We find ourselves at a curious moment in Hollywood history when producers seem obsessed with turning every property, from the Avengers comics to Agatha Christie’s mystery novels, into a potential franchise. Earlier this fall, the twist at the end of Fox’s “Murder on the Orient Express” wasn’t whodunit (practically everyone knew the solution going in) but the tantalizing suggestion that Belgian super-sleuth Hercule Poirot couldn’t stick around, since his services were needed to investigate a “Death on the Nile.”
The trouble facing studios with this “extended universe” impulse is that they can’t always maintain a monopoly on characters (the X-Men lived at Fox, and Sony had Spider-Man at the moment Disney started making Marvel movies), allowing others to swoop in and take advantage of the goodwill a successful tentpole builds for any associated characters. Take Christie’s murder-mystery oeuvre. The British crime novelist wrote at least 70 books, and Fox can’t own them all, which means the well-timed arrival of “Crooked House” is free to ride the coattails of “Orient Express” — except, in this unique case, it’s actually the better of the two movies.
Boasting an ending so outrageous only Michael Haneke could call it happy, “Crooked House” concerns the mystery of who killed Aristide Leonides, a filthy-rich octogenarian who’s survived by a mansion full of plausible suspects, including ostentatious head-of-house Edith (Glenn Close, only slightly less over-the-top than she was as Cruella de Vil in “101 Dalmations”), no-good sons Philip (Julian Sands, a gambler) and Roger (Christian McKay, a lout), alky actress Magda (Gillian Anderson) and comely granddaughter Sophia de Havilland (Stefanie Martini), who’s practically the same age as the late Mr. Leonides’ second wife and widow Brenda (Christina Hendricks), who stands to inherit it all.
As in “Murder on the Orient Express,” any one of these characters could have done it — although, thankfully, not all of them — and that doesn’t even account for the help (the nanny, played by Jenny Galloway, knows more than she lets on) or 12-year-old Josephine (Honor Kneafsey), who claims to know the killer’s identity and is nearly killed on two occasions. Unlike “Orient Express,” however, the inspector in this case is nowhere near as shrewd as Poirot. Played by the handsomely bland Max Irons, Charles Hayward is a former spy turned private eye named who had a brief fling in Cairo some years earlier with Sophia, and whose faint connection to the family might have something to do with his having been chosen to investigate the case.
Like the audience, Charles is overwhelmed when he arrives at the Leonides estate, which seems positively palatial, with closets big enough for a cemetery of skeletons. Within its tastefully appointed walls, each character occupies a room interior-decorated to suit his or her personality, à la “Clue,” all connected by a cavernous pea-green stairwell watched over by a giant portrait of their freshly poisoned patriarch (in a surreal touch, the late Aristide Leonides, who looms so large in his absence, turns out to have been little more than a dwarf).
Presenting this tony microcosm as a spider’s web of hidden intrigues, co-writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (moody historical mystery “Sarah’s Key”) happens to be exploiting not only Christie’s newfound popularity, but the recent “Downton Abbey” craze as well (indeed, he shares screenplay credit with Julian Fellowes, who created that show). The film is set not long after World War 2, but features touches (including several lovely classic automobiles) that suggest it could be decades earlier, and others that are practically too avant garde for the era (such as a canary-and-ivory salon every bit as modern as “2001: A Space Odyssey’s” iconic bedroom).
In any case, we need something to keep our eyes and imaginations occupied while the director trots out his cast of suspects, and together with DP Sebastian Winterø, Paquet-Brenner takes these relatively bland characters and stages them at dramatic angles in these positively breathtaking rooms. Whereas so many of Christie’s books have gone straight to the small screen, this stunning visual treatment is enough to make “Crooked House” feel worthy of a theatrical run (although in fact, the film debuted weeks earlier on-demand in the States).
With such an enticing cast, it’s tougher than one might think trying to divine which of these eccentrics might be responsible for the crime, and “Crooked House” keeps you guessing, right up to its shocking conclusion (of which Christie was especially proud, naming it a personal favorite among her extensive oeuvre). It’s not just the revelation of who poisoned Aristide that surprises but also the way in which the film delivers justice to his killer. Cut to black. Roll credits. This particular mystery won’t be spawning sequels, but it arrives at just the right time to satisfy those whose appetite for a delicious Christie mystery are seeking a truly diabolical twist.