Agatha Christie rated her 1949 novel Crooked House among her favourite works – but it’s surprisingly gone unfilmed until now, though it’s possible that this particular variant on the ‘least likely murderer’ would not have passed the censors until c. 1970 and other off-model aspects of the book lay traps which this screenwriters Julian Fellowes, Tim Rose Price and director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (Walled In, Dark Places) tumble right into. Most obviously, Christie’s gentleman amateur Charles Hayward, reworked her as an ex-spy/posh PI, is given a ludicrous two-day head start by the official police when investigating the murder of a Greek tycoon who has married into the British aristocracy and founded a dynasty of suspects. At least one extra death happens on the ‘tec’s watch and Hayward also notably doesn’t tumble to the killer’s identity until after two other people (including a servant) have worked it out, the affects the outcome not a jot. Originally announced five years ago as a Neil LaBute film, Crooked House has evidently not turned out as the producers might have wished. A theatrical release in some territories (albeit overshadowed by Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express), it was sold straight to Channel 5 in the UK and debuts in the Christmas schedules, filling a gap beft by the BBC being forced by a scandal to sideline an adaptation of Christie’s other favourite novel, Ordeal by Innocence.
The title refers to the country pile where the murdered Aristide Leonides’ messy family live, but the borrowed English heritage sites on which the film was shot are well-kept and the interior décor isn’t the James Whale-esque riot of crumble and clutter the story demands – though there’s a nice coup as the sleuth finds a chic moderne apartment concealed inside the stately home. Max Irons is bland as the uninspiring Hayward, and a once-stalled Cairo romance with Leonides granddaughter Sophia (Stefanie Martini, in an Imogen Poots sort of role) makes for a clump of backstory that never pans out. Rather than using the book’s post-war setting, this moves things on to the late 1950s, with vague references to the Suez crisis and a perilous motorscooter jaunt to a coffee bar where Tommy Steele (Reuben Greeph) is belting one out. The suspects are camp as tents around a fire, though the value-for-money cast all seem unsure whether they’re appearing in Gosford Park or Clue: tweedy dowager Lady Edith (Glenn Close) strides around blasting moles with a shotgun; historian Philip (Julian Sands) puffs cigars and ruminates in the study; his dipso actress wife Magda (Gillian Anderson) pins her hopes on a screenplay; put-in-charge-of-the-business Roger (Christian McKay) runs the firm into the ground; his wife Clemency (Amanda Abbington) disarmingly owns up to being an expert in poisons; crippled teenager Eustance (Preston Nyman) listens to rock n roll and is whinily rude to everyone; Las Vegas showgirl second wife Brenda (Christina Hendricks) sashays around drunkenly, complaining that everyone wants to be found guilty; and Laurence (John Heffernan) manages to be ultra-suspious while barely registering as a presence as he combines the roles of Eustance’s tutor, Brenda’s lover, the old man’s amanuensis and being an aristo-hating communist (a conscientious objector in the book). Rounding out the mummies gallery is Terence Stamp as Hayward’s Scotland Yard higher-up uncle. There’s a sense that Christie was tipping her hat to E.C.Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case by stressing conventions she had popularised in order to break with them and set up a more chilling finale … but, here, this just translates into littering the case with hackneyed red herrings like the valid second will that turns up late in the day and the scandalous memoirs which go missing.
Before we get to the spoilery bit, here’s a trailer.
… and here are some suspects looking guilty.
Now, let’s talk about that ending, shall we? When Hayward turns up, he’s horribly patronised by Sophia’s twelve-year-old sister Josephine (Honor Kneafsey), who says she’ll solve the case before he does (she calls him ‘Watson’) and claims she’s writing down all the clues in her prized notebook … later, she survives two apparent attempts to kill her off for knowing too much, and loses that blessed book – which, for no good reason except plot convenience, turns up before it can be destroyed in quicklime. The little pest is the murderess, an avant-la-lettre sociopath who kills her grandfather for wanting to stop her ballet lessons – in the book, she’s ungainly and dumpy and perhaps a stand-in for Christie herself, almost an anti-Miss Marple, but Kneafsey is a willowy stage school kid who doesn’t look ridiculous posing as a ballet dancer. Christie characterises the kid interestingly, suggesting that living with her horrible family has warped her into a prototypeo of Rhoda from The Bad Seed, and this vaguely manages that, with a few decent moments as adults are momentarily stunned out of their self-involvement by the callous honesty of the little kid but the notion of child as killer has gone from being taboo to being old hat over the years.