Desperately Seeking Agatha Christie

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Ordeal by Innocence is the third in a series of Agatha Christie adaptations written by Sarah Phelps (preceded by the deliciously campy And Then There Were None and the darkly disturbing Witness for the Prosecution). I so enjoyed both of Phelps’ previous takes on Christie that I marked the release date for Ordeal by Innocence in my calendar! (Fear not, dear reader, I stalk only my favorite pop culture commodities). Unfortunately, this latest adaptation did not live up to the previous two.

The story unfolds in three hour-long episodes and, due to the large number of characters, much of the first episode gets eaten up by exposition and replaying the crime itself. By the second episode, it’s clear that the victim (and mother to five adopted children), Rachel Argyll (Anna Chancellor), was almost universally despised by her family but the reasons why only become clear in the final episode. Phelps uses a large number of flashbacks, beginning with short snippets of scenes that gradually lengthen as we learn more about the Argylls, but which tend to make the pacing of the storytelling quite choppy and frustrating since the early flashbacks don’t contribute much knowledge about the murder or the characters. In fact, the flashbacks return repeatedly to the same scenes, extending them only briefly each time. Season one of How to Get Away with Murder used a similar tactic and I found it tedious then as well. It’s difficult to strike that happy compromise where you repeat enough information so that the audience can follow the chronology of the story without becoming bored of the same series of shots showing the discovery of the victim’s body, etc. as they are replayed.

While I enjoyed the dark tone Phelps used in adapting And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution (which was much more ominous than the majority of the Poirot and Miss Marple series found on PBS), Ordeal by Innocence felt far too melodramatic for my taste (and I count myself as a fan of Days of Our Lives). Perhaps the issue isn’t that Phelps uses melodrama (the story’s about a murder and a disintegrating family, after all) but that there’s no relief from the melodramatic tone and it becomes tiring well before we reach the plot’s climax.

With all of those criticisms in mind, I thought the actors gave strong performances given the script and tone of the overall project. One of the central roles was recast and reshot after Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick was accused of sexual assault. It’s impossible to say exactly how that may have impacted the final product but I applaud the cast and crew’s efforts to finish the film and release it under such stressful circumstances. The overall standout for me was Morven Christie, probably best known to American audiences as the charming Amanda Hopkins from Grantchester. Here in Ordeal by Innocence, she completely disappears into the role of Kirsten Lindstrom, the largely taciturn housekeeper. Christie does stellar work even with relatively few lines and some of her scenes without any dialogue are the most gripping of the entire project. The cast rounds itself out with the charming Bill Nighy, Anthony Boyle (currently starring in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway), the delightful Matthew Goode (here playing a nasty, vile character that proves Goode is best when he goes bad), and Poldark’s always engaging Eleanor Tomlinson. Ordeal by Innocence is currently streaming on Amazon Prime (not just for two-day shipping!).

Sarah Phelps’ next Christie adaptation is The ABC Murders (one of my absolute favorites!) starring . . . (you may need to take a seat) John Malkovich. Hmmm. So we’ve gone from David Suchet as Poirot (aka the one and only Poirot in my mind) to a Giant Mustache (Kenneth Branagh) impersonating as Poirot in the most recent Murder on the Orient Express film to John Malkovich. It may be time to go back to the bookshelf rather than the film or tv screen to satisfy your Agatha Christie-sized craving. In fact, Sophie Hannah has written several new Poirot mysteries in recent years and the latest, The Mystery of Three Quarters, is out now!

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