As murder mysteries go, Agatha Christie’s Ordeal By Innocence is appealing in part for some of the more unconventional choices made by the author, and partly for some of the choices made by writer Sarah Phelps, who adapted and updated the story for the joint production between Amazon and BBC, which stars the likes of Bill Nighy, Alice Eve, Matthew Goode, and more. Christie’s work has found new life in film and television as of late. In addition to Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express and its upcoming sequel Death on the Nile, Christie’s mustachioed detective, Hercule Poirot is on his way to TV, in the form of John Malcovich in this year’s The ABC Murders (also written by Phelps). But before the Belgian detective’s sleuthing becomes a weekend’s binge-watch, Ordeal By Innocence makes a strong case for the author’s recent resurgence in popular culture.
With a dash of Downton Abbey-like decadence and period detail, the new three-hour whodunnit makes for an entertaining watch that will appeal to Christie readers and non-readers alike. Directed by Sandra Goldbacher, who brings the same moody, perpetual late-afternoon quality she delivered with the short-lived Ben Wishaw and Romola Garai period drama The Hour, Ordeal By Innocence tells a isolated, almost claustrophobic story of the murder of Rachel Argyll (Anna Chancellor), a wealthy philanthropist and matriarch. Her death by bludgeoning was blamed on her adopted son Jack (Anthony Boyle), whose volcanic personality did nothing to aid his denial of the accusations, up to the time he died in prison. Cut to 18 months later and Rachel’s husband, Leo (Nighy) is set to remarry the young, vivacious Gwenda Vaughn (Eve), much to the disapproval of his children, Mary (Eleanor Tomlinson), Hester (Ella Purnell), and Mickey (Christian Cooke).
An exceptionally seedy haze hangs around this inordinately wealthy family that also counts Mary’s husband Philip Durrant (Goode), a scheming, morphine-addicted paraplegic, as a member of the sordid clan. That unsavoriness is compounded when Dr. Arthur Calgary (Luke Treadaway) arrives on the eve of Leo and Gwenda’s nuptials, claiming to have irrefutable evidence of Jack’s innocence. Not only do the good doctor’s (spoiler: he’s not a doctor) claims upset an already strained family dynamic, but they suggest Rachel’s true killer is still among them, leaving everyone (especially the person or persons responsible for the foul deed) in an extremely vulnerable position.
The compounded tension of simmering familial antipathy and the likelihood that a matricidal killer walks among them turns the remote estate into a nest of manipulation and resentment. It’s the ideal environment for characters like Goode’s drug-addled Philip and Eve’s seemingly duplicitous Gwenda to thrive.
It’s also an opportunity for less blatantly treacherous characters, like Purnell’s Hester, her adoptive sister Tina (Crystal Clarke), or the lone, seemingly long-suffering housekeeper/cook Kirsten (Morven Christie) to become plausible suspects by virtue of how unlikely it is they could have bashed in a woman’s skull with a crystal decanter. The arrival of Mickey is enough to offset the power balance in the house. His unresolved feelings toward his mother, combined with his and Philip’s mutual loathing, and his sudden need to ensure Calgary’s departure from the area make him a likely suspect.
Ordeal By Innocence manages its central mystery through the use of flashbacks. The device is essentially a red herring factory, as the night Rachel was murdered plays over an over again, but with new information added every time. The additional information arouses suspicion of every member of the household until nearly everyone is a suspect. Coupled with the murder mystery is the slow reveal of the reasons for the children’s long-standing resentment of their parents, and the suggestion that all was not right in Leo and Rachel’s marriage.
Goldbacher is as interested in probing melodramatic moments, like Jack’s wicked smile following his arrest, as she is in letting Nighy and Chancellor communicate the failing health of their marriage through a handful of nearly imperceptible withering glances. Those moments stand in sharp contrast to the persistent indignant manner with which Philip regards his wife, and the not so repressed anger toward Calgary, especially after his poorly thought out ruse is discovered. All of this adds up to a darkly compelling portrait of a family whose interpersonal relationships had turned poisonous long before murder was the order of the day.
At just three hour-long episodes, Ordeal By Innocence delivers a satisfying binge, making use of its expansive cast, affording each character adequate screen time without asking anyone overstay their welcome. Another reason for tuning in might also court controversy, however, as Phelps has reportedly reworked aspects of the story so that it will leave even Christie devotees guessing as to who the guilty party actually is. That sort of alteration from the source material may ruffle some fan feathers, but it doesn’t take away from the series’ many fine performances, sharp dialogue, and especially Goldbacher’s moody, atmospheric direction. As murder mysteries go, Ordeal By Innocence is a cleverly crafted whodunit with entertaining twists to spare.
Agatha Christie’s Ordeal By Innocence is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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