Friday, October 27, 2017

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Zero Hour: Innocent Lies, 1995

All month long, we're celebrating the Queen of Crime as she and her works appeared on screen, with a grand finale of five Murder on the Orient Expresses the first full week of November. All this week, we've focused on her standalone works, and today is no exception....

Over the course of this series, we've talked about Agatha Christie's reaction to adaptations of her work - mostly negative, sometimes mixed, and even rarely pleased. We've also talked about how Rosalind Hicks managed her mother's legacy after she passed away - open to wide-ranging television projects, but still vocally disapproving when necessary. But no matter what happened, whether Miss Marple got a little groovy, Hercule Poirot did slapstick, or (heaven forbid!) breasts flashed on-screen, there was never any doubt about where it all started: it would always be Agatha Christie's Murder She Said, Agatha Christie's The Alphabet Murders, Agatha Christie's Endless Night.

Except for one adaptation, that so horrified Hicks that she not only demanded her mother's name be removed from the project, she banned any reference to the original work or its characters, period. But the connection between the film and the source has been an open secret for years, and is even acknowledged on the official Agatha Christie website. Of course, I'm talking about....

Innocent Lies (1995)
dir: Patrick Dewolf
Gabrielle Anwar as Celia Graves
Stephen Dorff as Jeremy Graves
Adrian Dunbar as Alan Cross
Joanna Lumley as Lady Helena Graves

Sophie Aubry as Solange Monfort
Marianne Denicourt as Maud Graves
Alexis Denisof as Christopher Wood
Bernard Haller as Georges Montfort
Florence Hoath as Angela Cross
Keira Knightley (!) as Young Celia
Melvil Poupaud as Louis Bernard

September 1938. With the Nazi threat ever-growing in Europe, "somewhere in the South of France" is still a safe haven. An English detective arrives for the funeral of a friend who committed suicide, though he is suspicious of the circumstances. The detective, with help from the local magistrate's daughter, investigates the affluent and weird English family his friend was visiting: Lady Helena Graves, a socialite who claims to have been the dead man's lover; son Jeremy, who's arrived with his French wife Maud, who has a mysterious relationship with a Louis Bernard; and daughter Celia, home from America with her fiance Christopher Wood. And I do mean weird, because brother and sister are very close and barely hide it, while Momma casually hands with Nazis - and that's all in the first twenty minutes!

Even watching the film today, if all you've read of Christie is Poirot or Marple or And Then There Were None, Innocent Lies comes off as more influenced by her work than a direct adaptation. It is, after all, part of that wave of erotic thrillers that hit cineplexes in the late 80s and lasted throughout the 90s, and Christie was never that - she certainly never wrote a scene where a suspect is questioned mid-coitus. She also wasn't one for addressing Nazi collaboration among the upper classes - her Nazi sympathizers were usually enemy plants, not aristocrats casually courting the favor of Herr Hitler. Anti-Semitism, a significant subplot in the film, was tricky for her, with many of her pre-War novels featuring portrayals that are, while not particularly hateful, still demeaning and stereotypical (a hairdresser in Death in the Clouds encourages his employees to call him "Ikey Andrew", for goodness' sakes). And while she had some eyebrow-raising turns in books like Sleeping Murder, incest was never her thing; this movie, meanwhile, has a scene in the first thirty minutes where a brother and sister lick chocolate off each other's faces. This element, in particular, made Hicks flip.

Where is Agatha Christie in all this? From whence did Innocent Lies spring? According to Agatha Christie dot com, from one of her own top ten favorite novels, one which she adapted herself for the stage: Towards Zero.

The conceit of Towards Zero is that murders are not the beginning of a story, but rather the end, with the emotions and histories of the people involved converging on to that one point - Zero Hour. In this case, Zero Hour seems to be happening at the home of Lady Tressilian, who's invited her ward Neville and his detested wife Kay to her home for their annual visit; he complicates things by inviting his first wife Audrey, so Kay's mysterious friend Ted shows up, too. There's also a man named MacWhirter who winds up helping the police solve the eventual crime while falling for Audrey.

Knowing that Innocent Lies was an adaptation of Towards Zero, one can easily make the connections. Like his literary counterpart, Jeremy's expertise at tennis becomes a major plot point, as does his being torn between his current wife and his first great love - in this case, his sister. Past violent deaths are significant details in both, right down to the specifics: a child killed with an arrow, a lover killed in a car accident. As in the novel, the wife's mysterious friend and her husband provide alibis for each other, having spent the evening at a club on the other side of the river (yes, this exact detail). Just as MacWhirter falls for Audrey and sleuths about in Towards Zero, the sleuth of Innocent Lies finds himself drawn to Celia. And while it's never brought up directly, the film does a better job, in my opinion, of the Zero Hour conceit, with tensions growing until someone finally ends up at the halfway point.

In theory, the freedom to riff off Christie is kind of exciting, allowing the filmmakers to really focus in on the themes of sexual obsession and possession that were vital to the novel, picking up that one thread and following it through unexpected turns. In practice, without being beholden to Christie, the film loses its focus, becoming so fixated on sex it forgets to be interesting. Gabrielle Anwar's Celia never projects the innocence or fragility that the screenplay suggests she possesses - instead, director Patrick Dewolf stresses her carnality, dressing her in translucent white slips in wind and rain. He may have a co-writing credit, yet his vision and the script are constantly at odds. And while it's a slow-moving 88 minutes, it feels like it's missing another 45. How else to account for an out-of-nowhere love triangle that's just as inexplicably dropped, or for Joanna Lumley's screentime being relegated to sitting in turbans and appearing in photographs? The turbans are fabulous, I grant you, but....

Towards Zero was eventually adapted for the third season of Agatha Christie's Marple with Geraldine McEwan, yet another example of dear Aunt Jane getting shoehorned into someone else's mystery. It's very good, has Greg Wise, Eileen Atkins, and Saffron Burrows in it, but it's not a proper adaptation. The French did that in 2007, featuring the recently deceased Danielle Darrieux and - quelle coincidence! - Innocent Lies co-star Melvil Poupaud!

Which brings us to Monday, where in lieu of a full film, we'll talk about the Christie adaptations that have yet to happen - and one that's getting dramatized for the first time ever.

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