Crooked House

by Toby Woollaston

crookedhouseThat this murder mystery is pleasingly old-school only serves to bed in well with its source material. Agatha Christie’s sordid tales of murder and mayhem have long been a rich source of cinematic intrigue since the age of silent cinema, often with mixed results. But here, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has done an admirable job with a conservative but well-considered adaptation of arguably Christie’s most twisted tale.

Set in the fifties, spy-turned-private-detective Charles Hayward (Max Irons) reluctantly takes a job from an old flame, Sophie (Stefanie Martini).  Her grandfather was murdered with a fatal barbiturate injection … or so it seems. The film’s cold palette and haunting score lend an appropriately ominous mood as Hayward, against his better judgement, visits the sprawling estate where Sophie’s aristocratic family live together in complete opulence.

The mansion’s labyrinthine layout is full of plausible suspects; among them, the bombastic matriarch Edith (Glenn Close), two problematic sons Philip (Julian Sands) and Roger (Christian McKay), a pretentious actress Magda (Gillian Anderson) and the late Mr. Leonides’ second wife and widow Brenda (Christina Hendricks) who stands to inherit it all.

The film plays out as you’d expect from a Christie story that’s been infused with screenwriter Julian Fellowes’ immutable clipped English period treatment. It is the kind of style he achieved with so much bravura in Gosford Park, but unfortunately this film never quite reaches the same lofty heights. 

The acting is typically heavy-handed with plenty of theatrical bluster, but far from being on-the-nose, Paquet-Brenner has worked Fellowes’ water-tight script with the kind of Directorial timing that’ll have you feeling like the solution is tantalisingly close—exactly what you want from a whodunnit.

Not without its faults, the film drags its heels in the middle stanza and the handsomely mild Max Irons lacks the charisma (ironically unlike his father, Jeremy) required of the role as the central sleuth. Nonetheless, Crooked House’s murderous riddle is mercifully accessible in its exposition, yet intriguingly clever, and its courageous ending will leave a bitter but satisfying taste.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

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