This first screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1949 novel of the same name does exactly what you’d expect considering the source material, while concealing something of a third-act ace in the hole. The drawing-room mystery sees gumshoe Charles Hayward investigate the death of wealthy patriarch Aristide Leonides on behalf of the murdered man’s favourite granddaughter – and Charles’ former flame – Sophia. She suspects foul play and that the killer may still be in the family mansion, the single-location where the majority of the drama is set. Its occupants and suspects include the sister of Aristide’s first wife (Glenn Close), his much younger second wife (Christina Hendricks), his eldest son (a cigar-puffing Julian Sands), a fading theatre actress (Gillian Anderson looking like a Claret-swigging Cleopatra), and the family estate’s faithful Nanny (Jenny Galloway).
The whodunit benefits from this champagne casting; everyone is clearly enjoying donning their plummiest of plummy accents and playing the insufferably venal family members who all have motives for bumping off the business tycoon. Max Irons and Stefanie Martini are both decent as the impossibly beautiful leads, while Glenn Close runs away with a handful of scenes as she oscillates between eccentric fan of mole genocide and observant aunt fatale.
The pace does sag a bit in the mid-section and it’s in these moments when it’s hard not to compare the film to Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, also set in one location and written by Crooked House’s co-screenwriter Julian Fellowes. Altman’s 2001 film is superior and a more layered affair; that being said, Fellowes and director Gilles Paquet-Brenner have a firm grasp on the material, sustaining enough suspense in the “hothouse of suppressed passion” to keep you curious about the identity of the guilty party. They’ve also chosen to adapt a deceptively ambitious novel, especially when it comes to the difficult final reveal: it’s an abrupt denouement that can completely undo what precedes it, and the presumable deterrent explaining why filmmakers haven’t brought this book to the screen sooner. The screenplay deviates from the material when necessary but to its credit, the film feels bolder than expected because it so brazenly commits to the original ending.
It’s also worth noting that throughout, the script is matched by the production design, as the Cluedo-reminiscent layout is a set and lighting designer’s wet-dream, with each room of the Gothic house flaunting a very distinct look to match the inhabitants. So, while the finished product is not as memorable a period piece as Gosford Park, Crooked House more than surpasses last year’s listless Agatha Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express and there’s enough in this slice of murder mystery to keep you solidly entertained.
Crooked House | Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner (UK / US, 2017), with Max Irons, Stefanie Martini, Glenn Close, Preston Nyman. Starts November 29.
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