Release Date: November 21, 2017 (VOD Platforms) December 22, 2017 (Limited)
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 115 Minutes
Perhaps it is my being uninitiated into the back-stabbing, cloak-and-dagger world of Agatha Christie murder mystery novels, but are the characters with which she normally populates her tales of procedural intrigue always this…transparent?
The Crooked House, the other, more humble ensemble adaptation of one of Christie’s 70 or so works, smells distinctly like it’s worthy of “mockbuster” status, especially considering its release proximity to Brannagh’s massive-budgeted Murder on the Orient. It does not so much concern the people implicated when wealthy patriarch Aristide Leonides is poisoned by his own insulin injection because they aren’t people. As Christie writes them and as Paquet-Brenner, Julian Fellowes and Tim Rose Price adapt them, they are less defined by the personalities that would make them distinct characters as they are defined by the motivations, red herrings and accusations of other characters that they mechanically dole out whenever they get screen time.
And with only so much screen time for such a full ensemble, where the hook of the story is that everyone is potentially the killer, the mystery of who killed Aristide Leonides has little incentive for its solution because I have no characters to scrutinize.
As Private Investigator Charles Hayward (Max Irons) enters into the glib aristocratic world of the Leonides estates, he’s immediately accosted by Lady Edith (the unfortunately misused Glenn Close), who is introduced discharging a shotgun at nefarious moles on the grounds and pontificating on the best type of poison to use on them (which turns out to be cyanide in case you were interested). When he meets the eldest son, Philip (Julian Sands), he catches him mid-rant about how he was passed over for running the family catering company and how nobody believed in his work as a playwright. From there, Hayward has a chat with Aristide’s second wife, Brenda (Christina Hendricks), who is 50 years his junior and admits to despising everyone in the house.
This forthcoming, expository way that Christie forces her characters to disgorge these suspicious details that implicates them as the potential culprit not only makes a mystery a dialogue heavy slough, but means, as an investigator, poor Hayward as nothing much to do. The mystery in these brief, repeating scenes of red-herring-laced conversations needs no investigation because everyone keeps dropping clues into his lap.
Crooked House as a mystery has no lead up to a conclusion built on old-fashioned detective work because the members of the Leonides family continually point one finger at themselves and two at other house mates with every overwritten bit of dialogue they have. The film wants to play the “everyone’s a suspect” card as a means of building tension, but it keeps doing this even late into the film when, in a normal mystery film, the clues that have been piling up over the course of the investigation have whittled down the suspects.
Coupled with this is the dry, flippant tone, the film makes the fact that there is a murderer loose on the Leonides estate seem more of a humorous inconvenience than anything that could build tension. The critical problem in Crooked House is it’s a non-mystery about non-people that amounts to nothing. Even its ending feels hilariously abrupt as, once the killer is caught and “disposed of,” there is nothing more than a hard cut to black and nary an interest to discover what happens to this house or its occupants.
The confessional, family-drama nature of Christie’s, as shot by cinematographer Sebastian Wintero in poor, handheld wistfulness, makes the whole thing unfold like an episode of Real World than a dignified, blue-blooded whodunit. The bickering family scenes over lavish meals cut against the one-on-one interview/interrogations by the soft-balling Hayward give the film a reality television-esque drama angle that annoys more than it does intrigue.
The picturesque mansion of the Leonides estate is a sprawling location that, because of the needless intimacy of Wintero’s handheld shots and the sepia tint of the color that I assume is meant to invoke the late-1940s era in which Crooked House is set, we are never given a good use out of it. Despite the film insisting to take place in this one location – a place where “oppressed passion boils to the surface,” according to the shotgun-wielding Close, the location is inconsequential to the characters, narrative and murder and can never be seen as a complete space because of the way it is shot.
Incompleteness seems to be just a theme for the mediocre Crooked House. Though it tries to be the plain-Jane sister to the attention-seeking extravagance of favorite child Murder on the Orient Express, it is too loose of an investigation with too little consequence to rise to any merit on its own. With its ill-defined characters and a mystery that drags itself out because you never feel like it is going anywhere, Paquet-Brenner fills a home with interesting actors (Terence Stamp and the ever great Gillian Anderson among them) and puts them at each other’s throats for little purpose but to shift the suspicion around a little. When a killer is revealed and your response is somewhere in the realm of “yeah I guess,” you’ve clearly made some stylistic missteps along the way.