Ordeal by Innocence
Starring: Bill Nighy, Anna Chancellor, Anthony Boyle, Christian Cooke, Matthew Goode, Luke Treadaway, Crystal Clarke, Ella Purnell, Eleanor Tomlinson, Alice Eve
Director: Sandra Goldbacher
Writers: Sarah Phelps, Agatha Christie
Reviewed by Sidney Morgan
This review CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
Motives. The reasons behind our actions. At times obvious, at others less so. And when it comes to crime stories, whether in books, on television or in movies, they are sought out to explain and to understand the reasons for the criminal act. Of course, there are endless explanations. The usual suspects tend to be money, love, revenge, jealousy or greed. Obviously, the importance of forensic evidence cannot be understated, but that answers the ‘how’ and the who. To answer the ‘why,’ the motive must be known. And Agatha Christie was brilliant with motives.
Ordeal by Innocence is the first of seven new BBC adaptations of Agatha Christie novels, resulting from the success of And Then There Were None. This newest adaptation tells the story of the Argyll family, whose matriarch Rachel (Anna Chancellor), is murdered in the family home, while everyone is present! Blamed is Jack, one of the five adopted children. With some weak evidence and no alibi, he’s arrested and found guilty, though he loudly professes his innocence. While in jail, he’s beaten to death. A couple of years later, Dr. Arthur Calgary (Luke Treadaway) comes forward, providing Jack with an alibi, that unfortunately, nobody believes. Yet, as the story unfolds, suspicions grow, secrets are revealed. The surviving members of the household realize that the murderer could still be among them. Classic Christie.
In the words of Randy (Scream), “Everybody’s a suspect!”. And everyone in the Argyll household has a motive to want Rachel dead. The patriarch Leo, played by the amazing and talented Bill Nighy, is able to marry a much younger Gwenda (Alice Eve). The children, Jack (Anthony Boyle), Mickey (Christian Cooke), Tina (Crystal Clarke), Hester (Ella Purnell), and Mary (Eleanor Tomlinson) stand to inherit money. If lust and money weren’t enough to explain the murder, add Rachel’s own behaviour. She was absolutely awful with her children, bordering on cruel. She humiliated and controlled them, via her money. It certainly wouldn’t be surprising if that were the sole reason for her murder.
The progression across the three episodes, from the foundation of the story and its evolution, is designed and edited well. Motives are clarified and understood, allowing the viewer to compare and weigh them, and ultimately try to solve the mystery. With every added nugget of information and reveal, I realized I was hooked. I tried to put the pieces together, as though I was the detective, with some success.
Initially, the shift between the present and the past, as well as the numerous characters that are in the household, can make it a little difficult to follow. However, by the second episode, the action and intrigue, along with the familiarity of the cast, make it easier to watch. And addictive! As for enthusiasts who’ve read the novel, there are plenty of differences between that and the adaptation. This includes the identity of the killer, to keep you invested in and curious about the mystery.
The sets and the costumes dated the show in the late 50’s (set in 1956 – 1958, with some flashbacks occurring earlier), but it doesn’t distract. The actions, the characters, the motives, the story, it all could have taken place today. It speaks to the understanding Christie had of motives and human nature.
Ordeal by Innocence was one of Agatha Christie’s favorite stories. As opposed to most of her novels, this one does not feature a detective who tries to solve the murder. Instead, it is Dr. Calgary and the Argyll family members who do so. And it works, in part because of the writing and direction, but also because of the great performances given by the actors. It’s a fascinating puzzle with a fitting and deserved ending. I am already looking forward to the next adaptation, ABC Murders, which has already begun filming.
Christie is behind many of the mystery genre tropes that exist today. The initial murder, the presentation of suspects who gradually reveal information, and the big reveal at the end, sometimes with a twist. It’s the blueprint for almost every crime-solving television show or movie today. But Ordeal by Innocence doesn’t feel just like another shampoo cycle (lather, rinse, repeat). Quite the contrary, the performances, the adapted story to surprise those who read the novel, including the darker ending, and the sets make this a great adaptation. Watch it. You’ll quickly find yourself drawn into the lives of the Argyll family, casting a suspicious eye on all previous alibis and on Dr. Calgary himself, wondering who, if anyone, might be the next victim.