Tag Archives: murder mystery

Knives Out – London Film Festival

Daniel Craig in Knives Out (Director Rian Johnson)

Cosy murder mystery adaptations are a much loved TV staple, endlessly repeated on ITV3, but in the last 10 years the crime drama has changed dramatically and even the cosy cornerstones of Sunday afternoon television have taken on a far darker hue. The emphasis is now on the gritty and the grisly with gruesome murders often shown in frightening detail – think The Fall, The Killing and Luther. Even the ones that shy away from such excruciating visual assault take a tone of portentous doom like BroadchurchHappy Valley or The Missing, leading the way with multi-episode series that lean on the conventions of psycho-drama with dark subject matter including child abduction, serial killers and rapists.

And that more serious approach has made its way into even the lightest dramas; Midsommer Murders is fun but the inventiveness of the modes of death has always been grim – from death by cheese wheel to a pitchfork to the back through a deckchair. Think too of the more ominous tone that dogged the later Poirot and Marple adaptations as the protagonists were plagued by doubts and worries about the human condition, things that never used to trouble the Belgian detective and St Mary Mead villager so intently. Sarah Phelps’s Christmas adaptations have only continued the trend with a brooding tone to her versions of And Then There Were NoneWitness for the Prosecution and The ABC Murders. 

Big screen adaptations of crime stories tend to suffer from trying to squeeze a sizeable and complex novel into under two hours losing some of the characterisation that makes the story tick. Often, they are forced to bow to Hollywood conventions to liven things up as Kenneth Branagh did with the strange action sequence inserted in his adaption of Murder on the Orient Express that found an extensively mustachioed Poirot dangling from a train. But this intensity wasn’t always the case, serious adaptions of Agatha Christie films in the late 1970s and early 1980s morphed into something a little more exuberant, and by the time Peter Ustinov made Evil Under the Sun in 1982 everyone was having a lot more fun with a genre tipping over into self-parody.

Jonathan Lynn’s Clue which followed in 1985, a cinematic interpretation of the board game, was a hoot with a stellar cast of comedians including Tim Curry, Madeline Khan and Eileen Brennan. But more recently, inspired by Scandinavian dramas, even film outings for murder stories have followed television with the same preference for moody and brutal depictions of crime including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Snowman with varying success. When did fictional murder stop being fun?

There are fashions in crime writing just as there are in other cultural fields and now Rian Johnson – who was previously at the helm of a Star Wars film – is given free-reign to reverse the trend creating a movie that has all the hallmarks of a much-loved genre which he places in a very modern black comic wrapper. Knives Out is not a spoof, the tone is considerably sharper than that, but it is a loving homage to the lighter crime dramas that Johnson would have watched as a child, including Murder She Wrote which is given a momentary nod as a character watches an episode on their laptop. The film has the momentum of a thriller but the jaunty tone and all the fun of a comedy where the actors are the only ones taking it seriously.

Written and directed by Johnson there is a real confidence in how classic characteristics are integrated into the story of a crime novelist murdered in his country mansion without losing the tone of highly respectful mockery that Johnson maintains faultlessly throughout the film. It all takes place in a big Gothic, faux Victorian pile full of dark wood paneling that gives the setting a claustrophobic and doom-laden feel more redolent of horror films. At the centre of the interrogation room is a chair with a huge halo of daggers and knives pointing to the head of whoever sits in it – very Iron Throne – while in the house the unfortunate Thrombey family gather for a fatal party.

The limited cast of characters restricts itself further, with the most likely set of suspects given the most screentime, all with equally plausible financial motives and all heard to have some form of run-in with the deceased in the days or hours prior to the murder. Stir-in a changing will, some bumbling policeman, a subtle massaging of time and an arrogant freelance detective and Knives Out really hits the mark.

Johnson wastes no time in getting to the point, the murder happens, suspects are introduced with their motives spelled-out immediately and the murderer is revealed to the audience. Seemingly in the know, like an episode of Colombo, it’s now up to the authorities to put all the pieces together while we sit back. Well, not quite because Johnson has plenty of tricks up his sleeve to entertain and double-cross us, not least in having us sympathise with the perpetrator and the unfolding circumstances that set them running like a scared rabbit, as not only the dapper detective but also the rest of the family come after them without knowing their guilt.

And Johnson isn’t nearly done with us as the sands start to shift revealing more layers to the story than we first supposed and – as all great crime dramas should – recasting the entire problem in an entirely new light. In the meantime there is plenty of humour drawn from the wonderful characterisation and unfolding scenarios that Johnson so skillfully creates. Each member of the Thrombey family is given just enough screentime to suggest the extent of their personality and how the events of the film affect them. Leading an exemplary cast is Christopher Plummer as the victim – mostly seen through flashback – who exudes frustration with his relatives and a stern authority when dealing with their many failings directed at everyone except his sweet young nurse Marta who becomes a close friend and confidant. Plummer is particularly funny during his own murder scene taking notes on the method for use in one of his future plots – such moments of dry humour abound through the film.

Portrayals of his adult children are led by Jamie Lee Curtis as “self-made” businesswoman Linda who prides herself on creating her own firm from scratch and building it into a successful enterprise. There is just enough of Linda to see her tenacity and dismissal of the weakness she perceives in the rest of the family – a trait she wholly shares with her father – but Lee Curtis also shows Linda’s protectionist approach, refusing to be drawn into criticising her family by the goading of the detective, as well as a softer side revealed in a single look towards the end of the film as a crucial revelation is made to her. Don Johnson as her husband is far less principled, outraged by the change of will and leading angry protests to suggest his own double-dealing that he goes to some lengths to conceal.

Michael Shannon as Walt Thrombey Linda’s brother heads his father’s publishing business dedicated to its principle client but the menacing Walt is not as weak as he appears to be. Toni Collette is full of earnest self-delusion as an Instagram Influencer whose online success cannot fund her entitled lifestyle or her daughter’s private school fees, and while most of the junior generation remain largely in the background, Chris Evans’s bad-boy son of Linda and Richard enjoys every minute of his caddish part and the chance to slink-off his goodie twoshoes Captain America image.

But it is the central roles that yield the most joy with Ana di Armas’s nurse Marta as the family outsider whose “good-heart” makes her the perfect aide to the investigation while managing to convey genuine upset at Harlan Thrombey’s demise – the only character who really cares he’s gone. Best of all is Daniel Craig’s hilarious Benoit Blanc, the unusual private detective whose fearsome reputation for solving crimes gives him licence to refer to himself in the third person and adopt a Southern accent. This is one of Craig’s best performances, a rare outing for comedy skills only hinted at during his tenure as the rough tough James Bond who blasts through walls and adjusts his tailoring while leaping from a digger onto a moving train. His deadpan performance in Knives Out is full of great lines and beautifully-timed delivery that result in plenty of laugh-out loud moments. It is a real pleasure to watch Craig showcase his skills for whatever a post-007 world might bring.

Brilliantly managed by Johnson who controls the twists and turns with aplomb while delivering enough new information to keep the audience invested, Knives Out is a celebration of the light-hearted murder mystery with a modern twist. Stylish, hilarious and full of love for the genre, Knives Out is dead fun.

Knives Out is on general release in the UK on 27 November 2019. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.

Witness for the Prosecution – County Hall

A dark new Agatha Christie adaptation has become something of a Christmas tradition, and even though the BBC only started this tradition two years ago with an excellent multi-part interpretation of And Then There Were None, it has fast become an established and much anticipated highlight of the festive schedule. So, disappointment ensued this year when the latest Christie production, Ordeal by Innocence was indefinitely shelved. Fortunately, Lucy Bailey’s acclaimed production of Witness for the Prosecution is still riding high at London’s County Hall and is a charming substitute for the void in the TV listings.

Adapted from her own short story, Agatha Christie wrote a theatrical version of Witness for the Prosecution first performed in 1953, and while these days we’re more used to seeing the stories involving her most famous detectives as TV movies – or with the advent of Kenneth Branagh’s latest venture as actual movies – this new stage version, inventively located in an underused and unexpected London venue makes for an enjoyably twisty tale of murder and intrigue.

Wealthy widow Emily French has been murdered and Leonard Vole stands accused of the crime. Vole claims they were good friends and he was at home at the time of the murder, but with plenty of witnesses ready to testify against him, can Vole’s defence team, Sir Wilfrid Robarts and Mr Mayhew, prove his innocence? But then Vole’s mysterious wife Romaine is called to given evidence and the case is turned on its head.

At press night back in October, Lucy Bailey’s production divided the critics, with some disliking what they saw as an old-fashioned structure and heavy-handed approach, while others loved it’s classic and meticulous control of the courtroom action that focused on the aftermath of a murder rather than the deed itself. And, depending on your preference to see the action or hear it reported, this version will compare favourably or unfavourably with last year’s BBC dramatization that took the short story rather than the play as its starting point, and recreated the build-up to the murder as well as the court-based action in a more character-focused piece.

By contrast, Christie’s play is driven by procedure, demonstrating the fragility of evidence presented in courtrooms in cases of capital crime and has much in common with Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men in the way it examines the anatomy of justice and how prejudice has to be overcome. The case itself could be about anything, but what Christie wants you to see is how the ultimate punishment can hinge on the brilliance of lawyers to twist the scantest evidence to make a case for the guilt or innocence of the accused. And, deliberately, like a real jury, the audience is not permitted to see the crime, instead Christie only wants us to hear its details as court testimony, delivered by witnesses and framed by lawyers, forcing you to question how much you can ever really know without being there.

In this light, some of the harsher reviewers for this show can be put into perspective, if you actively try to compare this to the 2016 TV version and expect to see a Christie story that unpicks the characters and tries to understand their motives, then it will certainly disappoint. But, this play is doing something else entirely and Bailey’s approach stands apart as a stylish and savvy revival that has plenty to say about the failures of the criminal justice system.

The use of County Hall, the former home of London’s local government, which is normally closed to the public is an inspired one, and Witness for the Prosecution takes place in the former Council Chamber, which looks like a courtroom with raised platforms for the judge and clerks as well as an actual witness box, making this a combination of theatrical experience and Open House Weekend. With the addition of a central raised stage amidst the three-quarter round seats, the grandly imposing debating chamber of marble columns and ornate design is a lovely substitute for the Old Bailey, adding plenty of atmosphere to the story.

The action largely takes place between Sir Wilfrid’s chambers and the courtroom, and unlike most Christie TV adaptations you never see the murder or the victim, everything is discussed in retrospect. Some of the criticisms of this production concerned the length of the scene changes, and while occasionally they take a couple of minutes as stagehands roll out carpet and deliver chairs, they don’t detract much from the drama of the case. All venues require compromises of some kind, and lengthy scene changes are only a problem if they interrupt the flow, which in this case they largely don’t. On balance, the use of County Hall adds considerably more to the performance than its limitations detract, and Bailey shrewdly uses the space to enhance the themes of the play.

As Leonard Vole, Jack McMullen has one of the toughest roles and must maintain the audience’s interest in his case without giving away the solution. It’s not an easy balance but McMullen does very well to maintain the idea of a young man fighting for his life and genuinely scared by the weight of the circumstantial evidence, but at the same time he allows the audience to see that he may be capable of the things the witnesses claim which adds to the escalating tension, as well as reinforcing Christie’s notion that evidence and fact don’t always align.

Leading the defence team, David Yelland is wonderfully wry as Sir Wilfrid, wanting to believe in his client’s innocence but knowing how the game must be played in court. We’re given some insight into his thinking during the scenes outside the courtroom, and he has many of the most humorous lines, but unlike the BBC adaptation, Sir Wilfrid here is a servant of the crown, he has a job to do and aspects of his personality – his confidence, his disregard for the approach of the prosecution lawyer and his slightly world-weary acceptance of human behaviour – are only revealed by Yelland where they intersect with the performance of his job, and are indeed only the things his client or the jury would see or know of him in court.

His counterpart, Mr Myers is given a bulldog ferocity by Philip Franks who is a deliberately showier, if less skilled lawyer than Sir Wilfrid. Myers thunders at witnesses and breaks protocol repeatedly by making leading statements and putting words in their mouths (for which objections are frequently raised), which Franks suggests is due to Myer’s arrogance, using a more aggressive but ultimately less nuanced approach. But it does make for entertaining exchanges and many of the productions best moments come from watching Franks and Yelland squeezing and flipping evidence, as witness statements are shaped and redirected by the competing lawyers.

Catherine Steadman’s Romaine is a more difficult role to place, and has to be deliberately seen as an outsider or a strange presence. The character is German in a very English setting and her ‘otherness’ is key to the way in which the audience perceives her evidence. Steadman mostly creates this quite well, and her straight-talking Romaine always seems in control, brusque but unwilling to conform to English niceties. It is a fine line, though, between distinctiveness and exaggeration, with Steadman’s performance occasionally becoming a little cartoony, and by rushing the rather dramatic ending, Romaine feels like the least real character in an otherwise convincing production.

With ticket prices from a reasonable £10 and the show extended for nearly a year until September there’s plenty of time to catch this enjoyable new interpretation. If booking for some of the gallery seats, do take note of the restricted view information which is very clear about which areas of the stage the marble pillars will obscure, while other seats give you a perfect view for £25. So, if you felt Christmas was missing the traditional Agatha Christie adaptation, this production of Witness for the Prosecution is a rare chance to see a carefully-considered and executed Christie play in an unusual but well-chosen setting. As London will see with Quiz later in the year, Bailey’s production reminds us that justice and truth are not always the same thing.

Witness for the Prosecution is at County Hall until 16 September and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

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