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But This Isn’t a Detective Story: Agatha Christie’s Crooked House, the Film

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I’ve loved detective fiction since I was 6 and discovered the Nancy Drew mysteries in the bookmobile, preferring Nancy and her pals to the Hardy Boys and their adventures. Later, I dove into Edgar Allan Poe’s mystery stories without even realizing that Poe is credited with the invention of detective fiction in English, with his 1841 publication of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which appeared before the word “detective” even existed. Without even knowing that I was reading a specific genre, I tore through all the works of Wilkie Collins and Agatha Christie, loving the casts of strange and fascinating characters even more than I cared about “whodunnit.” Little did I realize that Agatha Christie was considered the star of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (1920-1949) when the whodunnit was the primary genre of crime fiction. Nor did I realize that Christie was one of the bestselling novelists of all time: I just knew she wrote lots of books and the bookmobile seemed to have all of them. Most importantly, I liked her books very much.

Gillian Anderson as Magda, and Julian Sands as Philip, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

I wasn’t as interested in Christie’s plots as much as I was in her flawed but vitally interesting characters. I often guessed whodunnit and was unimpressed with many of the detectives, not realizing that the amateur or inept investigator is one of the tropes. Gosh, I didn’t even know what a “trope” was, let alone that genre authors used recurring types of characters, themes, or plot devices in their books. And I certainly didn’t realize that many of the detective stories I read had “several classic features,” such as a large, rambling country estate where a group of equally suspect characters distracted the sometimes amateur investigator (and readers) while the least suspicious character continued to commit the murders. I did, however, learn to ignore “red herrings” before I realized there was a term for it, if only because I concentrated instead on the characters themselves, little caring who had actually committed the crime. It wasn’t the murder or the initial victim that I was interested in. I liked all the people involuntarily pushed together after the crime, where they flailed and fought against their lives, against fate, and against each other.

Crooked House, First British Edition, 1949 ©

I still read mystery fiction, though these days I prefer the hard-boiled or noir genres. Again, it’s the characters that interest me, not the crimes or even the process of solving the murder. So it was with great surprise that I saw a 2017 film version of one of Agatha Christie’s classics, Crooked House, which she herself listed as one of the favorites of her own works. I’d heard of the book, and have it on my TBR list, but I hadn’t heard of the film, and I tend to notice films that are adapted from books pretty quickly, especially when the screenwriter is Julien Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame since I so love his work. With a cast of excellent actors playing atrociously selfish and seriously flawed characters, Crooked House is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Perhaps because I had not read the Agatha Christie novel of the same name on which it is based, I came for the actors and stayed for the characters, watching it again immediately afterward to see all the delightful ways the author — and the screenwriter — give clues, scatter red herrings, and create the kind of ambivalent characters that I adore.

Stefanie Martini as Sophia Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Dark and moody, the film begins with the detective’s office, where an unnamed lady is waiting, without an appointment, and where viewers immediately learn that she and the private investigator have some prior relationship. Beautiful, young, vastly wealthy Sophia Leonides (Stefanie Martini) requests that her former lover Charles Hayward (Max Irons) come to her family’s estate because she believes her grandfather’s recent death may have been murder. Further, she is afraid that the murderer is still in the house.

Max Irons as Investigator Charles Hayward, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Because the investigating business is not going so well and he needs the money, because Charles doesn’t want to work at Scotland Yard in the shadow of his own famous father’s career nor under the eye of his father’s colleague, Chief Inspector Taverner (Terence Stamp),

Terence Stamp as Chief Inspector Taverner, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

who constantly reminds Charles of how his father sat, leaned forward, looked, acted; and perhaps because he’s never gotten over being summarily and without explanation abandoned by the lovely Sophia, Charles goes to the house — the big and gorgeous country estate house — to talk to the Leonides family members.

What a group! Charles immediately meets the family matriarch, Aunt Edith aka Lady Edith de Haviland (Glenn Close) who wields s shotgun like a pro and laughs at Charles’ delusions that he “saved Sophia” when the two were in Cairo.

Glenn Close as Lady Edith, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Aunt Edith came to the Leonides’ English estate years ago, from America, to nurse her dying sister. After her sister’s death, Edith stayed on to run the household, and raise the murdered man’s two sons, Philip and Roger.

All grown up, with wives and children, the boys still live at their father’s home, on their father’s money, though each has his own reasons for doing so.

Julian Sands as oldest son Philip Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Sophia’s father Philip (Julian Sands) is an author and a playwright, who had some minor financial troubles that forced him to return home and live under his father’s controlling and manipulative domination.

Gillian Anderson as Philip’s wife Magda, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Philip’s wife — Sophia’s mother — Magda (Gillian Anderson) is a once-glamorous, heavy-drinking, stage actor who has delusions of grandeur and talent. She’s convinced she could become a film star if only her father-in-law would give them the funds to produce her husband’s brilliant screenplay, written specifically for her as the lead. Now that her father-in-law is dead, however, she fears that she will continue to wither away in relative obscurity on the estate, albeit in the company of her husband Philip, her eldest daughter Sophia, her disgruntled and angry teenage son Eustace (Preston Nyman, below), and her youngest daughter Josephine.

Glenn Close as Lady Edith, and Preston Nyman as Eustace Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Twelve-year-old Josephine (Honor Kneafsey), who loves ballet and wanted to become a dancer, welcomes Charles to the estate because she loves to read detective fiction almost as much as she loves to spy on family members via a telescope from her treehouse.

Honor Kneafsey as Josephine, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Because she then writes everything down in a journal that she never shows to anyone, her family is convinced that she is writing down their secrets.

Christian McKay as younger brother Roger Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Youngest brother Roger (Christian McKay) also lives at his father’s home, ostensibly because it is he, rather than his older brother Philip, who runs his father’s business.

Amanda Abbington as Roger’s wife Clemency, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Roger is an angry young man, and though his prickly wife Clemency (Amanda Abbington) attempts without success to keep her husband’s outbursts under control, it is soon clear that both of them resent their father’s new wife more than anything else.

Christina Hendricks as the new, much younger wife, Brenda, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Of course, the new, much younger wife is everything you’d expect in a story like this. A former Las Vegas showgirl, Brenda (Christina Hendricks) is naïve, voluptuous, and rumored to be having an affair with Laurence (John Heffernan),

John Heffernan as the tutor, Laurence, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

the tutor of Philip’s children Eustace and Josephine, as well as the ghost-writer of the deceased patriarch’s memoir, the only copy of which seems to have been stolen.

Roger Ashton-Griffith as the family attorney, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Now, just for fun, throw in a bumbling family attorney (Roger Ashton-Griffiths, who’s no doubt best known as the bumbling Mace Tyrell in Game of Thrones, who suddenly realizes that, inexplicably, the Old Man Leonides’ will most recent will, where everyone in the family was equitably and reasonably provided for, was never actually signed. That means everything — the estate, the businesses, the vast fortune — goes to the widow. That American, that dance-hall trollop, that Brenda, who probably — insists virtually everyone in the family — knew all about the unsigned will and so had the most motive of anyone to commit the murder in the first place.

Jenny Galloway as Nanny, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

And for even more fun and intrigue, stir in old Nanny (Jenny Galloway), who fears that she’s soon to lose her comfortable job and home because the widow, who is without children, won’t need a nanny, and because Nanny’s youngest charge, Josephine, is now too old to have a nanny anyway. Now make Nanny obsessed with getting that nasty journal away from Josephine because… well, just because… it’s a nasty, dirty book. And Nanny hasn’t even read it.

The family dinner, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

By the time Charles’ third-hand car won’t start and he has to stay the night and we get to the family dinner — the first time we actually see all the family members in the same room actually interacting with each other — this party is roaring dangerously, combustibly hot.

Glenn Close as Lady Edith de Haviland, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

When Lady Edith asks Charles to tell them what a murderer is really like, he rather smugly lists a murderer’s traits as “vanity, distorted morality, a lack of empathy, and a tendency to believe they’re above the rules that govern others.” The rest of the family’s rather bored expressions, along with Lady Edith’s boisterous laughter as she quips “that description fits every member of this family,” are no surprise. After all, no one knows villains so well as their fellow villains.

A few critics felt that the cast of accomplished actors in Crooked House  “promised… more than it could deliver” or that the the film was “flawed” though a “top-notch period piece.” Emily Yoshida of Vulture described the the film as “directed with slightly sleepy, but entertainingly morbid style” and said that, ultimately, Crooked House knew what its job was and did it: “to set up a tangled web of colorful characters, throw in a few red herrings, set off its dynamite, and make its exit while the smoke is still in the air.”

Stefanie Martini as Sophia, Julian Sands as her father Philip, and Gillian Anderson as her mother Magda, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

From the bumbling, naïve, inept investigator to the thoroughly despised former-showgirl young wife, from the two bickering, resentful, completely spoiled brothers to their angry or utterly vain yet bewildered wives, it is this tangled web of deliciously twisted characters that makes Crooked House worth watching. If you haven’t read the novel on which it was based, even better: then everyone in the film can surprise you.

Like me, you may find that you don’t actually care who committed the murders. Yes, murders, because, as detective-fiction fan Josephine points out, there’s always another murder. If you haven’t read the book, you’ll be both delighted and horrified when you finally learn who, actually, done it all. And while the younger stars are certainly talented, it is Glenn Close, as Lady Edith, and Gillian Anderson, as Magda, who shine as hot and bright as their characters’ falling stars.

Unfortunately, although this film is free to watch for Amazon Prime members, it is not yet available via rental, only purchase ($14.99) from Amazon, YouTube,and GooglePlay. If you do buy it, you won’t regret it.

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Setting the World On Fire: The Girl With All the Gifts, the Film

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Pandora, whose name means either “all-gifted” or “all-giving,” was ostensibly the first human female created by the Greek gods. Each of the gods helps create Pandora by giving her specific gifts. According to Hesiod’s myth, 

Pandora opened a jar (pithos), in modern accounts sometimes mistranslated as “Pandora’s box,” releasing all the evils of humanity — although the particular evils, aside from plagues and diseases, are not specified in detail by writer Hesiod — leaving only elpis [the personification and spirit of Hope] inside once she had closed it again.

The mistranslation of the Greek pithos (“jar”) to the Latin pyxis (“box”) is usually attributed to Erasmus when he translated the tale into Latin. It is important to return to the original, however, since Hesiod’s pithos refers to a large storage jar, sometimes half-buried in the ground, used for wine, oil or grain; more important, pithos can also refer to a funerary jar.

Greek pithos, in Louvre ©

Hesiod does not indicate where this jar of evils came from, why Pandora has it, nor why Hope remains in the jar, but it is the last omission that has raised so many philosophical and moral questions over the centuries.

Is the imprisonment of Hope inside a jar full of evils for humanity a benefit for humanity, or a further bane? [According to] M. L. West: “[Hope’s retention in the jar] is comforting, and we are to be thankful for this antidote to our present ills.” [But some scholars, such as Mark Griffith] take the opposite view: “[Hope] seems to be a blessing withheld from men so that their life should be the more dreary and depressing.”

Does Pandora’s jar/box preserve Hope for mankind to deal with the evils released, or does it keep Hope away from man by trapping it inside the jar/box?

This philosophical question about Hope, trapped in the pithos by Pandora, along with the symbolism of Pandora’s pithos as a “funerary jar,” is important for understanding the 2016 post-apocalyptic, dystopian film The Girl with All the Gifts, written by M.R. Carey, who wrote the novel of the same name simultaneously. While most of us might not think of zombies and the Greek goddess Pandora in the same sentence, this film attempts to put them all in the same box, so to speak. If you don’t pay enough attention to the brief story of Pandora early in the film, you might not get the full import of the symbolism. Is the “girl with all the gifts” releasing torments upon mankind and then retaining hope for them, or is she releasing the torments and then keeping hope from mankind?

Sennia Nanua as Melanie, in The Girl With All The Gifts ©

In the film, the girl with all the gifts, the Pandora, is a little girl named Melanie, brilliantly played by Sennia Nanua in her first role. She is imprisoned, and treated like some dangerous, depraved criminal, despite the fact that she greets her armed gaurds and captors with the utmost courtesy and respect. She is taken to a classroom, along with many others children who seem to be just like her.

Once there, however, Melanie reveals more intelligence than the other children. Further, her teacher, Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), clearly favors her, discarding the usual lessons to tell stories from Greek myths at Melanie’s request, letting the students write their own fictional stories, and even, at one point, touching Melanie lightly on the head.

Gemma Arterton as Miss Justineau, in The Girl With All The Gifts ©

It is when Miss Justineau touches Melanie that we learn why these young children are treated worse than rabid animals. Seargeant Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) rushes into the classroom to “remind” the teacher why these children are restrained in the first place: they are infected with a fungus that makes them flesh-eating Zombies, or “Hungries” in this film version.

Paddy Considine as Sgt Eddie Parks, in The Girl With All The Gifts ©

Unlike the Hungries that exist beyond the fenced and guarded bouandaries of this research facility, however, these children are able to speak, think, and, perhaps, feel. Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) is studying the children, and she is especially interested in Melanie.

Glenn Close as Dr. Caldwell, in The Girl With All The Gifts ©

Though Dr. Caldwell believes Melanie is merely “mimicking’ human emotions and behaviors, Caldwell also hopes that Melanie might provide the raw material for a vaccine to protect the human survivors.

That is, Melanie’s brain and spinal cord — dissected — might provide the raw material for such a vaccine.

Therein lies the rub: Dr. Caldwell is more than willing to sacrifice Melanie for the good of the remaining humans, but Miss Justineau sees real — not mimicked — humanity in Melanie, and wants to protect her.

Invasion of the Hungries, The Girl With All The Gifts ©

Of course, no zombie film would be complete without an invasion by the mindless flesh-eaters, and the research station soon gets overrun by Hungries, causing Dr. Caldwell, Miss Justineau, and Sgt Parks to flee the compromised facility — with a masked Melanie in tow.

Sennia Nanua as Melanie, The Girl With All The Gifts ©

Now we get the next Zombie-film trope as the group wanders through the desolate, Hungries-infested landscape, looking for food, shelter, and some way to complete Dr. Caldwell’s research for a vaccine.

Paddy Considine as Sgt Parks, and Glenn Close as Dr. Caldwell, The Girl With All The Gifts ©

Lest you think The Girl with All the Gifts is standard Zombie fare, however, recall that the infected Melanie can speak, think, reason, and love. She clearly loves and protects Miss Justineau, and seems to care for the others as well (less for Dr. Caldwell, perhaps, who constantly eyes Melanie as a brain-donor rather than as a sentient being).

Sennia Nanua as Melanie, and Gemma Arterton as Miss Justineau, The Girl With All the Gifts ©

Further, Melanie is the “girl with all the gifts” — the Pandora who has the jar with the evils and with Hope. On first viewing, I missed the Pandora allusion completely until nearly the end of the film. I thought Melanie was going to have some intellectual gifts that would give mankind Hope. When she proved to be smart but not a genius, I assumed she was going to give mankind the Hope of saving the Hungries, or, at the very least, of preventing the spread of the virus (called a “fungus” in this version of the story) by “donating” her brain and spinal cord to help Dr. Caldwell make the vaccine.

Sennia Nanua as Melanie, The Girl With All The Gifts ©

When Melanie finally proves that she does, indeed, have emotions and morals, they are not what you might expect, and her behavior recalls the philosophical questions raised by Hesiod’s original Pandora story. Is Hope trapped in the jar to give mankind optimism, or to torment them?

Sennia Nanua as Melanie, The Girl With All The Gifts ©

The fine acting of all the principals helps raise The Girl with All the Gifts above and beyond the standard roam-around-till-you-get-eaten Zombie drama. The film’s very premise — that the infected Hungrie Melanie has an intellect as well as morals and emotions  — makes The Girl with All the Gifts one of the better entries into the post-apocalyptic-world-overrun-by-Zombies genre. The film “steadfastly refuses to demonize any of its characters, instead sympathizing with all their conflicting positions.” The moral complexity of The Girl with All the Gifts is what gives the film its “unique take on responsibility, adulthood, and a new chapter in evolution.”

The Girl with All the Gifts is available for rent from Amazon (99¢, free for Prime members), for rent $3.99 from YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu, and for purchase ($12.99) from iTunes.

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Filed under #31DaysOfHalloween, Actors, Films, Films/Movies, Halloween, Horror, Horror Films, Movies/Films, No Spoilers Review, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Review, Review/No Spoilers, Suspense, Zombies