From Page to Screen: Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence


Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Make no mistake, despite the title, this BBC adaptation really is not Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence.  It is without doubt writer Sarah Phelps’s Ordeal by Innocence, and it stands out as the best of her recent adaptations of Christie’s works.  In many ways, the 2018 television series is better than its source material.  Phelps is known for adding prurient subtext and graphic imagery to her film versions, efforts that typically seem uncomfortably gratuitous (such as the gore and sado-masochism in The ABC Murders, reviewed here at borg).  But in the case of Ordeal by Innocence, the delivery is more even-handed and her departures make the story better.  I came into the three-part miniseries immediately after reading Christie’s novel.  Published in 1958, Ordeal by Innocence centers around the classic mystery trope of the missing alibi witness, but with a tragic twist.

One lonesome night, scientist Arthur Calgary (played by Attack the Block’s Luke Treadaway) picks up a hitchhiker, and then is unavoidably detained, unaware that his testimony could make or break a murder trial.  Jack Argyll (Jacko in the novel, played here by Derry Girls’ Anthony Boyle) has been convicted of the murder of his adopted mother, philanthropist Rachel Argyll, matriarch of a clan of adopted children and assorted other household members.  Jack, with his contentious relationship with Rachel and a history of petty crime, seems the ideal suspect for the crime.  When Dr. Calgary appears long after the fact to clear Jack’s name, his mission of mercy and justice is met with strange reactions from all involved.  It’s almost as if they want brother and son Jack to be guilty.

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The novel is hampered by repeated, lengthy analyses of the time of the crime and the movements of the suspects.  Phelps’s pacing is much better, tightening the action and strengthening the motives of the suspects.  Lackluster backstories are spiced up.  Characters are given more dimension, and intrigue is added to mundane events (in the novel, Jacko dies in prison from pneumonia; Phelps has him beaten to death by fellow inmates—perhaps to cover for someone else?).  She can’t resist a few weird additions and changes, but for the most part the updates make sense, without distorting the intentions of the source material.  For the most part.  One radical departure from Christie’s plot certainly adds an element of surprise for readers of the book, but Christie purists might find it unforgivable.  Hint: Reading Christie’s novel won’t help you guess the killer.

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Bolstering the series’ tight script is the absolutely pitch-perfect casting of every character.  Anna Chancellor (The Watch, The Hour) plays Rachel Argyll as a domineering woman anyone might want to kill.  The inimitable and ever-present Bill Nighy is Leo, her mild-mannered, kindly husband now free to marry his doting secretary, Alice Eve (Men in Black 3, Star Trek: Into Darkness).  Morven Christie (The Bay, Doctor Who) is housekeeper Kirsten, in an understated performance of devotion and repression.  Matthew Goode (The Imitation Game, Watchmen) is the smarmy son-in-law who can’t resist poking his sharp remarks into the family drama.  The ensemble includes fine performances by familiar genre faces Eleanor Tomlinson (War of the Worlds), Ella Purnell (Army of the Dead), Crystal Clarke (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and Christian Cooke (Doctor Who).

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So it’s definitely not Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence, but for once that might actually be a good thing.  For Sarah Phelps’ building portfolio of series, Ordeal by Innocence is an improvement on her other 2018-2020 adaptations from Christie novels The ABC Murders and  The Pale Horse, and also her adaptation of Tana French’s Dublin Murders (all reviewed previously at borg).  Ordeal by Innocence is actually well worth your time.  It’s streaming now here on Amazon Prime.

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