Film Review: Crooked House

In many ways, this is the most dramatically satisfying of any Agatha Christie film adaptation—plus it’s a real treat to look at.
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Meet the immensely rich and venal Leonides family, who all nervously reside with one another in the sprawling family estate and have recently been dealt the blow of the death of scion Aristide Leonides, a catering-business tycoon, who evidently has been murdered. His granddaughter Sophia (Stefanie Martini) employs the aid of old flame Charles Hayward (Max Irons), a private detective, to get to the bottom of whodunit in this overpopulated house.

The suspects, who are all related, include Sophia’s alienated younger brother Eustace (Preston Nyman) and precocious, eavesdropping baby sister Josephine (pert, talented little Honor Kneafsey); their mother, Magda (Gillian Anderson), a drunken ham of an actress, and father, arty, dissolute Philip (Julian Sands). Philip greatly resents the fact that his brother, Roger (Christian McKay), who went into the family business, was always the favorite of Aristide. Then there’s Edith (Glenn Close), Aristide’s sister, who’s now head of the house, and the newest addition to the family, the fragile Brenda (Christina Hendricks), the dead man’s much younger second wife, whom all regard as a heartless golddigger, particularly because she might very well inherit everything due to Aristide’s dying intestate. And, in place of that ubiquitous suspicious butler, there is Nanny (a ripely game Jenny Galloway), who oversees the kids’ perverse and tantrummy ways and may know more than she lets on.

Right from the start, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner maintains a tone of hushed foreboding and suspense which serves the material perfectly. Going a long way to make it all gell is his astutely chosen cast, which, more than any other Agatha Christie film I’ve seen, are truly an ensemble, speaking and sharing the same language and mood in this very weird, opulent but oppressive and fraught world of wayward entitlement and lots of heavy drinking. In other words, they’re all on the same page, as well as being good actors, a rarer happenstance in film and theatre these days than one might think. Films like the 1974 Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile were star-heavy loads of fun, but the actual work of those stars could often be highly variable, ranging from astutely observed (Ingrid Bergman, Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith, Mia Farrow, Jane Birkin) to hammily self-serving and somewhat tiresome (Bette Davis, Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, George Kennedy, David Niven) to downright inept (Lois Chiles). The wonder of Crooked House is that each of the characters is equally compelling in their own way—there’s not a bore in the bunch.

The production design by Simon Bowles is a definite boon here. The family manse itself is an incredible Gothic universe, containing several different worlds—i.e., the characters’ highly individual living quarters: sleek Art Deco for Roger, high Egyptian for Magda, who obviously once played Cleopatra, Hollywood movie-star boudoir-deluxe for the distraught Brenda to alcoholically slosh about in. Colleen Kelsall’s costumes are always apropos and well-executed, but lack a certain excitement. Hugode Chaire’s music is effective without being too insistent, and the highly original choice of period songs often surprises and delights: Eartha Kitt’s“C’est si bon” and especially “Motherless Child” by Donald Byrd, which instantly convey’s Brenda’s blurry anxiety, alone in her room.

Close is in peak form as one of those eternally busy chatelaines of a grand home; her country charm is but the thinnest veneer over a powerful, unswayable will and rather deadly wit. British aristocrat lady-butch in her riding breeches and boots, she made me laugh out loud when, in answer to a question about her activities, she replied, “Autumnal pruning!” Irons is celestially handsome and convincingly ardent, be it about finding the killer or trying to win back Sophia. One has to admit that this cloak-and-dagger stuff goes down much more easily with a young and appealing sleuth to solve stuff, rather than, say, Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, who could sometimes be gigantic pains in the ass, so self-convinced of their own sleuthing skills and personal charm.

Curly-lipped Martini is a real find, lovely to look at and possessing a quality which is never a given where actors are concerned, real intelligence. She has a bittersweet, convincing chemistry with Irons and, indeed, that flashback to their Cairo first meeting, from boogie-woogie dancing to that loaded first kiss, could well be the among the year’s most romantic. I truly did not know that Gillian Anderson was playing Magda until the final credit roll-up, so intense is her emotional investment and bold physical  transformation. (It’s a shame that screenwriter Julian “Downton Abbey” Fellowes couldn’t come up with more brilliant repartee for her, on the order of Lansbury’s priceless, drunken Salome Otterbourne in Death in the Nile, a similarly colorful, would-be vampish character.) Hendricks seems to be seriously channeling Marilyn Monroe at her most on-the-verge, and it’s a highly apt—given the film’s era—if easy choice. Again, Fellowes’ conception of her character is on the sketchy side, but Hendricks, with her soulful pools for eyes, possesses a deeply human quality that lends depth where there was none on the scripted page.

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