Sarah Phelps’ third Agatha Christie adaptation, Ordeal By Innocence, has been a sumptuous, delicious period treat with all those key Christie themes juggled expertly to keep us guessing. The big questions for us mere mortals were who killed Rachel Argyll and why, but for hardcore Christieites they would no doubt have had one eye on the ending – Phelps is known for changing things and giving these adaptations a different spin. Who knew what was going to happen?
Poor sexy, funny, scathing Philip lay in the shower, wide-open eyes pointing up to the heavens, his body stiff and cold. Leo and Arthur tended to him. A needle was found in his arm: a morphine overdose. Arthur placed pennies over his eyes. Of course he hadn’t ODed – he had been murdered and it had been dressed up to look like an overdose.
Aside from the odd scene and a mildly dramatic one later in the episode, there wasn’t much going on with Arthur tonight – his use in the plot had seemingly come to an end.
Poor Mary. In tonight’s numerous, extended flashbacks – all the secrets really tumbled out like an Olympic gymnast gambolling across the mat tonight – told us that her’s was a sad story. Throughout the series, we’ve seen the Argyll kids at any given point neurotic, hateful, seething and inhabiting their own little worlds. Now we were beginning to see the real stories behind the facades – Mary, poor Mary, was on the end of her mother’s acid tongue once again in flashback on the night she was murdered. She was told that she was never, ever good enough to replace the chasm of sadness that opened up inside Rachel. For a young woman like Mary, who only ever wanted to be loved, this was as hurtful as it came. Back in the present day, we also learned that those vials of morphine were not for Mary, but for her husband – despite the tongue lashings he often delighted in giving her, she dutifully laid out his morphine shots for him every night. There’s no way he could have administered them himself. Mary knew her husband had been murdered.
Tina and Mickey Argyll
Of course, we had guessed all along that Tina and Mickey were star cross’d lovers, and tonight their illicit affair was confirmed. Jack had seen them together and, on the night Rachel was murdered, he had told his mother (with much theatrical glee, it has to be said) what he had witnessed. Subsequently, Rachel had summoned Tina for a private meeting and scolded her for being dirty and immoral.
Perhaps the most wrenching of all the Argyll children’s backstories. Hester, savaged by Rachel for being ordinary, had left home in a fury, shacking up with a young gentleman. On the day she was murdered, Rachel had found out where her daughter was staying and paid her a visit. First, she paid off her dozy paramour and then crushed a sedative into a cup of sugary milk. When Hester came back she guzzled her milk – her favourite drink – and, while semi-conscious, was whisked off to the hospital by Rachel. Why? She knew that any passionate relationship would probably result in a pregnancy. Her instincts were right (Hester was three months gone) and she instructed the doctor to abort Hester’s child. At this point in the proceedings, we hated Rachel with everything we had.
Jack: the murderer; the loose cannon; the saucy bugger; the constant fly in the ointment. We saw much more of Jack tonight, and what he had been up to in the lead-up and on the night his mother was murdered. He took great pleasure in winding her up, seeing chinks in her armour and shooting arrows into her exposed flesh. He told her about Tina and Mickey with a smirk, and also told her that her attempts to force him out of Sunny Point would come to nothing: “There’s no getting rid of me. I will sow your field with salt; I will be your plague.” What he was told in response shook him to the core: that Kirsten was his mother, and that Rachel had raised him as her own. “You have no idea what it takes to keep going,” she shuddered to her adopted son. Thanks to that extraordinary line, which betrayed a lifetime of sacrifice, stoicism and heroism, we were suddenly thinking very differently about Rachel Argyll.
They way we were pushed this way and that with Rachel had been a masterclass of manipulation. One moment we hated her, the next we had sympathy for her. By the end of this torrid story, we began to admire her greatly. She was doing her best to hold together the family under extreme duress – each one of them had their problems, and she had to deal not only with the fact that she could not have children herself but also the humiliation and ignominy of knowing that her husband was, as we found out tonight, a philanderer of the highest order, who liked to sleep with female members of his staff. Gwenda was the latest in a long line and Rachel found out about her husband’s affair by finding a pair of Gwenda’s knickers in Leo’s study. (In the ensuing confrontation, this line: “You ordinary bitch. Put your cheap knickers on and get out of my house.”) And yet after everything, everything, it must have cut her to the core. It was an incredible performance from Anna Chancellor (perhaps one of her best) as she played out Rachel’s complex life and emotions, one moment tough and emotionless, the next maternal and caring and having to make tough, unpleasant decisions. Chancellor was at her very best when Kirsten found Rachel at her desk, in a pre-death reverie with life slipping through her hands like sand. She soon collapsed onto the floor, blood cascading down her blouse, at once confused, afraid and incredulous.
Up until now, we were being led down a path that made it look like Sunny Point’s very own Mrs Danvers was the guilty party. But the revelation that Jack was her child – a child she conceived and gave birth to when she was only 15 – and that Rachel had essentially rescued her suggested there was an unshakable bond between the two. And then, of course, there was Rachel’s nuclear bunker, where she would retreat in moments of panic, only to be calmed and comforted by Kirsten. In many ways it was Kirsten who was the daughter Rachel never had. But Kirsten, of course, knew something was up, especially after Philip had died in those mysterious circumstances. She had even told the Argyll kids – who were holding a forest meeting – the truth about Jack… and Leo.
Kirsten had begun to snoop around the house and, knowing what Leo was capable of, went to his study searching for evidence. She found it: a figurine scratched and blood-stained. And then we saw it. On that fateful night, with Christmas carols wafting across her study, Leo bashed in his wife’s head with the figurine. And then we saw more. His joust with Jack in prison, his son telling him he knew that he was his father and that he couldn’t wait to ruin him. And then more still: Leo conspiring with the late Bellamy Gould to get rid of his son in prison, something Gould was only too happy to help with. On the day of his wedding, Leo Argyll was confronted by his children, for the first time united in mind and course. Things ended up with Leo being locked away in Rachel’s bunker, his suicide staged to get the police off his scent. This ending did feel very un-Christie-like, and I would have liked to have had more time with the confession and the reveal – that last five minutes or so felt like it was rushed a bit (although the shot of Kirsten walking away from a screaming, incarcerated Leo, her hand running along the walls, a smile cracking for the first time in a lifetime, was a shot for the ages). Anyone who’s read the original knows that Sarah Phelps not only changed the ending but also the identity of the murderer (in the book, Kirsten and Jack – who were lovers – were the ones who did it). And I’m absolutely fine with that, because Phelps, in her version, has given us something with much more emotional depth and tragedy in the resolution, and a character in Rachel Argyll who was complex, fascinating and ultimately, a heartbreaker.
I bloody knew it was Leo! And I liked that it was Leo – because Bill Nighy is such a kindly, lovable man, you would never expect him to play such a vile monster. His true identity played with our preconceptions of not only the character but the actor who played him.
For the most part, this adaptation was really, really good stuff – taut and full of fascinating and often brutal familial dynamics, ravishing set design and original Christie characters that had been given much more depth and nuance (Christie really likes to put loathsome people through the mill, almost delighting in the way they’re so nasty to each other and then, more often than not, killing them off, one by one). And let’s not forget the whodunit, played out beautifully within that almost purgatorial single location, and a perpetrator that actually made much more sense than even perhaps the original story. You can’t get much more of a compliment than that.
For our episode one review, go here
For our episode two review, go here