“ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” (2007) Review

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“ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” (2007) Review

Many people would be surprised to learn that not many of Agatha Christie’s novels featured another one of her famous literary sleuths, Miss Jane Marple. The latter served as the lead in at least twelve novels, in compare to the thirty-three novels that starred her other famous sleuth, Hercule Poirot. It is because of this limited number of novels that the producers of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” featured adaptations of Christie novels in which she appeared in the television films, but not in the novels. One of them is “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE”.

Based upon Christie’s 1958 novel, “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” opened with the murder of the Argyle family’s controlling matriarch, Rachel Argyle. Mrs. Argyle was a wealthy heiress who had adapted several children, due to her inability to have her own. She also proved to be a controlling – almost tyrannical – mother who managed to alienate her adoptive children and husband. It did not take the police very long to focus upon one suspect – the family’s black sheep, Jack “Jacko” Argyle. Apparently, the latter quarreled with the victim over money. Jacko claimed that he had been given a lift by a stranger, when Rachel was murdered. But said stranger never stepped up to give him an alibi and Jacko was hanged for the crime. Two years later found the Argyle family celebrating the family’s patriarch Leo Argyle to his secretary, Gwenda Vaughn. The latter had invited her former employer, Jane Marple, to attend the wedding. A day or two before wedding, a stranger named Dr. Arthur Calgary appeared at the family estate, claiming to be the stranger who had given Jacko a lift on the night of Rachel’s murder. Due to Dr. Calgary’s confession, the Argyle family and Gwenda found themselves under suspicion for murder.

As I have stated in other movie reviews, I never had a problem with changes in adaptations of novels and/or plays, as long as these changes worked. “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” featured a few changes. The biggest change featured in the inclusion of Jane Marple as the mystery’s main investigator. Arthur Calgary served in that role in the novel. The television film also featured the addition of a character that was not in the novel – Jacko’s fraternal twin Bobby Argyle. Another major change featured the film’s second murder victim. Screenwriter Stewart Harcourt switched the identity of the story’s second victim. And how did these changes work?

I have to be frank. The addition of Bobby Argyle to the story did not seemed to have much of an impact upon me. The character became the executor of his adopted mother’s will, which placed him in charge of her money and his siblings’ trust funds. The problem I had with his story arc is that audiences were left in the dark on whether he had lost their money when he committed fraud . . . or he simply lost his own money. As I had previously stated, Harcourt and director Moira Armstrong had switched the identity of the story’s second victim. I will not reveal the identities of both the old and new identities. But I must admit that the second victim’s death – at least in this television movie – added a rather sad and poignant touch to this adaptation. The last major change featured Jane Marple as the story’s major investigator. Arthur Calgary, the man who could have provided Jacko Argyle an alibi, was the main investigator in Christie’s novel. In this film, he was more or less regulated to the role of a secondary character. Ironically, this change did not diminish his role, for Calgary more or less served as Miss Marple’s eyes, ears and feet; while remained at the Argyle estate. And this meant several scenes that featured Calgary engaging in a good deal of investigations on Miss Marple’s behalf.

Despite these changes, “ORDEAL OF INNOCENCE” more or less retained the main narrative Christie’s story. More importantly, I thought both Harcourt’s screenplay and Armstrong’s direction did an excellent job in maintaining the story’s angst, poignancy and more importantly, irony. Thanks to the director and screenwriter, “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” conveyed how Rachel Argyle’s presence managed to cast a shadow upon her family. And how her absence lifted that shadow, until Dr. Calgary’s revelation about Jacko’s innocence. I was also impressed at how the television movie did an effective, yet subtle job in conveying the bigotry faced by the family’s only person of color – Christina “Tina” Argyle.

While watching “ORDEAL OF INNOCENCE”, it occurred to me that Christie’s tale would not have worked if it had not been for the cast’s exceptional performances. All of them, I believe, really knocked it out of the ballpark. Mind you, there were solid performances from supporting cast members like Reece Shearsmith, Andrea Lowe, Camille Coduri, Pippa Haywood, and James Hurran. But I must confess that I was really impressed by those who portrayed members of the Argyle household. Burn Gorman radiated a mixture of charm and slime as the doomed Jacko Argyle. Richard Armitage was equally memorable as the avaricious and bitter ex-R.A.F. pilot who had married into the Argyle family, Philip Durrant. Singer Lisa Stansfield gave a subtle performance as Philip’s emotional, yet reserved wife Mary Argyle Durant, blinded by intense love for her husband. I enjoyed Bryan Dick’s portrayal of the volatile Micky Argyle, but there were moments when he threatened to be over-the-top. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, on the other hand, gave a performance that matched Stansfield’s subtlety as the blunt Tina Argyle, who hid her resentment of the racism she faced behind a sardonic mask. Stephanie Leonidas gave an effectively tense performance as the family’s youngest member, Hester Argyle, struggling to face her past involvement with brother-in-law Philip. And the always reliable Tom Riley did an excellent job with his portrayal of morally questionable Bobby Argyle.

But the performances that really impressed me came from the cast’s more veteran performers. Geraldine McEwan was marvelous as always in conveying the quiet intelligence of Miss Jane Marple. Despite being on the screen for only a few minutes, Jane Seymour really knocked it out of the park and domineering and sharp-tongued Rachel Argyle. She made it easy to see how the character managed to cast a shadow over the Argyle family. Julian Rhind-Tutt struck me as both entertaining and effective as the scholarly Dr. Arthur Calgary, who gave Jacko Argyle his alibi two years too late. What I found impressive about Rhind-Tutt’s performance is that he managed to convey his character’s intelligence and strength behind the nebbish personality. Alison Steadman’s portrayal of the Argyle’s judgmental housekeeper struck me as both subtle and frightening – especially in her stubborn belief that Gwenda Vaughn was Rachel’s killer. Denis Lawson has my vote for the best performance in “ORDEAL OF INNOCENCE”. There . . . I said it. And I stand by this. Lawson did a brilliant job in conveying the weak and suggestible personality of Leo Argyle. There were moments when I could not decide whether I liked him or despised him. It is not every day one comes across a fictional character brimming with quiet charm and unreliability.

It has been years since I saw the 1984 television adaptation of Christie’s 1958 novel. So, I have no memories of it. And I have seen the recent 2018 television adaptation. But I must be honest. I really enjoyed this 2007 adaptation. Yes, it has a few flaws. But I really believe that it did a superb job in conveying the poignant and ironic aspects of the novel. And I have director Moira Armstrong, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt and a superb cast led by Geraldine McEwan to thank.

Ranking of “THE COLLECTION” (2016) Episodes

Below is my ranking of the episodes from the 2016 limited series, “THE COLLECTION”. Created by Oliver Goldstick, the series starred Richard Coyle and Tom Riley: 

RANKING OF “THE COLLECTION” (2016) EPISODES

1. (1.04) “The Launch” – Under pressure to create the Spring show, the Sabine family’s fashion house, The Maison, is a hive of activity. But designer Claude Sabine is not creating and a seamstress-turned-model named Nina is focused on finding her illegitimate child. American journalist Stanley Rossi returns to question Paul Sabine’s former boss and mentor, forcing Paul to punish those he loves.

2. (1.06) “The Weekend” – The inner circle of The Maison spend a weekend at investor Jules Trouvier’s chateau. There, the Sabine family is rocked by untimely revelations, surprising alliances, relationships and a betrayal that may be damaged beyond repair.

3. (1.02) “The Dress” – The new business marriage with Trouvier is only hours into its honeymoon, when he and Paul clash over how to run the house. With millions at stake, when Nina is thrust into the unlikely role of a couture model events take a darker turn during a photo shoot.

4. (1.07) “The Betrayal” – Everyone at The Maison is somber following a staffer’s road accident, and Helen’s attempts to help using her family connections, only raises troubling wartime questions for Paul. Charlotte meanwhile begins her counter attack on the business and threatens to expose Claude as the true genius behind the Paul Sabine label.

5. (1.01) “The Deal” – Rising fashion designer Paul Sabine is offered the keys to a kingdom when he resurrects his family’s fashion house. But he needs the help of his volatile brother, Claude, the true genius behind the label.

6. (1.08) “The Offer” – In the final episode, Paul fights to maintain The Maison, while his mother Yvette Sabine tries to broker relations between her sons. Nina and American photographer Billy Novak must decide where their future lies.

7. (1.05) “The Afterglow” – Paul’s glory is short-lived and instead of basking in the afterglow of a jubilant show, he is questioned about a dead body found buried on his family’s farm. Meanwhile, Claude declares he is no longer happy to stay in the shadows.

8. (1.03) “The Scent” – Tormented by personal demons, Claude goes to dry out in the country. Meanwhile, secrets from the past war begin to spill out when a dead body is found on the Sabine family’s farm and Paul becomes aware of an investigation into his former boss’ past.

“APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” (2008) Review

 

 

 

“APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” (2008) Review

Looking back on the number of Agatha Christie movie adaptations I have seen, I find it surprising that only a handful of Christie titles have been adapted for the movies or television more than once. One of those titles happened to be the author’s 1938 novel called ”Appointment With Death”

The most well known adaptation before the 2008 one had been produced and directed by Michael Winner some twenty years earlier. Released in 1988, the movie starred Peter Ustinov in his last appearance as the Belgian-born sleuth, Hercule Poirot; and is not considered among the best of Christie adaptations before the premiere of ”Agatha Christie’s POIROT” around 1989. The production values of the 1988 version of ”APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” almost had a cheap, B-movie quality about it. Nevertheless, I feel that it is a masterpiece in compare to this recent version that starred David Suchet as Poirot.

”APOINTMENT WITH DEATH” told the story of Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the murder of a wealthy, middle-aged American woman named Lady Boynton (Mrs. Boynton in the novel). But screenwriter Guy Andrews made so many changes from Christie’s original tale that it would seem pointless for me to recap the plot. One, the victim is not a widow. Instead, she is in the middle of a second marriage to a British peer and archeologist named Lord Boynton. Only Lennox Boynton is her stepson by marriage . . . and his name has become Leonard. The others – Carol, Raymond and Ginerva (Jinny) – had been adopted before her marriage to Lord Boynton. And yes, Jinny is no longer her child by blood. Lady Boynton never spent time as a warden for a women’s prison. Instead, she was an astute businesswoman. The character of Nadine, Lennox’s wife, did not appear in this adaptation. Jefferson Hope was transformed from the Boynton family’s attorney, into an American traveler with business ties to Lady Boynton. Dr. Gerard’s nationality and profession had been changed from French psychologist to British medical doctor. The American-born Member of Parliament, Lady Westholme, became British-born world traveler Dame Celia Westholme. And former nursery governess Miss Amabel Pierce, became known as “Nanny”; Lady Boynton’s nervous and very reluctant henchwoman in the abuse of the murder victim’s many adopted children. Andrews also added a new character – a Polish-born nun, who had befriended Jinny, named Sister Agnieszka. However, Dr. Sarah King remained intact – in both characterization and profession. The story’s setting is changed from Petra to Syria. The novel featured a single killer. This movie featured two killers . . . and a different motive. These changes allowed Andrews to give the murderers a fate straight from the finale of 1937’s ”Death on the Nile”.

I have to make one thing clear regarding the changes made by Guy Andrews. I have nothing against a writer making changes from a literary source to accommodate a screen adaptation. There are some things that do not translate well to the screen. But I feel that most of the changes made by Andrews did NOT serve the movie’s plot very well. In fact, I would say that the opposite happened. Despite its B-movie atmosphere; the 1988 movie seemed like an elegant affair in comparison to this 2008 version. Mind you, the latter had some virtues. David Suchet gave a subtle performance as Hercule Poirot. Peter Greenhalgh’s photography struck me as beautiful and rich in colors. Even Sheena Napier’s costume designs managed to capture the mid-to-late 1930s quite well. Elizabeth McGovern’s portrayal of a British or Irish female seemed surprisingly competent, despite her being American-born. Both Tim Curry (as Lord Boynton) and John Hannah (as Dr. Gerard) gave entertaining performances. And I also felt impressed by Christina Cole (Dr. Sarah King) and Mark Gatiss (Leonard) performances as well. So, why do I have such a low opinion of this movie?

My main beef with ”APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” was the changes made to the story. I simply found them unnecessary. The change in the story’s setting from Petra to Syria, created a small confusion. In the 1930s, part of Syria was under British control and the other half was under French control. Yet, the movie featured a very British Colonel Carbury (portrayed by Paul Freeman), who had French troops under his command. Confusing. And was it really necessary to include characters like Lord Boynton and Sister Agnieszka, who did not exist in the novel? No. Lord Boynton was nothing more than a red herring created to distract viewers of the teleplay. And Sister Agnieszka was used to include a subplot that was never in the novel and had nothing to do with the main narrative. Was it necessary to change the number of murderers from one to two? Again . . . no. By changing the number of murderers, Andrews changed the motive behind the victim’s murder from preserving a secret to an act of revenge. Worse, by changing the number of murderers and motive, Andrews complicated the plot to such a ridiculous level that by the end of the story, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief. Even more ridiculous was the convoluted method used by the killers to bump off Lady Boynton. Was it necessary to include a subplot about the sex slave trade, which had nothing to do with Lady Boynton’s murder? I would say no. Especially since the subplot was never included in Christie’s novel.

In the novel, Mrs. Boynton inflicted a great deal of psychological abuse upon her step-children and her daughter, Jinny. This movie had Lady Boynton bullying a hired nanny – Nanny Taylor – into inflicting physical abuse upon the many children she had adopted over the years – including Raymond, Carol . . . and Jinny. Was the change necessary? I certainly do not believe it was. Both the novel and the 1988 film made it painfully obvious how harmful Mrs. Boynton’s psychological abuse was upon her stepchildren. Apparently, Andrews, director Ashley Pierce and the producers thought it was not dramatic enough and decided to be more drastic by including physical abuse. To emphasize the horror of Lady Boynton’s domestic situation, they allowed Nanny Taylor to fall into a catatonic state following her employer’s death out of guilt. I found these changes unnecessary. I found the idea of Nanny Taylor remaining with the family after the children became adults irrelevant. And if I must be brutally honest, I was not that impressed by Angela Pleasance’s slightly hammy performance as the tormented nanny.

In a review of “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the 2010 version of Christie’s 1934 novel, I had complained about the religious themes that permeated that movie. Apparently, ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” was not the first movie in the series to emphasize religion. The same happened two years earlier in ”APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH”. As I had stated earlier, one of the new characters turned out to be a Polish-born Catholic nun. I had to endure a sanctimonious conversation between her and Ginerva. Lord Boynton’s archeological quest turned out to be a search for John the Baptist’s head. I had never heard of anything so ridiculous. How was anyone supposed to figure out whether the head of John the Baptist or some citizen of the region had been found? And to make matters worse, once Lord Boynton thought he had found the object of his quest, he had Sister Agnieszka lead the rest of the party into a prayer over said skull. The scene struck me as too ludicrous to believe. The over-the-top choral music that permeated Stephen McKeon’s score did not help matters.

When it comes to adapting a novel or play for the screen, I have no problems with screenwriters making changes to the story or any of the characters . . . if those changes manage to serve the film. After all, some aspects of a novel or play do not translate well into film. But the changes I found in ”APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” struck me as unnecessary. They not only failed to serve the movie’s plot, I found them convoluted and over-the-top. The addition of a religious theme simply made matters worse. The movie had a few virtues – including a solid performance from David Suchet. But not even he could save the amount of damage inflicted upon this movie.