I suppose that you're all wondering why I've gathered you here?
Do you see that dull, drab pile of celluloid on Australia’s film release schedule? Based on Agatha Christie's novel of the same name and laden with stars like Glenn Close, Terence Stamp and Gillian Anderson, ‘Crooked House’ had the potential to be a cracking British mystery film. Instead, it’s a complete snoozer.
Who or what killed ‘Crooked House’, you ask?
Let’s look at the list of suspects.
Max Irons ('Woman in Gold') is bland and good-looking as spy-turned-struggling private detective Charles Hayward, who's summoned to the Leonides' stately property by the equally bland and good-looking Sophia (Stefanie Martini). Suspecting foul play is behind her deceased business magnate grandfather's death, and believing that the killer is someone who lives on the estate, she asks her former lover to quietly investigate before the press gets the scent of a scandal. Terence Stamp ('The Limey') hovers on the periphery as a Scotland Yard chief inspector, sadly underutilised.
Hayward enters Crooked House, the Leonides clan's sprawling manor house. We meet Brenda (Christina Hendricks, 'Drive', in yet another seductress role), Leonides' breathy-voiced young American widow; Lady Edith (Glenn Close, 'Guardians of the Galaxy', standing far above the milieu), the sister of Leonides' first wife and the de facto matriarch; and wildly overacting Julian Sands ('Boxing Helena') and Christian McKay ('The Theory of Everything') as brothers who hate each other, with Gillian Anderson (looking like Cleopatra risen from the dead in mid-20th century period detail) and Amanda Abbington are their respective wives. Much scenery is consumed. Better served are Preston Nyman as the perpetually angry teenager Eustace and Honor Kneafsey ('The Bookshop') as the wise-beyond-her-12-years Josephine. Rounding out the bitterly divided household is Laurence, the children's tutor (John Heffernan).
'CROOKED HOUSE' TRAILER
But, ladies and gentlemen, you can’t place the blame solely on an uneven cast.
Agatha Christie is one of the all-time great mystery authors, and it is not hard at all to see why she thought very highly of her own novel (reputedly her favourite). ‘Crooked House’ is a terrific book with a dark atmosphere, a lot of suspense, even more unexpected and juicy red herrings and twists, well-defined characters, a strong mystery and one of her most shocking and ballsy endings.
As an adaptation, it is not exactly dumbed down, nor is it a complete re-write like some of the Geraldine McEwen adaptations. In fact, there are a lot of recognisable elements as well as having things that add nothing.
Upon closer examination of the film, ‘Crooked House’ feels bland, as an adaptation and as a standalone. It lacks the suspense of the book, and much tighter direction would have helped, particularly in Hayward's backstory scenes, which felt like irrelevant padding and slowed the story down in what was already a film that was prone to staid direction. Pacing is also odd, parts feel pedestrian while the staging of the finale is rushed - despite being around two hours long, the film ends mere seconds after the key denouement, and doesn’t seem terribly interested in exploring any real motivations at work. Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who directed the terrific Kristin Scott Thomas-starring WWII drama ‘Sarah’s Key’ and the dire Gillian Flynn adaptation ‘Dark Places’, is the chief suspect here.
Pacing is also odd, parts feel pedestrian while the staging of the finale is rushed - despite being around two-hours long, the film ends mere seconds after the key denouement, and doesn’t seem terribly interested in exploring any real motivations at work.
What ‘Crooked House’ also lacks is the novel's well-defined characterisation – the film has so many suspects that you don't really get to know most of them. The characters that the film focuses most on are also the least interesting, while others (especially Laurence) are so underwritten that you forget they are even there most of the time. The most interesting characters are actually Edith and Josephine.
There are a few positives lurking in ‘Crooked House’. Apart from some sloppy editing at times and moments when even Sebastian Wintero's elegant camerawork becomes annoying and isolating, it looks wonderful - very elegant and atmospheric, with evocative attention to period detail and sumptuous photography. Every character and each set of living quarters occupies a highly distinct world of its own, courtesy of production designer Simon Bowles (and costume designer Colleen Kelsall). The music is haunting and jaunty, if occasionally a little intrusive. The script, which has a lot of talk and requires full attention, is reasonably thought-provoking and droll.
In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I put it to you that this adaptation of Agatha Christie's ‘Crooked House’ (and it’s here that I put on my Frenchiest of accents, point my pointiest finger, and cry, “J'accuse!”) was killed not only by the joyless, workmanlike direction of one Gilles Paquet-Brenner, but also with assistance from the wooden, charisma-free acting of its leads, Max Irons and Stefanie Martini!
Please avert your eyes from the sad remains of this film and direct your attention to Sir Kenneth Branagh’s much finer ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ instead.