Out of all the many, many mysteries that the prolific Agatha Christie penned in her lifetime, it’s said that Crooked House ranked as one of her two personal favorites (the other being Ordeal by Innocence). I have to wonder if part of the appeal came from the fact that supposedly her own publishers were worried that the climax of Crooked House was too extreme — because even by murder mystery standards, the resolution to this whodunit is DARK.
That ending may also explain why the novel had never really been adapted before, other than a BBC Radio drama version from 2008. And even this current take on Crooked House had a winding road to the big screen. It was first announced back in 2011, with Neil LaBute attached to direct a cast that included Matthew Goode, Julie Andrews, Gemma Arterton, and Gabriel Byrne. The version that’s finally arriving on the big screen is… not that one.
Adapted by writers Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey), Tim Rose Price (The Serpent’s Kiss), and director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (Dark Places), Crooked House stars Glenn Close, Gillian Anderson, Christina Hendricks, Max Irons, Terence Stamp, Amanda Abbington, Julian Sands, and more. Coming on the heels of the giant spectacle that was this year’s Murder On The Orient Express, this Christie adaptation feels downright quaint by comparison. But the Masterpiece Theatre vibes serve this capable mystery well — with rock-solid performances and direction, it is built to please die-hard Christie fans and surprise newcomers alike.
The story begins, as it should, with murder — in this case the suspected poisoning of a rich, crotchety businessman named Aristide Leonides. The list of suspects, like the cast list, is long — and everyone had motive to want the old man out of the way. They also all had ample opportunity to swap his eye drops for his insulin, considering he keeps his entire family in the same house and under his thumb.
But really, that’s what you’d expect from a top notch Agatha Christie story. What elevates this one are the performances, led by a strong cast of women, which fall on just the right side of outrageous camp. His granddaughter, Sophia (played by Stefanie Martini, who spends half the movie looking disconcertingly like a young Ruth Wilson in the best way possible), brings her former lover Charles Hayward (Irons) in to investigate the family and uncover the culprit.
Glenn Close plays the clan’s surrogate matriarch, Aunt Edith, whose sister was Aristede’s first wife and mother of his children. When she passed away, Edith moved in to oversee the upbringing of the kids. And when Charles first meets her, she’s using a shotgun to rid the yard of moles. Needless to say, she’s my new hero.
Hendricks plays Aristede’s second wife, Brenda, who was working as a dancer in Vegas when she caught the old man’s eye. The role is hardly a stretch for Hendricks, but there’s also no one else I’d rather see playing the soft-voiced seductress in hot pants. Hendricks manages to maintain the innocence necessary to make you question her obvious gold-digging.
Similarly, Gillian Anderson plays the overly theatrical wife of Aristede’s son, and the mother of Sophia (as well as two other precocious, difficult younger grandkids). She’s a failed actress with a black bob and a drinking problem, and she’s delightful.
From the sons squabbling for their father’s love to the grandchildren with the presence of mind to grasp the family’s deep dysfunction for what it is, Charles has his work cut out for him unravelling the truth from the knot of bitter, stunted personalities on display. Surprise wills, adultery, obsession, hubris, another murder, and a lot of yelling ensues. And even as the tides of suspicion shift, I think audiences will be hardpressed to guess the real culprit — if only because their hearts won’t want to believe their minds.
Crooked House opens December 22nd.