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Crooked House

Released 2017. Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

THE PATRIARCH OF A MASSIVE FORTUNE HAS BEEN MURDERED. Poisoned, apparently. The opening scene, shot using very shallow focus, shows a woman administering an injection to a bedridden man, their faces obscured, but the image undoubtedly sets off a flurry of speculations in the minds of the audience.

Indeed, Crooked House is one red herring after another. Based on a novel by Agatha Christie, considered by some of her fans to be her best, everyone in this stately but strangely schizophrenic home is a suspect.

Let’s start with the trophy wife, an ex-dancer from Vegas who now stands to inherit the lot. The dead man’s eldest son and his wife are both in the film business and short of funding. The second son runs the family business with a toxicologist wife (did someone say poison?). Further down the inheritance line are two granddaughters and a grandson, suspicious, curious, angry, in that order. On the outer edge are the nanny and the tutor. But we mustn’t rule out the sister of the dead man’s first wife, who appears to be the real mistress of power on this sprawling estate.

Adapted by Julian Fellowes of Downtown Abbey fame, Crooked House could have been renamed Murder at Downton. Put an upper-crust family in a tight spot and see how money and secrets loosen the ties. Charles Hayward, an ex-spy turned private investigator arrives to interview every family member. As can be expected, not everyone is happy to talk.

This familiar Christie set-up necessarily requires a solid roll call. Apart from the role of the detective, screen time is equally divided among the suspects and some actors acquit themselves while others aren’t so lucky. Glenn Close announces her presence literally with a bang and departs with just as much firepower, making the best use of her limited scenes. Julian Sands, Gillian Anderson and Christina Hendricks make their appearances count, careful not to turn these spoiled money-grabbers into silly attention seekers.

As the main player in this game of cloak and dagger, Max Irons lacks charisma and authority as the investigator to bind the many threads together, and has a long way to go to match his Oscar-winning father Jeremy. Charles has more than just the secretive family to contend with as the plot widens its circle to open up its political connections. Terence Stamp, as a Chief Inspector from Scotland Yard, closes in as Charles scrambles to put the pieces together.

The pleasure of watching a movie like Crooked House is the set-up. It’s increasingly rare to see an ensemble cast in a murder mystery, let alone an impressive one. The remake of Murder on the Orient Express (2017), also from a novel by Agatha Christie is average. Knives Out (2019) from director Rian Johnson is solid. Gosford Park (2001), also written by Julian Fellowes and directed by the late Robert Altman, is easily the best.

The line-up of suspects offers us, when it’s done well, the delight in observing the dynamics between these characters, often entangled in close relationships laced with antagonism and conflicting desires. The victim is someone in a powerful position yet unloved. The cold murder brings no sense of loss or grief to anyone. If such a premise sounds appealing, then this is your movie.

Crooked House is a game of deduction with multiple leads and holds its secret extremely close to the chest. The identity of the murderer is not revealed right up until in the final few seconds. In the words of the youngest member of the household, 12-year-old Josephine: “The murderer is never the one you initially suspect.” That’s a useful clue if you wish to play detective.

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