Lately, Mek and I have been on something of an Agatha Christie kick, so recently we checked out an adaptation of one of her novels–a novel, coincidentally, that neither of us have read: Crooked House.
There’s potential here. But there are some fucking weird directorial choices, too.
P.I. Charles Hayward (Max Irons) has a new client, Sophia de Haviland (Stefanie Martini). Sophia is Charles’s ex-girlfriend, and wants him to look into her grandfather’s death, preferably before the police can uncover any of the family’s dirty secrets.
1. Much like Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, the best thing this adaptation has going for it is cast. We’ve got, in no particular order, Christina Hendricks, Glenn Close, Gillian Anderson, Terence Stamp, Amanda Abbington, and Julian Sands. (And, of course, Max Irons–son of Jeremy Irons–who I only know from Red Riding Hood, something I’ve tried not to hold against him. Even Gary Oldman was terrible in that movie.)
Everyone in the cast is solid. A bit campy and over the top at times, sure, but in a way that seems to fit both the eccentric nature of the family and the overall tone of the film. I especially enjoy Glenn Close and Gillian Anderson, who are both rather fun. Anderson, specifically, has been cast in a particularly atypical role–she’s a self-absorbed, perpetually drunk, and miserably failed actress–which I found wonderfully delightful.
Dana Scully, this is not.
2. Unfortunately, there’s also the matter of well . . . everything else.
I feel like maybe the director wanted this adaptation to stand out from other British family estate murder mysteries, you know, be edgy or some shit? It definitely has much more of a noir vibe than I typically associate with Agatha Christie. Which is . . . okay, I guess . . . but a lot of these choices are really inconsistent and distracting.
Take, for instance, the shaky cam scenes. They’re not even proper shaky cam scenes, like, found footage shit? That probably would’ve annoyed me way less than these few, relatively mundane scenes where the camera wobbles just a little, just enough to be maddening. And why? Fucked if I know. To make you uneasy? Perhaps, but only if a headache counts. To indicate that not all is as it seems? In a murder mystery? No. Besides, if the idea was either to foreshadow shit or thematically signify . . . something . . . I’m pretty sure more relevant scenes could have been used.
There are also weird lighting choices (I’m talking some technicolor, Suspiria-level shit), a few odd POV shifts, an occasionally overdramatic/mildly intrusive score, and some just truly terrible transitions between scenes. The very worst one is when Charles climbs into a tree house at night to spy on a few people. He sees [spoiler redacted], before realizing that he’s trapped up there because the family’s attack dogs are angrily barking below–but it feels like the scene isn’t even properly over before the film immediately switches to a snazzy reel of papers being printed, only for the screen to briefly go dark before zooming back out on Charles sitting in his office the next day, reading a newspaper.
Like, I get it’s a stylistic homage and all, but it’s an extremely poorly executed one.
3. Crooked House also has some writing problems, not so much with the actual dialogue, which, all in all, I rather like. No, our problem here is structure and backstory: we get a couple of flashback scenes, but they don’t so much resolve as they do trail off, and either way are absolutely unnecessary to the mystery at hand. Obviously, that’s irritating because it’s poor storytelling; it’s also a problem because it takes away time from the investigation.
While the film starts well, setting up all the players and motives and weird family dynamics, more than half the suspects kinda peter out as real possibilities maybe halfway through the movie. It’s not because Charles specifically rules them out, mind. They just clearly aren’t important enough, clever enough, or intriguing enough to be the bad guy. If you know anything about murder mystery structure at all, you can rule out, like, five people within maybe the first hour of the film.
This actually isn’t a death knell to the movie, particularly because there’s a twist in Crooked House that I’ll admit I didn’t see coming until far too late . . . but it is a disappointment. The film’s opening is strong, shaky cam aside, and the ending . . . well, it’s interesting . . . but the middle of the film is kind of a mess.
Honestly, that’s probably about all I can really say before we get into spoilers. So, let’s just jump into those, shall we?
It is incredibly easy to eliminate Brenda (Christina Hendricks) as a suspect; she’s the dead guy’s much younger wife, and she is just far, far too obvious. Similarly, Magda (Gillian Anderson) and her husband, and Clemency (Amanda Abbington) and her husband also end up being pretty easy to eliminate, considering they’re just too . . . petty. None of these characters really seem motivated or intelligent enough to be involved, which is particularly unfortunate with Clemency, as she’s supposed to be an expert on poisons or something. And it’s weird, too, because people repeatedly say that Brenda is completely out of her league when it comes to the family politics and Machiavellian machinations in this house, but honestly, that doesn’t really same the case to me when it comes to these four.
At any rate, that leaves us with Sophia, the client and ex-girlfriend, Josephine (Honor Kneafsey), Sophia’s extremely precocious younger sister, and Lady Edith (Glenn Close), Dead Grandpa’s sister-in-law from his first marriage. I ruled Josephine out pretty much immediately, considering this all seemed a little too early for the Evil Child twist, which left me bouncing between Sophia and Edith for most of the movie. Of course, I–from the very bottom of my soul–did not want it to be Sophia, as there really is nothing more boring than the stereotypical femme fatale, like, I’m all about interesting femme fatales, but Secretly Evil Sophia definitely wouldn’t qualify. Meanwhile, Edith was mostly a suspect because she’s a) Glenn Close, and b) easily the most likable person in the whole house. Motivation, however, was a bigger problem.
You see, I could only come up with one reason why Lady Edith might murder this dude: protecting her family. Specifically, I was pretty sure Dead Grandpa had molested Sophia as a child. Why? Well, Dead Grandpa apparently really liked dancers, and he encouraged Sophia’s ballet studies when she was a little girl. Not to mention, she tells Charles, “We [Sophia and her grandfather] had a . . . special bond,” a description that she refuses to elaborate on. So, either this was an obvious red herring I completely fell for, or someone really dropped the ball on catching creepy subtext.
Edith and Sofia are closer than anyone in the house, and Edith’s pretty baller, so Avenging Angel Glenn Close made sense to me . . . until someone started trying to kill little Josephine. See, Josephine fancies herself as a detective and likes to spy on people. It’s clear she knows secrets about the house, so it’s really no surprise when there’s a murder attempt on her life. But . . . there’s just no way Edith tried to kill her, not if I was right about the motive. You just don’t murder evil child molesters one day and then kill a kid the next because she knows your dark secret. That shit doesn’t track.
Things didn’t start making sense until right around the time someone tried to murder Josephine again. This time, Josephine is put to a bed with a cup of hot chocolate, which she doesn’t want to drink because she hates hot chocolate; apparently, her nanny only makes it so that she can drink it. We then go into this whole juxtaposition scene where Edith sits outside, weary and exhausted, while an energetic Josephine does a ballet routine in front of her grandfather’s giant portrait. Dead Grandpa apparently wouldn’t let Josephine do ballet (supposedly because she wasn’t pretty or graceful enough for it, which I just took to mean he was still a disgusting monster, just a choosy one). Also, that random Suspiria-esque lighting I mentioned before? Off the charts in this scene.
Shortly after all this, we find out that Nanny is dead, poisoned from the hot chocolate meant for Josephine.
And I’m like . . . huh.
Because, for one, that dance? That was a “fuck you” dance if I’ve ever seen one, which, okay. The dude was a creep, and Josephine is also something of a superior little shit, so, sure. That’s fine. But while by and large the random lighting choices throughout the movie haven’t seemed to signify shit, these bold lighting choices really only made sense if they were an attempt to indicate total villainy, an unstable mind, or possibly both. Plus, Josephine hasn’t been shy to mention how much she hates hot chocolate; in fact, Sophia’s so familiar with the complaint that she finishes Josephine’s sentence for her after the poisoned hot chocolate is made. Neither she nor Edith are dumb enough to try and murder the kid this way . . .
. . . unless Josephine was never actually the target.
Yes, I was wrong about it being too early for the evil child twist. For some reason, I assumed Crooked House was written a decade or two earlier than it was–I often forget that Christie was writing books as late as the 1970’s. In fact, Crooked House was published in 1949, only five years before The Bad Seed by William March, and seven years before that book was made into an Oscar-nominated film. I’m trying to determine if there are any earlier fictional examples of a little sociopathic child running around, murdering people; everything I can think of comes after Crooked House. If you know, please do share. Google is currently failing me.
I still wasn’t 100% sure about Evil Josephine, mind you, not until Lady Edith–who we’ve recently found out is terminally ill–sneaks the girl away, supposedly to try and murder her again. I didn’t believe that for one second, so there were only two other alternatives: one, Edith wanted to keep the kid away from the real murderess, Sophia (which blah, not to mention seemed seriously unlikely after the hot chocolate debacle), or two, she knew Josephine was the killer. So, then I was like, Well, shit, they really ARE going the evil kid route, which means . . . oh hell, Edith’s taking the small child on a murder-suicide run over a cliff somewhere to prevent further murders and preserve the family’s dignity or something, isn’t she?
Which, yeah, that’s pretty much the case, with the caveat that Edith also wanted to spare Josephine from living her life in a horrible mental institution. She drives them off the cliff. Sophia and Charles run up, only to see the car explode. Justifiably distraught, Sophia screams a lot, while Charles holds Sophia and repeatedly assures her that it wasn’t her fault. We zoom back to the gigantic portrait of Dead Grandpa, and then . . . The End.
As twists go, it’s not a terrible one; like I said, I didn’t call it until far too late. But the exact ending doesn’t totally work for me, and I suspect it’s because I’m not totally wild about Edith’s choice here. Like, I get she was dying anyway and the mental institutions of the time were obviously abominable, but . . . I don’t know. It still feels like an awfully big step. Not to mention, the whole terminal illness thing (apparently not in the novel) does feel like kind of a cliche, something I must mention for my sister’s sake, considering how much it annoyed her. In a way, I’m glad they have it because otherwise, Edith’s actions would come off more like “Well, I’m old anyway,” something that I think would irritate me even more, like there is a noticeable difference between old and dead. OTOH, a tacked on terminal illness does feel like it takes, IDK, something from her choice here. Plus, I still can’t help but feel like this scene is going for the whole noble sacrifice/mercy killing thing . . . only without much in the way of nobility or mercy.
A possible solution: Edith’s sister, dead all these years, was secretly put away in an asylum by her husband, where she was basically tortured until she died. A personal connection, I feel, would give a lot more weight to Edith’s choice here, fueling her determination to never let something like this happen again to someone she loved. (Depending on when we discovered this, the dead sister would also give Edith a better motivation for murder than she had in the film. Like, I know someone drops a line about how she and Dead Grandpa hate each other, but dude, they’ve been living together for a long time; there needs to be a reason she’d actually snap and kill him, since the molestation angle was apparently never a real thing.)
A few more notes before we wrap up:
A. Seriously, Charles and Sophia’s flashback scenes are just the worst. Everything we see could’ve easily been summed up in a few lines of dialogue, especially because their backstory a) has absolutely nothing to do with the actual mystery, and b) tells a bafflingly incomplete story. We see them together, and we see that he’s spying on her, and then . . . nothing. We don’t get to see the scene where she dumps him. We don’t get to see the scene where he decides to leave the spy business. We find out these things happen because we’re told them, but . . . why, why show only half the story? The flashbacks just completely drop out of the film, and it makes no sense.
B. I’m not 100% convinced that the majority of the Scotland Yard scenes fit in, either, like there’s a brief plot thread where the cops are following him because they don’t trust his judgment, or to keep him safe, or something? I don’t know; it’s kind of just shoved in there. That being said, I definitely want to keep these scenes anyway, if only because I just adored one of Charles’s old spy buddies, who had this whole snappy, quick-witted charisma to him. Like, he’s in the movie for maybe three minutes, tops, and he just has such energy. The delivery in this scene, for example, where he’s talking to a dude that’s been tailing Charles:
“Hi, I believe we have a mutual friend.”
I’m not saying it’s an original joke or anything, but it plays perfectly.
This guy’s name, I’m pretty sure, is Brent, and he’s played by Jacob Fortune Lloyd. It took me, like, fifteen minutes to figure that out, as the character’s name isn’t spoken in the movie and he’s not credited on IMDb or Wikipedia. I had to pause the credits and start Googling the only character names I didn’t recognize until I got to this guy. Totally ridiculous.
At any rate, Jacob Fortune Lloyd is definitely this movie’s best scene stealer. I was totally bummed he dropped out of the story so quickly.
C. I may not have called Evil Child until far, far too late, but at the very least I can say that I knew Edith was terminally ill, like, 20 minutes into the movie.
D. Finally, I’m sort of shocked that there was nothing hidden behind the crooked painting that Sophia straightened. I mean, I guess I’m glad because that seemed ridiculously obvious, but . . . I don’t know. Do you ever come across red herrings in a story that just sorta feel like loose ends instead? I felt like that a few times during this movie.
Starts strong, but a weak second act hampers the mystery a bit. Even with it, though, this movie was enjoyable enough that it could have been a solid B . . . if not for all the strangely intrusive directorial choices that really detract from the story at almost every given opportunity.
Kids. Sometimes you love them; sometimes you wanna trick them into your car so you can force them into a Thelma and Louise-style mercy kill that they didn’t ask for in the first place.