Monday 16 April 2018

Ordeal by Innocence

I have just re-listened to Agatha Christie's Ordeal by Innocence (read by Hugh Fraser). The premise is interesting, but she could have made it more dramatic. Some flashbacks, maybe?

According to Christie's autobiography it was one of her favourites, perhaps because it revisits themes that interested her: the rich woman who adopts a family of orphans, or non-orphans whose families are happy to hand them over. In this case, Rachel Argyle brings them up according to the most modern principles, and enjoys trying to run their lives even once they're teenagers or adults. Her husband, Leo, is also an idealist.

But one day Rachel is found with her head bashed in. The obvious suspect is one of her adopted sons, Jacko, a charmer who has always been crooked. He is found guilty, and dies in prison. But then a witness turns up to prove that he couldn't have done it.

Unfortunately, all this action and back story happens in the past, off-stage. As in The Hollow, we see into the minds of the characters (unusual for Christie). The family gathers to discuss what to do next. We are party to their thoughts as they lie awake, but their ruminations are generalised, and their judgements of Rachel and each other are a string of clichés.

Christie’s usual “realism” – observation of clothes, décor, slang, current fads, current attitudes – is missing, along with her wit. The characters’ leaden pondering could have been told in dialogue – her regular method.

The story comes fitfully to life as we spend time with the cast, and meet Jacko's wife, who works as a cinema usherette, and an older woman who had fallen for his charm and handed over wads of cash. But everyone talks endlessly about the past - telling and not showing!

There is no "detective", though two of the characters investigate: the crippled husband of one of the Argyle daughters, and the stranger who gave Jacko his alibi. Why had he not come forward at the time? He received a bang on the head and was concussed, leading to loss of memory. When he recovered, he immediately set off to the Antarctic, where he was incommunicado for several years. 

The drama picks up near the end, and the solution is satisfactory, but what was the second murder weapon?

I returned to the book because it was being “adapted” for TV. What did others think? And can they avoid the words “cosy”, “cipher” and "darker"? 

This book shines because it is actually rather realistic. It is full of human emotion and feeling. (An Amazon commenter reveals her criteria for “realism”.)

Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence Goes Darker for TV (Vanity Fair)

Christie perfected the art of the “soothing murder”: clean killings, characters cosily caricatured so we could enjoy the plot without too much emotional engagement. Sally Phelps injects more humanity, psychodrama and menace into proceedings. (The Times)

A fine and unexpectedly moving [adaptation], in Agatha Christie’s customarily affectless world... [The actors] flesh out and strengthen Christie’s characters, whom she was frequently happy to leave as ciphers in the puzzle she was laying out to solve. (Guardian)

These critics were enough to put me off, but Carol Midgley in the Times (April 16) liked it, apart from:

That last crazy scene that had Leo locked in a nuclear bunker by smirking Kirsten. Honestly? I thought it overboiled an otherwise outstanding episode... Could we assume the Argyll children were in on it, or did they think he’d drowned in the lake? ... Too many unknowns for an “Agatha” in which satisfaction comes from loose ends being neatly tied.

I relished every other dark, delicious thing that the writer Sarah Phelps did to the story — and I’m a lifelong Christie fan... It revitalised and thrilled-up a story I thought I knew and, let’s remember, had the Christie estate’s blessing. (On second thoughts – I wonder if she's a fan of the adaptations, not the books? I wonder if she's even read any...)

If the idea was to lure younger viewers to Agatha, I can say, having watched it with a rapt teenager, it worked. The self-harming, the “rape” of Kirsten by Leo producing baby Jack — all showed that you can modernise, while staying true to spirit. It was a beautifully orchestrated finale as the ghastly sociopath Rachel (Anna Chancellor) saw a) how much her kids hated her and b) her husband being straddled by blowsy secretary Gwenda, producing the killer line: “You ordinary bitch. Put your cheap knickers on and get out of my house.” Ditto Jack warning his disgusting father from prison: “I will drink from your hollowed skull.” TV heaven. Still a shame about the baddie in the bunker.

This is stretching "staying true to the spirit" rather far.

They said much the same about And Then There Were None:

A frequent sin committed against Christie is the misguided cosification of her work, enveloping everything in a haze of soft-focus nostalgia. (Radio Times)

BBC’s And Then There Were None puts a darker spin on Agatha Christie (Guardian December 2015)

Blood on the chintz for a change! (paraphrase)

More here, and links to the rest.

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