“Crooked House” made little to no noise when it came out theatrically in 2017-18. Labeling something “Agatha Christie’s Crooked House” should have helped, considering Kenneth Branagh revived her ancient murder mystery “brand” with his remake of “Murder on the Orient Express” over Christmas of 2017.
“Sarah’s Key” director Gilles Paquet-Brenner doesn’t have Sir Ken’s polish or witty way with the material, and the film’s “all-star cast” is slightly less glittery. But this rich patriarch’s suspicious death amid-a-house-full-of-suspects tale still works, showing off Christie’s genius for plotting and creating characters. If it’s not as much fun as “Knives Out,” it still has its moments, and plainly was one of the inspirations of Rian Johnson’s comic jewel.
Max Irons, you-know-who-and-you-know-her’s son, stars as Charles Hayward, the posh-enough offspring of a Scotland Yard legend, a onetime member of the “diplomatic service” (a spy), now a private detective visited by an old flame (Stefanie Martini of TV’s “The Last Kingdom”).
Femme fatale-ish Sophia insists her rich grandfather — a hotel, restaurant and “Associated Catering” tycoon and Greek immigrant who married into the British upper class — was murdered in his great house, Three Gables.
“I believe the killers may still be in there,” she declares, meaning the extended members of the late pere Leonides, his children, grandchildren and in-laws.
After dismissing her with extreme prejudice — Charles still carries a grudge about “Cairo” — he reconsiders, consults with an old Scotland Yard colleague of his father (Terrence Stamp) and motors into the country.
It’s 1957 or so, “the war” is fading into memory, rock and roll is just now arriving in Britannia and Charles drives a stylish Bristol to “pass” for posh, because that’s what you did back then.
But questioning this lot is going to be tricky.
“How does it work, all of you living in this house together?” “Who told you it works?”
Not Chief Inspector Taverner (Stamp). “These people relish their privacy as much as their money.”
Sophia isn’t really a suspect…at first. Then there’s her grandfather’s “favorite” son (Christian McKay) who runs the business empire, that son’s biologist/poison expert wife (Amanda Abbingdon). An older brother/historian (Julian Sands) who used to gamble and married a high class/no success actress (Gillian Anderson) resent the hell out of them.
“Ruin the family business and bugger off to Barbados, how LIKE my brother!”
Better than “losing everything playing baccarat on the Riviera!”
There’s a nanny and a tutor, bratty younger children, and the sister (Glenn Close) of old Leonides’ lesser-nobility first wife. And of course, there’s the Vegas chorine second wife, now a widow, given a jaded bombshell as “common” touch by Christina Hendricks.
The film has just enough glossy period detail, just enough intrigues, deaths or near-deaths and twists to pass for Christie and keep us interested
The supporting cast ranges from good to downright delicious (Close, Anderson), with its leading man (Irons was in the “Condor” and “The Little Drummer Girl” and “Tutankhamun” TV series) standing out mainly by not standing out.
Young Irons hasn’t learned or aged or what-have-you enough to know how to embrace the camera and seize our attention. It may be a charisma thing and he may never get there, but he’s merely adequate here, and that dampens the fun of the film.
Similarly, Martini is reminiscent of Ruth Wilson/Natalie Dormer in that “manipulator of men” screen bombshell way, but doesn’t quite get there in this performance.
The bratty children (Honor Kneafsey and Preston Nyman) make far bigger impressions in tiny roles. And Close, often wielding a shotgun as her Lady Edith takes on the estate’s moles, devours the scenery, but with subtlety and great humor.
Perhaps Sir Ken will bring her round for the next Agatha he does and win the lady her Oscar. This film’s slack middle acts and smaller-than-life performances remind us, almost constantly, that he’s not behind the camera at “Crooked House.”
But Christie’s mastery of the genre survives even lesser adaptations, and she and the best bits of casting rescue “Crooked House,” even if they couldn’t make it much of a hidden gem.
Rating: TV-14, murder most foul
Cast: Max Irons, Stefanie Martini, Gillian Anderson, Christina Hendricks, Julian Sands, Christian McKay, Terrence Stamp and Glenn Close
Credits: Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, scripted by Julian Fellowes, Tim Rose Price and
Gilles Paquet-Brenner. A Sony release on Netflix.
Running time: 1:55