I want to be made a fool by an Agatha Christie adaptation. I want it to toy with me ruthlessly, confounding my expectations, leading me to the final reveal through more twisty detours than a GPS dodging major traffic. I don’t want to be deeply moved, or cajoled into thinking big thoughts, and I definitely don’t want to cry. I just want to be tricked, and reminded that not all denouements can be seen coming from a mile away.
So bravo to Amazon, which is releasing a three-part adaptation of one of Christie’s own favorites, “Ordeal by Innocence,” on Friday. It’s a smart, attractive, and well-acted version that, those who are familiar with the 1958 novel should note, ends quite differently from the book. The streamer is going big with Christie, with a few more adaptations already on the way (including one with John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot), and so “Ordeal by Innocence” bodes well.
As is often the case with Christie, the setup is irresistible. The mother of a wealthy family is murdered, and black sheep son Jack (Anthony Boyle) is sent to jail for it when his fingerprints are found in his mother’s blood spatter. A year and a half later, though, a stranger emerges — Dr. Calgary (Luke Treadaway) — and he says he is Jack’s alibi. He is the guy who gave Jack a ride at the time of the murder, but he has been out of the country. At that moment, the news is not welcome. The patriarch, Leo Argyll (Bill Nighy), is about to marry his secretary, Gwenda (Alice Eve), and Leo’s other children have all gathered at the mansion to continue to throw shade at one another. None of these people — especially daughter Mary (Eleanor Tomlinson from “Poldark”) and her wheelchair-bound, drug-addicted husband, Philip (Matthew Goode) — are particularly happy. It’s actually a joy to watch Goode, so often the hero, be bad.
Now that the family knows Jack didn’t do it, they need to wonder who did. And, of course, almost everyone appears to have a motive. Old bitternesses and mistreatments emerge, just as they do on “Sharp Objects” — but without the intensity of that HBO limited series. The game is on, and screenwriter/game-master Sarah Phelps doesn’t hold back. Turns out the mother, played by Anna Chancellor in flashbacks, was far more complicated than we might have expected, and by complicated I mean cold as ice.
By the way, one of the roles needed to be reshot, in the same way Kevin Spacey was replaced by Christopher Plummer in “All the Money in the World.” Originally Ed Westwick played son Mickey, a former soldier who returns for the wedding. But after Westwick was accused of sexual assault (which he denies, and for which he will not be prosecuted), his scenes were reshot with Christian Cooke. I couldn’t tell, and anyway I was distracted by the more arch characters, played beautifully by Nighy, Chancellor, and Eve. None of them deserves an Emmy, and the material never takes them very deep, and yet I was engrossed.
ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE
Starring: Bill Nighy, Eleanor Tomlinson, Alice Eve, Ella Purnell, Anna Chancellor, Christian Cooke, Anthony Boyle, Matthew Goode, Crystal Clarke,
On: Amazon, streams Friday
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.