Monday, December 18, 2017

Crooked House: One of Dame Agatha’s Favorites, Finally Adapted for Film

Reportedly, Dame Agatha Christie’s two favorite novels from her voluminous oeuvre were this twisty novel from 1949 and Ordeal by Innocence. Yet, neither featured a Poirot, Marble, or Beresford (Tuppence), so they have rather been odd men out. There was an under-rated 1985 film adaptation of Ordeal, but the anticipated BBC production has been shelved, due to criminal allegations leveled against one of its co-stars. Formerly only staged for radio, Crooked House is now left alone to draft off Branagh’s pseudo-blockbuster Orient Express. French director Gilles Pacquet-Brenner helms a slyly British drawing room whodunit with his adaptation of Crooked House (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Private investigator Charles Hayward met the well-heeled Sophie de Haviland while he was stationed in Cairo for the secret service, but she inevitably broke his heart (a slight departure from the book). Nevertheless, de Haviland trusts the embittered Hayward to investigate the presumed murder of her grandfather, Aristide Leonides, a Greek immigrant who made good. Leonides’s latest trophy wife Brenda stands to inherit everything—a fact that does not sit well with the rest of the family.

For reasons that eluded just about everyone else, old man Leonides insisted on keeping his entire dysfunctional, bile-soaked family in residence at his grand country estate. That includes the newest wife Brenda, Sophie’s dilettante father Phillip, her self-absorbed stage diva mother Magda, and her wastrel uncle Roger, who has been running the family catering business into the ground. Only the widowed Lady Edith de Haviland shows much strength of character, which is why she assumed responsibility for the education of the de Haviland children, including the precocious twelve-year-old Josephine.

Obviously, everyone is a suspect, especially Laurence Brown, the children’s tutor, whom it seems has been carrying on an affair with the presumptive merry widow, but that would be too easy, wouldn’t it? Like the best of Dame Agatha’s work, the murderer in Crooked House is not immediately apparent, but the real pleasure comes from all the gnashing of teeth and door-slamming that come during the investigative process. Co-screenwriter Sir Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey acclaim), Tim Rose Price, and Paquet-Brenner deliver all the elements in spades, including the faithful ending, which must have been quite a shocker in 1949.

Glenn Close is terrific as the tart-tongued, no-nonsense Lady Edith. She is imperious yet grounded, in a way maybe only Kristin Scott Thomas could pull off with equal style. Gillian Anderson, Julian Sands, Christina Hendricks, and Christian McKay hold up their end, chewing the scenery and effortlessly bandying about barbed dialogue as Magda, Philip, Brenda, and Roger, respectively. Terence Stamp adds his well-earned gravitas and immediately recognizably baritone as Chief Inspector Taverner, a colleague of Hayward’s murdered father. Plus, the real breakthrough-discovery is young Honor Kneafsey, who is quite remarkable as Josephine.

Not surprisingly, Hayward and Sophie de Haviland are the dullest of the lot, but Max Irons somewhat exceeds expectations, playing the former with a welcome degree of forcefulness and intelligence. On the other hand, Stefanie Martini should have portrayed the latter as more of a femme fatale, but she is really just forgettably pedestrian.

Regardless, Crooked House is a triumph of set decoration and period details. The richly detailed trappings are spot-on, while the locations (King’s College Maughan Library and the Gothic Revival Tyntesfield estate) are wonderfully suggestive of elegance and murder most foul. Honestly, it is such good fun to see an old-fashioned mystery like this hit the big-screen again. Highly recommended for fans of British mysteries and the accomplished ensemble, Crooked House opens this Friday (12/22) in New York, at the Cinema Village.