It makes sense that the many works of Agatha Christie would steadily provide fodder for film adaptations. One of the most prolific writers since Shakespeare, she is also one of the most adapted writers, putting her, again, in league with Shakespeare. Her twisty mysteries remain ready for their close-up, and “Crooked House” is just the latest in a long line, and a worthy, appropriately over the top addition.
A wonderfully theatrical adaptation written by Julian Fellowes, who has proven in “Gosford Park” and “Downton Abbey” that he knows his way around an English country manor, this particular misadventure dials up the drama, but in a delightful, deliberate way, especially appropriate since most of the wealthy characters are failed artists, bitterly deigning to live in the luxury afforded them by their resented, overbearing patriarch. Naturally, he is murdered in the film’s opening frames.
The ensemble cast is chock full of good people, from Terrance Stamp to Julian Sands, to television luminaries Gillian Anderson, Christina Hendricks and “Sherlock’s” Amanda Abbington. Foremost among the cast is Glenn Close, feasting on every inch of the lovely scenery with a wild-eyed abandon that makes her role as Cruella De Vil look like a low-key mumblecore performance.
When Aristide Leonides dies in his sleep, foul play is, quite rightly, suspected, and virtually all of the numerous family members living under his roof have a motivation to get rid of him. Julian Sands is his frustrated eldest son, who chose to try to be a writer instead of taking over the numerous family businesses, and Gillian Anderson plays his arch, boozy wife, who is of course an actress. Their oldest daughter contacts her ex-boyfriend, a detective played by Max Irons, and he tackles the formidable task of interviewing all these combative misfits.
Irons is the straight man to these intense personalities, and this film follows all the rules in the Agatha Christie playbook, since after all she literally wrote the book on this kind of story. Eccentrics throw one another under the bus, as our expectations are led in one direction then another, until the rather shocking conclusion.
“Crooked House” is tasteful but not sedate, and perfect for mystery fans who might be looking for redemption after the disappointing train wreck of the recent “Murder on the Orient Express.” The star wattage is put to effective use, especially would-be power couple Julian Sands and Gillian Anderson, blissfully unaware of their shortcomings. Their youngest daughter is a sinister wise child in the tradition of “The Bad Seed,” and, not only does she not miss a trick, she keeps a record of the many adult aberrations she keenly observes.
This over the top adaptation is not realistic, but it is great fun. With the detective and his thwarted love trying to maintain sanity in a whirling vortex of family dysfunction, the viewer is along for a ride that ends shockingly and abruptly, and even if you think have kept all the red herrings in order, and even if you think you have seen it coming, you’ll be left wondering if you really saw what you just saw.
“Crooked House” is currently available to rent.