Review: Ordeal by Innocence | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: Ordeal by Innocence

Deputy Editor-elect Kat Smith gives her rundown of Ordeal by Innocence, Sarah Phelps' most recent Agatha Christie adaptation for the BBC


Oh Sarah Phelps, you’ve done it again.

With adaptations for the BBC of Witness for the Prosecution and And Then There Were None under her belt, the third Christie novel screenwriter Sarah Phelps turned to tackling was Ordeal by Innocence. For those who have seen it, the change of surname from Argyle to Argyll (ground-breaking) was the most minor of transformations. But in spite of the vast negative backlash from Christie followers, Ordeal by Innocence’s journey to the small screen was an update, not a degradation. It was a triumph, not a crime.

The most pivotal aspect of any murder mystery was, of course, changed: the culprit. Having read And Then There Were None after Phelps’ adaptation aired in 2015, it was evident that she had left the original pretty untouched. This was far from the case with Ordeal by Innocence. To provide a very brief synopsis: in the book Kirsten Lindstrom is guilty of murdering Rachel Argyle and Philip Durrant. The maid is convinced by Jack that he loves her and she agrees to murder Rachel in order to get money, staging the scene as though Jack was the murderer. When Dr Calgary came forward as Jack’s alibi, the hope was that the culprit would never be found. The plan falls through when Dr Calgary gets amnesia following seeing Jack and fails to step forward as his alibi, and Kirsten finds out about Jack’s secret wife and lets him go to jail for the crime. However, in Phelps’ adaptation, Lindstrom is instead Jacks’ mother and Bill Nighy’s Leo Argyll is guilty of the murders after Rachel says she’s going to get a divorce. The maid and Jack are the most wronged characters of them all, so it’s a pretty stark contrast to the original.

The changes have been slated by those loyal to the original, but I found the finale in the book to be a tad disappointing. I knew by the second episode that they must have changed it a great deal and was relieved when I read that Phelps had indeed changed the killer. Though Christie cites Ordeal by Innocence as one of her most satisfying pieces of work, I found it much less so than the likes of And Then There Were None, where Phelps’ decision to leave it as it was felt like the right one.

This adaptation is more of a whydunit than a whodunit
The development of Phelps’ characters and their motives made this adaptation more of a whydunit than a whodunit. By the end, we saw that everyone had a motive on the night of Rachel’s death; from forced abortion to exposing secrets, everyone had been wronged by the matriarch. But Leo being the true culprit revealed the most about the family. Leo and Kirsten being Jack’s biological parents probably wouldn’t have come out in any other way, and Jack’s death wouldn’t exactly have been as savage had it been organised by an adopted sibling. For me, a good murder mystery ends in a culprit who is surprising yet makes perfect sense. Re-watching the series had me questioning how I wasn’t convinced before.

Each character feels multidimensional
Phelps has a talent of creating depth to characters who, dare I say it, fail to have much in the book. I adore Agatha Christie, and her creativity and storytelling when it comes to the crime genre are pretty unrivalled. However, her characters in Ordeal by Innocence and other novels lack a depth in favour of a focus on the story. Jack is a one-dimensional trouble maker who hates his mother and wants to get rid of her. Although at first I couldn’t decide if I hated him or not, his cockiness is softened by a sense of vulnerability that makes you sympathise with him. Kirsten’s lurking seems at first suspicious but is orchestrated in a way that finally makes sense in the end. Each character feels multidimensional, even the seemingly monstrous Rachel Argyll, when we see her screaming in her nuclear bunker. She brings a depth and a darkness to every element of the story, in a way other adaptations had failed to come close to.

Alongside the complexity, however, there are slightly more caricatured members of the Argyll household. These are namely Mickey Argyll and his overdone London accent, tattoos and cigarettes and Gwenda Vaughan’s perfect embodiment of the ‘bitchy younger second wife with an hourglass figure’ cliché. Gwenda’s dramatic nature adds to the show, providing a little comic relief, whereas I could’ve done without Mickey’s accent. However, his exaggeration is a minor price to pay for the brilliance overall.

With a colour palette bolder than previous adaptations, this was definitely a piece of art
The full story isn’t dumped on the viewer all at once, instead it flashes between the present and the past is done masterfully, with little hints being dropped throughout the episodes. Although we eventually find out what Rachel promises Kirsten, why Jack spits at Leo and why Hester’s dress has blood on it, the flashbacks are enough to tease us without giving too much away. This is with the exception of Mickey and Tina – the words ‘Jack saw us’ don’t take too much working out. But, for the most part, the switches between past and present are done wonderfully. Despite the darkness of the storyline, the cinematography is beautiful. Set in a grandiose mansion, in an abundant forest and with a colour palette bolder than previous adaptations, this was definitely a piece of art. It reflects the desire to create an illusion of perfection that permeates much of Rachel’s life, and also the series itself.

However, when a TV show feels more like a film rather than a series, it can be easy to lose momentum when it’s on weekly. It made it harder to engage with the series, whereas for the previous two I remember discussing intensely with my family and friends as it was showed on consecutive nights. This may have been due to it being pulled from the Christmas schedule after Ed Westwick was dropped after allegations of sexual assault and replaced by Christian Cooke. Or perhaps because the ending had been changed the temptation to Google search the killer was out of the equation. Nonetheless, I think it would have been better if it had been slotted in over Easter weekend, but that might just be due to my impatience.

Overall, this adaptation was nearing a masterpiece. The acting was outstanding, the cinematography and production was clever yet beautiful and it transformed the story in a way that kept the spirit of the novel but refreshed it. I’m not alone in my keenness for Phelps’ adaptations to continue their yearly appearance; with at least another six books mined by the BBC to be adapted, I have high hopes.

All episodes of the 3-part miniseries are available to watch on BBC iPlayer here.

Current Deputy Editor, confused philosophy student and pitta enthusiast (@katlouiise)


22nd April 2018 at 9:00 am

Last Updated

11th June 2018 at 12:47 pm

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