of a middle-class waitress. She spends most of the movie dancing in her room (something she says she used to do for her late husband). It’s a way to explain the American accent, I guess, and at least Brenda fulfilled the responsibilities of the original character as an outsider and a woman who is torn between genuine fondness for her husband’s kindness and passion for the tutor, Lawrence Brown (who is all but written out of the film for all he gets to do.)
Glenn Close, an actress of great stature, plays Lady Edith, and the part has been built up significantly for her. She gets to have a lot of arch conversations with Charles that seemed to be there just to punch up the actress’ experience, but the script switches halfway through to let Lady Edith just be Lady Edith and fulfill her function to the story, which Close does admirably. 13-year-old Honor Kneafsey is clearly a talented little girl, and embraces the challenging part of Josephine with vigor. She was too pretty and, to my mind, too normal to really fit the character; there’s nothing “changeling” about her, making Magda’s comments even more monstrously cruel.
Charles and Sophia are given a different sort of past here: their liaison in Egypt was brief, brought to a swift end when Sophia discovered that Charles was actually gathering intel on her to see if she was operating as an agent for her grandfather’s war profiteering schemes. Frankly, I would not only be pissed off at my lover if he did that to me, I would probably hire another private eye to investigate a murder at the old mansion! I will acknowledge that the movie makes much more of the strained romantic inclinations of this couple than the novel does, but based on the way they treat each other, I can’t imagine what chance they would stand together if, indeed, they end up together in the end . . . which wasn’t at all clear from the abrupt stop this movie makes.
So yeah, I could go on and on as a purist, but most of my complaints there are about character. In the end, I honestly don’t think they got the story so wrong. What they got wrong was tone. Despite the cast, and the great house, and the adherence to Christie’s plot, the whole thing felt so damn dreary. It reminded me of the effect on audiences of the film version of Ordeal by Innocence that starred Donald Sutherland. What a dismal, moody affair that was! This adaptation follows that same darkening spirit of the recent BBC adaptations of And Then There Were None (which I actually liked a great deal because the darkness works for that plot) and Witness for the Prosecution (which I have yet to see but have been warned about).
There’s also something about the sequencing of events that seems too simplistic. In this version, Charles is an established, if unsuccessful, private eye hired by Sophia to come down to the house and investigate Aristide’s murder. So he drives down and basically keeps running into people he can interview, finding them on the lawn or through each door he enters. Everyone gets his or her three minutes of screen time, and then Charles moves on to the next. And then it starts over again. As characters get nastier and nastier, they become even more languid. Everything explodes in a dinner scene that is the epitome of a B-version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, where everyone tries to outdo the others in terms of cutting remarks. At one point, Magda cries out, “It wasn’t always like this!” But nobody bothers to explain what it used to be like, or why it changed.
As the novel’s plot points assert themselves in the second half, the film gets a little better, but by then I found myself squirming from a combination of disappointment and tedium. This is not the way I want to feel watching Christie. Nor is this the report I wanted to make about this movie. I look forward to hearing what others thought, and, yes, feel free to disagree with me. Is there another way this movie could have been made? With all the talent involved, was this a wasted opportunity, or did I miss something? Would Neil Jordan have made a very different version from Gilles Paquet-Brenner? According to IMDB, the movie is trending down, but the movie hasn’t officially opened in the U.S. yet, so we’ll have to see how it gets reviewed. All I can say is, folks, I’ve seen Crooked House at last, after too long a wait . . . and I’m feeling a bit bereft.