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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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The Master of Pleasures and The Taste of Cherries: Vatel, the Film

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In April 1671, on the eve of the Franco-Dutch War, France’s King Louis XIV — the Sun King — desperately needed the military support and expertise of his country’s generals. The formerly rebellious but extremely famous Prince Louis II de Bourbon-Condé was thus informed that King Louis would “honor him” with a three-day visit to Condé’s magnificent Château de Chantilly. Since King Louis always insisted that his nobles and all their sycophants travel with him wherever he went, the honor of such a visit was dubious as well as incredibly expensive. Condé turned all the preparations over to his maître d’hôtel, François Vatel, who had approximately two weeks to prepare menus and festivities to entertain the King, the Queen, the Prince, the Princess, 600 nobles, and several thousand additional visitors. Vatel, formerly the most celebrated chef of his generation, had to orchestrate an extravagant festival which was to culminate in an elaborate banquet so impressive that the King would appoint Condé his general.

Château de Chantilly ©

Based on the true story of Vatel as it was related in several contemporaneous letters by Prince Condé and also by the notorious gossip Madame de Sévigné, as well as on multiple contemporaneous memoirs, the film Vatel was originally written by Jeanne Labrune, adapted into English by Tom Stoppard, and directed by Roland Joffé. It is unclear which of those three expanded Vatel’s “banquet story” into a moral examination of the jaded 17th century French aristocrats. Filmed on location at the Château de Chantilly, Vatel is visually stunning and sumptuous. The castle itself, the furnishings, the gardens, the costumes, the jewels, and the food are all breathtakingly lush. Beneath these gorgeous trappings, however, the Sun King and his nobility are morally corrupt and corrosive. Further, a bitter discontent seethes under the aristocracy’s brittle veneer. In this world, “as opulent as it is cruel,” the moral choices you make can either elevate or, literally, destroy you.

Julian Glover as Prince Condé and Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu as his wife, the Princess, Vatel ©

Vatel begins with a letter in which Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Condé (Julian Glover) is informed by the King’s minister Marquis de Lauzun that King Louis wishes to “visit and enjoy the simple pleasures of the country,” which, Lauzun continues, means that Condé should “spare no expense whatsoever to entertain the king.” Condé is distressed. He is in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy (a departure from historical fact: Condé was extravagantly wealthy). If appointed General in a war with Holland, however, Condé’s debts will be paid by King Louis, so the Prince is desperate to please Louis.

Depardieu as Vatel, and Glover as Condé, Vatel ©

Condé’s maître d’hôtel Vatel (Gérard Depardieu) is confident in his own abilities to entertain the King but more than slightly anxious about all the preparations: it is difficult to obtain supplies when one’s master has no money, even more difficult when one’s master is already significantly in debt to all the local producers and suppliers. As the guests arrive, Vatel, already encountering tactical difficulties concerning the entertainments, finds himself in the midst of multiple moral quagmires as well.

Murray Lachlan Young as Philippe of France, Duke of Orléans, Monsieur, The King’s Brother, Vatel ©

Monsieur, the King’s Brother (Murray Lachlan Young), though accompanied by his lover Marquis of Effiat, nevertheless wishes to have sexual relations with a young country boy. Vatel intervenes, igniting Monsieur’s displeasure and anger.

Julien Sands as King Louis XIV, Vatel ©

King Louis (Julian Sands), who has brought with him not one but two mistresses, as well as his wife the Queen, becomes interested in the Queen’s beautiful lady-in-waiting, Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman).

Vatel himself becomes enamored of Anne de Montausier: not only is she lovely, but she seems quite different from the rest of the nobles and aristocracy.

Uma Thurman as Anne de Montausier and Tim Roth as Lauzun, Vatel ©

Unfortunately, the Marquis de Lauzun (Tim Roth) wants for Lady-in-waiting de Montausier for himself, so he bristles at both the King’s and Vatel’s interest in her. Lauzun sets spies on de Montausier as well as on Vatel.

Depardieu as Vatel and Thurman as Montausier, Vatel ©

Hounded by local suppliers, plagued by mounting disasters in the festivities, besieged by his master the Prince, threatened by Monsieur the King’s Brother, and manipulated by Marquis de Lauzun, the “Master of Pleasures” Vatel struggles to feed and entertain the royal guests and to resist his increasingly romantic feelings for a woman so far above his humble station.

Though the New York Times critic found Vatel “a costume drama with far more costumes than drama… as shallow as the court popinjays it seeks to expose,” the LA Times critic found it to be “a timeless tale of love and sacrifice.”

With strong writing and tremendous acting by all the principals, Vatel was nominated for awards in Best Art Direction, Set Decoration, Costume Design, and Production Design, winning a César (French Oscar) in Production Design.

Vatel is available for rent (or purchase) from Amazon ($2.99 HD), YouTube ($1.99 SD, $2.99 HD), iTunes ($2.99 SD), Vudu ($2.99 SD, $3.99 HD), and GooglePlay ($1.99 SD).

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