THE FACE OF ME BEING MAD: The Crooked House Movie

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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25 thoughts on “THE FACE OF ME BEING MAD: The Crooked House Movie

  1. I really have come to the conclusion that whenever I like something, no one else does and when everyone else loves something, I don’t (see Witness for the Prosecution). To be honest I didn’t think this was a perfect adaptation by any means, but I still liked watching it. The Lady Edith and Josephine characters were well played. I think some of the criticisms I have read in this post and read elsewhere I can see in retrospect, but somehow in the watching of it I didn’t notice them.

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    1. I liked Josephine. She looked wrong, but the actress played her believably, which I would imagine will make the final reveal more powerful to neophytes! I always enjoy Glenn Close, but as I discussed with Scott on the FB page, all too often she filled the role that Maggie Smith did in Downton Abbey!!!

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    1. I think I own every BBC Poirot adaptation, Sergio. (The only one that seems to have not been adapted was The Hollow. By and large, they are more faithful to the books than any TV or movie adaptations, and some of them are the best adaptations of Christie I have found. Without having to worry about production values, they went all out on scripts and acting. John Moffat was a wonderful Poirot!

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      1. I am of course a sucker for radio drama anyway. Odd about THE HOLLOW- must check! Did look at my recording but ended up fatforwatding through it – pretty wretched really. What a shame . The screening only had actors, producers and the director credited. Nobody else – they can run but with IMDb they can’t hide 😀

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  2. Honestly, Brad, I’ve not heard/read any really positive reviews of this adaptation. Now, being a picky, difficult, irascible dedicated purist, I have to say that it was good to hear that a lot of the plot points were faithful to the book. But there are, indeed, subtle nuances to the way Christie wrote that really made that story what it is. I’m thinking in particular of the relationship between Magda and Josephine, but that’s only one example. Hmmmm…..Not sure this one’s going to be for me, much as I’ve looked forward to seeing it…

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  3. I enjoyed it more than you I think Brad, but did keep wincing at some of the changes, which made no sense. I also objected to Charles having his hand in his pocket when he walked in to meet Philip, and The Times having news on its front page. But I am well known for being pedantic. It was set much later than the book, well into the 50s, but not clear exactly when. The clothes were excellent mind you, I loved them.
    I picked up the book when the TV showing finished, and ran into a Christie mistake in the first few pages! Leonides first wife dies in 1905, we are told, and soon afterwards Sophia says she ‘only just remembers her’ – but Sophia can’t possibly have been born in 1905…
    I did enjoy some parts of the film, but think it will be quickly forgotten.

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    1. Why couldn’t Charles be in love with a 48-year-old ingenue. It would mean that her mother gave birth to Josephine when she was 74, but what the heck?!? Christie made these kinds of dumb mistakes a lot, I fear, and it just got worse as she got older. Elephants Can Remember is a misnomer at best, and the timeline of that novel is absolutely impossible!

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    2. Yes, the story begins just after the war say 1945-46 and Sophia is then 24 years old. Hence she was born in 1921-22. A clear logical mistake by Agatha Christie !

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  4. I expected you to be quite a bit harsher in your review. After looking forward to this movie for months, I was fairly disappointed.

    Let’s start with the positives though – the sets were magnificent, the costumes well done, and for the most part the casting and acting was on point. When I read these books, the hardest thing for me to imagine is the just how grand the country houses are, and how lavish the furnishings. What I have in my mind is always much more quaint than I suspect things really would be. I really appreciate how this film captured the setting.

    But….the film overall fell somewhat flat for me. I feel like an uber-nerd in my complaints, but all of these tiny changes to the story really made a difference. Like, why change the relationship between Charles and Sophia? It made his presence in the house make zero sense (a point raised several time by my wife and friend who had no familiarity with the plot). For that matter, why change the entire background of Charles Hayworth and his relationship with the police? It isn’t like it made the story any more riveting. There’s probably 15 or so small changes like that which brought the story down in my eyes.

    Spoilers Another issue that I have is the positioning of the killer. In the book, I immediately latched onto who the culprit was, and had my theory repeatedly cemented as the chapters passed. In the movie, there’s really no way you could glom onto the solution until the very finale, when they have that dancing scene where they might as well have flashed text on the screen saying “this is the killer.” In fact, my friend immediately said “oh, it was her.” That the identity was so obvious in that scene took away from the impact of the false solution that followed.

    In the end, it was pretty, but shallow. The sets were spot on, the actors were fine, and the essence of each character was well captured. But somehow, in all of those changes, the spirit of it all was lost. I can’t imagine the film would really stand out to anyone who wasn’t familiar with the story already – a theory strengthened by the reactions of my watching companions. “Eh, that was ok. I don’t really see what the big deal is,” my friend remarked – a friend who loved the David Suchet versions of Death on the Nile and Five Little Pigs.

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    1. “Shallow” is a good word for it, Ben. They reduced the novel to generic mystery tropes: the country house full of bitchy people being nasty to each other. That was not really what happened in the novel, which is why I wrote at great length last week about character and subtlety. They tried to make Aristide a more generic victim in the movie by hinting that he was a war profiteer and so intrusive in everyone’s lives that they hated him for it, but it didn’t really work. And they hammered the ballet motive to the ground: Sophia becomes a brilliant ballerina who only stopped due to an injury, and since she is Aristide’s favorite, it behooves him to grind Josephine’s dream into the ground. There was no finesse here, just a lot of semaphoring of stock suspects and motives.

      Magda was made such a monster to her children that Sophia’s relationship to her made no sense whatsoever. Philip was not much better. Why not protect Eustace and Josephine from Evil Mummy? Why didn’t Edith, whose whole purpose was to help with the family, step in? Was this house more “crooked” than the one in the novel? It was certainly more screechy and annoying. But yes, the house itself was awesome!

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  5. Sorry to hear the movie didn’t thrill you, Brad. I’ll probably watch it when it comes along, though, secure in the knowledge that I’ll detect no offness of tone or the like . . . for the simple reason that I haven’t read the book. (This is one of the joys of being not much of a Christie fan.)

    I have the new Witness for the Prosecution due from the library Any Moment Now, and am much looking forward to it. And I’m interested that you and others have found the new Orient Express to be better than anticipated: I’ll give that a whirl in due course too.

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    1. I’ll be interested in hearing your opinions, John. I haven’t seen Witness yet, but not for any other reason than I haven’t found it! I hear it’s dark as hell!

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      1. Yes, WftP is a very dark and moody adaptation — I know it doesn’t work for everyone, but they do a really good job with Leonard and Romaine, but saying too much would be spoilerful for anyone not yet to see it.

        In a way I’m unsurprised this wasn’t to your liking, Brad; not because I’ve seen it, I haven’t, but because I know how rigorously you know your Christie and something you were this hyped for was always going to fall down in some way. From now on, treat all announcements of Christie dramatisations with disdain and you’ll be fine.

        I hear Branagh’s Death on the Nile is going to be awful, by the way… 😉

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  6. I completely agree with your review. I was so looking forward to this, especially with Glenn Close as the grandmother! But the changes were stupid and served no purpose. I thought the actor who did Charles was pretty weak until toward the end, but maybe it was just because the script was so awkward. Big disappointment, but I’m coming to realize that seems to be the norm lately with Christie adaptations. It’s her great-grandson on the board now, isn’t it? I’m wondering if he ever read the book before okaying this script. Shades of Ariadne Oliver and her frustrations, lol!

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    1. So many of the more recent adaptations seek to “modernize” by creating a bizarre sexual life for the characters or accentuating the horrors of murder. These changes have had varying degrees of success. In this case, most of the problem was that the film was just boring. Fellowes dumbed down the original to make it more like every other country house mystery. And the direction was uninspired in most cases, considering that there were some fine actors in the movie and we’re still complaining.

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  7. Oh dear. I enjoyed your review but I’ll still probably watch it if/when it ever becomes legally available here in Australia. Even though I do not consider myself the world’s biggest Christie fan I feel the need to be completist when it comes to adaptations of her works, especially the ones I like. My favourite of the modern ones is AND THEN THERE WERE NONE

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    1. I enjoyed the BBC ATTWN too, Bernadette. I am also a completist, and I definitely wanted to see this!! By all means do watch it when you can – I hope it becomes available to you soon – and let me know what you thought of it! A number of people on Facebook have told me they loved it! 🙂

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  8. Finally got to see it, and on the whole it was disappointing. It had a lot going for it that never added up to a great whole. The pacing through the middle was terrible-just scene after scene of great actors working overtime to bring life to two dimensional characters. They could have done a lot by cutting down the cast and the backstory and giving Gillian Anderson, Christina Hendricks, etc. more to do. Would even the most pedantic Christie purist really have missed Eustace if that part was cut? Would anyone care if we got less of the Sophia/Charles backstory (particularly since it went nowhere and the actors had no chemistry?)

    I can’t figure out if Max Irons is really this charisma free or the script just didn’t give him anything to work with. I haven’t seen him in anything else. But his completely flat performance is a large part of the problem.

    Still, give credit for what they got right:

    1) The house was fantastic and, as last far as making the most of the sets, the direction was excellent. The constant out of scale camera angles-which sometimes made the house dwarf the actors and other times made it look like an actor couldn’t possibly have just cleared the door they walked through without hitting their head-it really was a Crooked House.

    2) I agree with you that Honor Kneafsey is really too pretty to be book Josephine, but it’s probably enough of a challenge just to find a child actor capable of handling that part. She was great, so I’ll take it.

    3) The film finally came to life in the last fifteen minutes. The car sequence was genuinely harrowing.

    4) Glenn Close shooting moles with an elephant gun makes up for a lot.

    Overall though, it’s yet another formulaic-cast a lot of great actors, give them one big scene each to develop a character, and then have a big dramatic finish-forgettable adaptation. I don’t hate it, but I’m not running to rewatch it either.

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    1. I think that what upsets me is how easily the big papers and magazines use an adaptation like this to reduce the impact of an author like Christie to the past. This could have been great if they hadn’t played it so safe. I agree with all your criticisms. They had the potential here . . . and they squandered it.

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