Monday, 4 June 2018

Crooked House (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Aristide Leonides (Gino Picciano), a wealthy businessman in charge of a family dynasty, has been found dead in his stately home. His granddaughter Sophia (Stefani Martini), suspecting foul play, hires private investigator Charles Hayward (Max Irons) to look into the case. As he arrives at the Leonides estate, and meets the many members of Aristide's immediate family, it seems that not only does everyone have a motive, but they are all more than capable of fulfilling that motive. This case is going to be trickier than first thought.

Given Irons’ past filmography includes the immediate red flags of Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood, The Host and the previously reviewed Woman In Gold, it’s nice to know that he actually holds up here as the central detective. He shows a certain collected demeanour, and as a conduit between the suspects and the audience, the way he handles the conversational moments work well enough to be palatable. Then again, that might be because he is honestly the least interesting character here. Terence Stamp as his superior, despite having far less devoted screen time, still gives a far more memorable and even funnier performance than Irons, and the murder suspects only build on from there.

Martini works nicely as one of the more subtle femme fatales in the narrative, working well alongside Irons while showing enough ambiguity in her movements to make some of the lingering questions stick. Julian Sands may not be as electrifying as he was back when he was working with Ken Russell, but as part of the criminal puzzle of the story, he does well enough. Christian McKay as the petulant cherished son of the deceased does remarkably well at balancing out a certain amount of simmering rage at the events around him and the more quiet dread that, out of all of the rather colourful members of the family, he’s the one that was put onto a pedestal. In a group of severely low-key characters, he actually pulls through in a way that not that many others around him manage.

Amanda Abbington as McKay’s wife is… there, I suppose, and doesn’t leave much of an impression outside of trying to restrain her husband, while Gillian Anderson as Sands’ wife is incredibly fun as the failed and perpetually sloshed actress, one of the few instances of the family’s less-than-moral underpinnings actually resulting in an engaging on-screen presence. Preston Nyman is what the 1950’s would consider a rebellious teenager, and he fits into that mold nicely without it feeling too much like a product of another era entirely, Christina Hendricks as the grieving widow allows for some good dramatic beats, Glenn Close leaves a solid impression by film’s end and Honor Kneafsey as the youngest of the family does precociousness effectively and her scenes with Irons end up being among the strongest the film has to offer. As I’ll get into, that statement is both a compliment and an insult.

After the success of Branagh’s Agatha Christie adaptation last year, it makes sense that someone else would decide to bring the legendary crime novelist’s words to the screen. Of course, the prospect of translating words to pictures ends up exposing the first major problem with this film. It breaks the first rule of filmmaking: Show, don’t tell. As Charles does his rounds and questions each of the family members, what we are given as far as depictions of their character are largely in the dialogue. Not the performances, not the visuals, not even the tone in which it is spoken; just the dialogue itself. I would mention similarities between this and Orient Express as far as telling the audience crucial information, except that Branagh had enough understanding of the source material to be able to turn it into a story for a visual medium.
Here? While the eight-figure budget allows for some nice detailing in the ornate setup of the Leonides estate, the costuming and even the music (not gonna lie, an Agatha Christie story was the last place I expected to hear ‘Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb’), it fails to make the setting where most of the story takes place feel like anything other than window dressing. Add to that the particularly skittish editing by Peter Christelis, who appears to be a little too eager to apply the cutting blade to the footage, and DOP Sebastian Winterø having handheld camera work as the only stylistic touch on hand, and this looks a bit drab.

Of course, there’s the other and far more pressing issue with this production as a whole, even worse than the lack of visual engagement: The rating. This film got a PG rating here in Australia, and while that is somewhat surprising given the film opens on a scene of a man being given an injection (yeah, regardless of context, Aussie censors tend to be squeamish on an embarrassing number of things), it also gives a good indicator of how safe the full product ends up being. I highlighted Gillian Anderson’s performance earlier as being rather fun, but that is still in spite of the fact that she seems to be in the same position as everyone else here: Held back from really giving this material the punch it deserves. 
Every scene, amidst the flurry of explanations for character motive that honestly feel like I’m just listening to an audiobook and not watching an actual film, carries this aura that everything has been softened to appeal to the (let’s be honest here) decidedly older target demographic. For all the talk about murder, sex, money and possible war profiteering, this is about as sharp as a butter knife in actually making the narrative feel dangerous or intriguing. Whatever solid performances are given here still feel like they were told to heavily dial themselves back to fit the lethargic tone of the story, while the others look like they’re just doing what they’ve been told to do. It’s difficult to buy into a murder mystery when so much of it feels like it’s been forcibly diluted.

All in all, this is a rather weak effort. The acting is altogether fine and the finale at least has impact behind it, but between the half-hearted efforts behind the visuals, the insistence on telling, rather than showing, the audience important plot details, and the feeling that the actors aren’t giving their all with these performances, the journey getting to that finale is not one worth taking. This is less ‘film’ than it is ‘audiobook with pictures’, and the gulf between those two is a lot wider than one would think on the surface.

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