Film review: “Crooked House” (2017)

“Crooked House” (2017)



Running Time: 95 minutes

Written by: Julian Fellowes & Tim Rose Price & Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Directed by:  Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Featuring:  Max Irons, Terence Stamp, Glenn Close, Gillian Anderson, Amanda Abbington, Christina Hendricks, Julian Sands and Stefanie Martini

Josephine: “The murderer is never the one you initially suspect.”

The last few years has seen a resurgence in the adaptation’s of Agatha Christie novels into television shows/movies as well as cinematic movies, this could be the spin off of so many mystery shows being developed internationally that there really is no story like an old story. In fact what is unique is that many of these adaptations are not being updated but produced in the time period in which they were written, or at least very close to them. So now we have the release of a movie that was originally on television in the U.K. but is in New Zealand cinemas now, that is the mystery “Crooked House” (2017), which boasts a large cast of very well known actors that all suit Christies narrative tricks as well as arguably being the best thing about this adaptation that weaves a plot very carefully around peoples lives after the tragic death of the patriarch of a very wealthily English family, who, of course in the grand tradition, are all suspects at one time or another. Like many of Christie’s stories this does have a twist, almost a double one but it should leave you guessing until the end.

Agatha Christie as well as her work remain a strong part of popular culture, in fact it has been for almost a hundred years. In a writing career lasting more than 55 years, she wrote 72 novels and 15 short story collections, to be sure a massive accomplishment, which will no doubt stand the test of time. What made her stories stand out were, of course, the characters. She created memorable and dignified characters which any class of readers could relate to. Her most memorable and popular characters, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, are great examples of her skill to develop “high society” characters with mainstream appeal.

Agatha regularly looked for “creative inspiration” by studying the people around her; however, her chosen genre, the murder mystery, stunted her writing process because it was difficult at times to put reality into fictional environments; for example, she sometimes had trouble using attributes of acquaintances to do things she couldn’t imagine them doing, like murder, and this often caused writer’s block. To overcome this obstacle, she would develop many characters from scratch. She would note physical appearances of strangers whom she saw and met in public and then would use their likeness and subtle mannerisms to develop relatable characters for her mysteries.

“Crooked House” is co-written/directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner who has quite a bit of experience with thrillers, the highlight of his oeuvre is the excellent and underrated Gillian Flynn adaptation “Dark Places” (2015) which was a psychological thriller featuring Charlize Theron, so an Agatha Christie adaption does not feel outside his wheelhouse at all, for the most part he makes a very good job of it, he may have been a little short-changed with his lead, which is a missed opportunity. The other interesting element is one of the other credited screenwriters is Julian Fellows who is no stranger to the period or to the type of story that is being told here. Fellows is just the person to lend some credibility about the time period as well as some of the motivations for the characters, their behaviour as well, which is evident in his timeless screenplay for the relatively similar “Gosford Park” (2001), for which he received a well-deserved Oscar. There are many similar elements within this script but where it diverges besides the time period and setting is the pedestrian direction as well as the straight forward classic narrative, which is where cracks appear at the seams of the production. What “Crooked House” misses is some kind of unique narrative to pull audiences in as well as keeping them focused on this movie that really should be a must see as it touches on many elements that are meaningful today, one of those is tolerance and love instead of hate.

“Crooked House” revolves around the granddaughter of late business tycoon Aristide Leonides, Sophia Leonides, visits private investigator Charles Hayward in his office. Sophia hires Charles to investigate Aristide’s death, for she believes he was murdered by a member of his sprawling and idiosyncratic family. Sophia notes that Leonides’ regular insulin injection had been laced with eserine from his eye drops, the resulting chemicals in them causing him to die. Sophia believes this to have been a deliberate switch rather than accidental. Charles begrudgingly agrees to take on the case as a result of his feelings for Sophia as the two had enjoyed a brief love affair when they had met sometime prior in Cairo.

In many Agatha Christie adaptations one of the attractive elements is the normally star-studded cast that is assembled, “Crooked House” is no different with some fantastic talent from all levels of television, stage and movies. However, where this film drops the ball is with the lead in Max Irons as Charles who while trying his best is not really up to the material or is not really able to match up with the rest of the cast who are almost all more talented as well as more recognisable which only diverts attention away from the lead. The best protagonists who play private investigators always seem to have duality to their very nature whereas Irons does seem a bit bland as well as non-committal with his character, which, as it is the main part does impact the narrative as well as the feeling that a viewer may get from the plot. The remainder of the cast is filled out with some impressive actors led by the inimitable superstar Glenn Close as the matriarch of the family who plays the part with such wit and fierce, at times I found myself wishing the movie had centred on her, she is always great to watch and like her recent cinematic roles she leaves everything on the table. Then there are the rest who all prove why they are in such high demand as well as how professional they are with original characterisations as well as knowing whose movie this is, Agatha Christies to be sure. With actors like a true legend Terence Stamp, genre experts in Gillian Anderson, Amanda Abbington, Christina Hendricks, and Julian Sands it’s no wonder the supporting cast are a wonder to watch.

Sometimes I wonder how and why certain movies are produced, or, when there are literally hundreds of stories available why some are chosen over others. To be fair and without giving away any spoilers it is the final act that is the reason why this movie exists, it is relatively original as well as shocking in as much as it is also a tragedy for the entire family, one the audience may not see coming, which is possibly the point. But what is definite and assured is that an ending does not make a movie which is certainly the case here. The plot is somewhat interesting but the narrative as well as the way in which the director attempts to build up tension is by the numbers leaving the viewer wanting more but never getting it which means the story meanders along like a three-legged dog, it leaves one slightly bored as well really wanting more meat to dig your teeth into. Once the ending does finally arrive it is not quite enough to make the previous two hours’ worth it.

What I find confounding with this movie is that there have been so many good to great Agatha Christie adaptions that when one comes along that is uneven, a little miscast and not really thrilling it comes as a very large disappointment and really does taint the Christie brand.

“Crooked House” is out now only in cinemas.

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