Agatha Christie purists need to know something upfront so they can be prepared for a potential “ordeal” of their own: “Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence,” as it’s been branded by Amazon, features a major plot departure from the book and from its previous adaptations on the large and small screen. Be forewarned.
This adaptation stars the inimitable Bill Nighy as Leo Argyll, whose house is turned inside-out by the murder of his wife, Rachel (Anna Chancellor). Five adopted children and a housekeeper all look like potential perps, and indeed their son Jack is determined to be conclusively guilty, though he swears he isn’t. Unfortunately, by the time his alibi, a scientist named Dr. Calgary, arrives to set the record straight, Jack has already died in prison and Leo Argyll is set to marry his former secretary…. All this you know, if you’re a Christie enthusiast.
OK: Acting? It’s Bill Nighy. Of course he’s stellar. The whole cast is. The production is sleek, the photography oscillates between stately static shots and jarring POV sequences that nimbly suggest disturbances in the inner worlds of the characters. The pacing is great. There’s a certain masterful use of temporal distortion, so that we see things out of order, then come back to the same scenes repeatedly—from different characters’ points of view, or with an expanded piece of the story. First you get a brief glimpse of Rachel’s body, for instance, and over time you see more and more of the moments leading up to her death. What they have done, they have done well.
Here’s Sarah Phelps, who scripted this adaptation, on fidelity to source: “I don’t give a bollocks (sic).” And guys, she really, really doesn’t. Now we come to an unexpected intersection of Ordeal by Innocence and Netflix’s Anne With An E: Neither series gives a bollocks about what the author of the book put on the pages of the book. This Ordeal By Innocence isn’t “bad”; it’s done well, and if you had no awareness of Agatha Christie’s oeuvre you’d probably say, “This is a good three-part mystery.” Because it is.
But it’s freakin’ Agatha Christie. A heavily adapted, well-known, canonical writer of popular fiction whose work you have probably seen, read, or felt the influence of if you are at all culturally literate. So, let us once again ask a couple of questions: What is up with the near-pathological urge to produce endless (endless) modernized remixes of works that have already been adapted for stage and screen (in some cases many times) when there are oceans of untapped, spankin’-new content ripe for the treatment? And is anyone concerned about the specific trend in how these old chestnuts are being adapted? Because without undue spoilers, “This version is significantly darker than the original” would be putting it mildly—and apolitically. Which leads to yet another question: What are the assumptions or motivations of the writers doggedly producing the Abnormal Psychology Alternative Literary Canon? I mean assumptions with regard to audiences. This is not rhetorical: I seriously want an answer. I realize I am much more likely to get screeners for a version of Rear Window where Jimmy Stewart is a pedophile than an answer, but still, I do want one. Because I am starting to feel rather patronized.
You want to produce a super twisted program about a murder where there are a panoply of suspects and every one of them is more fucked up and fucked over than the last and everyone’s got a barely-concealed Axis I disorder and all people who hail from demographic segments that scan as “privileged” in the current vernacular must—must—be villains? Go for it. Seriously. You option that shit and get it into principal photography and hey, while you’re at it, offer a decent piece of the back end to the writer who delivered it to you, because I can tell you right now that writer needs the points way more than Agatha Christie does. Plenty of top-tier auteurs have built brilliant careers on the psychologically disturbing, the grisly, the dystopian, the brutal and the gritty. Digging into the skeleton-rife closets of well-to-do families is a deathless pastime and an eternal source of entertainment, thought-provocation, and horror. Do it! Do it times one million.
And please do not misunderstand me: I don’t think adaptation must adhere to some magical standard of pure fidelity. There are tons of ways you can play, and play brilliantly, with the sacred cows of canonical literature. But there is something really freaking cheap about nicking a well-known property, up and deciding to completely change the characters and the plot, and presenting it as if it were an adaptation when it’s actually more like a hallucination. This isn’t especially about ethics, for me (though it might be for some). I don’t think electronic musicians should be sued for looping and collaging other musicians’ recordings, or that poets should be pilloried for “erasures”—quite the contrary; art is in a dialogue with its own history and it always will be. But at an artistic integrity level, I have to note that this iteration of Ordeal by Innocence is far enough from its source that I question whether it should have the original title. This is not Agatha Christie’s story. So when you watch it, don’t expect Agatha Christie’s story. If you don’t, there’s plenty to appreciate.
Ordeal by Innocence premieres Friday, August 10 on Amazon Prime.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.