'Crooked House': Film Review

A visual treat but a less-than-tantalizing mystery.

The second Agatha Christie adaptation, after 'Murder on the Orient Express,' to hit theaters in a matter of weeks features an ensemble that includes Max Irons, Glenn Close, Terence Stamp, Christina Hendricks and Gillian Anderson.

"A hothouse of suppressed passion" — that's how Glenn Close's character sums up her extended family of loonies in Crooked House. It's a juicy line, masterfully delivered, but the problem is that it sounds like wishful thinking; there's not a drop of heat in this clinically outre murder mystery. 

The ace cast provides delicious moments, to be sure, but mainly they're playing caricatures in search of a compelling plot. Adapted from a 1949 novel of the same name by Agatha Christie, one that's considered by many fans to be among her best, the movie unfolds methodically as a variation on the locked-room mystery subgenre. The room in this case is a sprawling English estate, complete with turreted towers and flaunted animosities, and the dead man is the patriarch of the Leonides family, for whom dysfunction would qualify as a significant improvement. 

Moving the action to the late 1950s, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner and his cowriters, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and Tim Rose Price, stir around a few ideas without stirring up much in the way of tension or momentum. The dialogue can be darkly funny, but it also stumbles into a few tone-deaf anachronisms — "control freak," "eyes on the prize" — that stop the verbal interplay cold. Though filmgoers seeking a midwinter divertissement could do far worse, they should prepare to be seriously underwhelmed. 

Max Irons is blandly likable as struggling private detective Charles Hayward, who's summoned to the Leonides' stately property by Sophia (Stefanie Martini), granddaughter of the deceased business magnate. Suspecting foul play behind her grandfather's heart attack, and believing that the killer is someone who lives on the estate, she asks her former flame to quietly investigate before the press gets a whiff of the case. On that front, Charles is allotted a brief window of sleuthing time from the Scotland Yard chief inspector who's played to gin-crisp perfection by the inimitable Terence Stamp. The movie could have used more of him. 

From the drab clutter of his office, Charles enters the Technicolor affluence of the Leonides clan's manor house, where each set of living quarters is a highly distinct world of its own. Production designer Simon Bowles has fun with the opulent, character-defining interiors, beginning with the pink sitting room of Brenda (Christina Hendricks), Leonides' flame-haired, breathy-voiced young American widow, whose background as a Vegas dancer is never far from the contemptuous thoughts of the man's warring children. 

With little sense of narrative flow, the movie uses Charles' investigative interviews to introduce the estates' residents, and the story's cavalcade of red herrings. As Lady Edith, the sister of Leonides' first wife, a terrific Close is the de facto matriarch and the most reasonable of the bunch, even if the way she wields a rifle at garden pests reveals something other than reasonable zeal. 

Julian Sands and Christian McKay exchange putdowns and venomous glares as brothers who hate each other; Gillian Anderson and Amanda Abbington are their respective wives. While they each get a chance to bellow at the unwelcome gumshoe in their midst, Anderson is given the most room to inhabit her role, making dipsomaniac stage actress Magda's sorrow over her faded glamour as convincing as her toxic disregard for her children. They include, besides Sophia, the perpetually angry teenager Eustace (Preston Nyman) and 12-year-old Josephine (Honor Kneafsey), both well on their way to being horrid grown-ups. 

When she isn't being rude to her nanny (Jenny Galloway), the precocious Josephine is snooping at doors; a fan of detective stories, she fancies herself the knowing Holmes to Charles' Watson. Rounding out the bitterly divided household is the children's tutor (John Heffernan), who has his own barely concealed secrets, while farther at the edges of the drama are flavorful turns from Tina Gray, as Charles' secretary, and Roger Ashton-Griffiths as the Leonides' attorney. 

Irons (who costarred with Stamp earlier this year in Bitter Harvest) conveys Charles' earnestness and smarts, as well as the sense that he's in over his head with the houseful of divas and gargoyles. But the character generates no sparks or twinges that would lift him above the two-dimensional. As Sophia, Martini (Prime Suspect: Tennison) is essentially Marilyn Munster amid a bunch of ghouls, but far less sympathetic than that cheerfully normal Munsters character. The backstory of Sophia's Cairo romance with Charles, when he was a spy posing as a diplomat, never comes to life, notwithstanding several flashbacks, and the way she runs hot and cold toward him in the present day is more wearying than interesting. 

The direction by Paquet-Brenner (Dark Places, Sarah's Key) wavers in tone between old-school melodrama and winking camp. There's style to spare, though, in his staging of the crime story. With Colleen Kelsall's costumes and period tracks by Billie Holiday, Donald Byrd and Connie Stevens (the latter two names misspelled in the closing credits), he taps into the particular sensibility, edgy and vibrant, of the cusp between the '50s and '60s

Yet the film's excellent seasoned performers, Sebastian Wintero's elegant camerawork and the insinuating slink of Hugo de Chaire's score promise more than the movie ultimately delivers. The letdown is already evident by the halfway point, when a requisite dinner-table scene, redolent of wealth and formality, devolves into a stilted roundelay of recriminations and bile. At the story's conclusion, the director musters not the intended surge of emotion, but only the mildest "aha."

Distributors: Sony Pictures/Stage 6 Films, Metro International
Production companies: A Brilliant Films, Abrams/Wood Venture and Fred Films production in association with Hindsight Media, Enigma, Twickenham Studios, Headgear and Metrol Technology
Cast: Glenn Close, Terence Stamp, Max Irons, Stefanie Martini, Julian Sands, Honor Kneafsey, Gillian Anderson, Christina Hendricks, Christian McKay, Amanda Abbington, Preston Nyman, John Heffernan, Jenny Galloway, Tina Gray, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Andreas Karras, David Kirkbride
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Screenwriters: Julian Fellowes, Tim Rose Price, Gilles Paquet-Brenner, based on the novel by Agatha Christie
Producers: Joseph Abrams, Sally Wood, James Spring
Executive producers: Paul B. Edgerley, Will Machin, Natalie Brenner, Lisa Wolofsky, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Sunny Vohra, Andrew Boswell, Anders Erdén, Jay Firestone, Tim Smith, James Swarbrick, John Story, Stewart Peter
Director of photography: Sebastian Wintero
Production designer: Simon Bowles
Costume designer: Colleen Kelsall
Music: Hugo de Chaire
Editor: Peter Christelis
Casting: Reg Poerscout-Edgerton

Rated PG-13, 115 minutes