This review contains spoilers.
Sarah Phelps, ladies and gentlemen: putting the ‘Ha! Christ!’ into Agatha Christie. With its incest, murky parentage revelations, cruel mistress and villain-turned-secret-prisoner, Phelps’ Ordeal By Innocence was more Gothic than a weekend in Whitby.
Here was a murder mystery with all the cosy stuffing ripped out. It was glamorous and messed up, and, while not faithful to the letter of Christie’s original, absolutely faithful to her talent for gripping you until the last.
Just when it seemed as though Leo had been bundled into his rowboat (named after the murder weapon!) and sunk to the bottom of that picturesque lake, there he was, captive and at the mercy of Kirsten the maid. What are her plans for him? Pulverise him into a pasty? Squeeze him into a syllabub? I’ve always thought there was something of the jam roly-poly about Bill Nighy.
The remaining Argyll children chinking glasses over a dinner of minced Daddy might have been a measure too lurid for this adaptation, but only by an ounce or so. The previous hour’s crane-load of flashback revelations had confirmed the very worst about Leo Argyll. He’d not only coshed his wife (with a statue of the Egyptian god of the dead!), he’d also framed son Jack for the crime and ordered his brutal murder. As Jack was evidence of another crime altogether—the rape of maid Kirsten at age fifteen—Leo was killing two birds with one stone.
Three birds if you count paedophile policeman Bellamy Gould. Four if you count abusive, drunken husband Philip Durrant. With child rapist, adulterer and wife-killer Leo locked up, this version of the story cleared out bastard men like a duster going through cobwebs.
Of the story’s deaths, only Jack’s can be truly mourned, not only because of his deeply sad start in life, but also because Anthony Boyle was resplendent playing him. “I am your plague and I’m coming for you” he told Daddy Leo, his eyes like saucers. Jack was a bit of beautiful chaos. He was so fun and sad to watch that his scenes hurt when you remembered his time was almost up. While he was still with us, he made for a very enjoyable Greek chorus, commenting wryly on the building chaos of Christmas Eve, 1954.
That was a dark day by any family’s standards – a conflation of misery and scandal. Rachel learned that her husband was sleeping with her secretary (“you ordinary bitch” was Anna Chancellor’s Alexis Carrington moment. I’d like it on a mug please), and two of their adoptive children were sleeping with each other. Almost as soon as Philip was carried in the front door with a broken back, Hester was being brought around the back—drugged, abducted, and her pregnancy terminated without consent… by her mother. Then to cap it all off, Leo, threatened with divorce and therefore the loss of his cushy set-up, bashed in Rachel’s skull. For the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a fa-tal head inju-ry.
Not that there was much love between Rachel and Leo, or between Rachel and anybody. Mrs Argyll was the coldest of fish, abusive to her children in that special way the British upper classes have historically referred to as parenting. She took those kids out of poverty but was no kind of mother to them. Only with Kirsten in that nuclear shelter did Rachel share any emotion whatsoever. The one frustration of this miniseries is not further exploring Mrs Argyll’s strange psychology and the bond those two shared.
In the end, the villain had to be the tyrant patriarch masquerading under an avuncular facade. It was the only just move. Making Kirsten or one of the kids the baddie would have felt like siding with the abusers over their victims. And anyway, in a revisionist project like this, who else could it possibly have been but the secretary-shagging gentleman amateur?
And to think, he would have gotten away with it were it not for that pesky physicist. Who else votes that the next “one good true” thing Dr Calgary does is Mary? He may need the odd bit of nursing, but she’s used to that, and she could use some kindness. They could all use some kindness. Now, without their ghoulish mother and with their grotesque father out of the picture, perhaps they’ll find it.
As for us, we await Phelps’ next delicious, complex and (thanks to director Sandra Goldbacher and her team) decidedly handsome take on a Christie crime classic. Cosiness is for ordinary bitches.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.