“There was a motivation…”
This is a curious thing – a drama-documentary of legendary mystery writer Agatha Christie which utilises a double flashback structure to form a kind of biopic of her life, but one with an additional focus on her mysterious disappearance over several days after a particularly traumatic, though unexplained, experience. Anna Massey plays Christie late in life, at a party celebrating the 10th anniversary of The Mousetrap’s West End run, where she fields questions from journalists about her life, the answers to which are played out in flashback. Olivia Williams takes on the younger role who is meeting with a psychiatrist to try and explain her experiences, which are also replayed to us, through the delicate probing of her psyche.
It is all elegantly done in this BBC adaptation, written and directed by Richard Curson Smith, covering the key points of her life – a happy childhood devastated by the loss of her father, the freedom of becoming a volunteer nurse and then pharmacist during the Great War, the beginnings of her career as a writer – but with little real insight or inspiration in what it is saying. The scenes around her disappearance have more meat to them but again fail to really click as the build-up to the grand reveal of what caused it falls rather flat in the final analysis. The split narrative adds nothing and instead subtract substantially from the pace of the film, continually frustrating as we switch fruitlessly between the two.
There’s entertaining work in the cast. Mark Gatiss’ unexpectedly broad Yorkshire accent as a journalist who discovers the missing author is startlingly effective, Vicki Pepperdine gives a lovely turn as her housekeeper and scribe Carlo and there’s a neat doubling by Anthony O’Donnell as a Belgian patient who forms the inspiration for Hercule Poirot and a later appearance as the policeman in charge of investigating her disappearance. The best moment from the supporting roles comes as a wonderfully apt moment of retrospective synergy when Bertie Carvel’s Max Mallowan (who became her second husband) pokes his head through a door and bellows ‘Agatha’!
As the Agathas, Massey has enough of a twinkle in her eye to make her brief scenes fitfully engaging and Williams captures a stillness in the woman that speaks of deep unhappiness, but there’s never any sense that we’re getting to know who she really was. As the writing is slavishly based on her own records, there’s too little room to engineer genuinely engaging drama – sadly and as she doubtless would have been able to tell us, real life isn’t always as exciting as we want it to be and a little fiction can go a long way…