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Ordeal by Innocence: My take on the series #BookVSMovie

Ordeal by Innocence starring (L to R) Crystal Clarke, Matthew Goode, Bill Nighy, Anna Chancellor and Ella Purnell 

(Not Shown ) Morven Christie, Eleanor Tomlinson, Anthony Boyle, Alice Evan, Christian Cooke and Luke Treadway

I’m annoyed with myself because while I read Agatha Christie’s whodunnit Ordeal by Innocence I don’t seem to have written a review about it. Now the book has been adapted—very loosely adapted—for the small screen in a three-part series and my muddled memory may miss a few things.

I know I enjoyed the book, as I did the limited series. It was only three episodes, my husband was out of town so I binged them all in one night. 

As I watched I began to remember the book and realized that the series was quite different. 

About the book

Published in 1958, the book was one of the author’s personal favorites. It begins with the murder of wealthy philanthropist Rachel Argyll at her family estate, Sunny Point. Despite vehemently protesting his innocence, her adopted son Jack is arrested for the crime. Eighteen months later, Dr Arthur Calgary appears claiming to hold the alibi that can prove Jack’s innocence. But Jack died in prison before the case could come to trial, and the Argyll family is reluctant to dig up the secrets of the past. However, the shattering implications of Calgary’s story are too big to avoid: If Jack was not the killer, then it must have been somebody else at Sunny Point.

In the book, Dr. Calgary is intelligent, respected, of sound mind. His intentions are honorable, to help the family come to terms with the fact that their son and brother Jack did not kill their mother, which means one of them did. In the series, he’s dismissed at every turn, the family is disinterested in his point of view and in fact, is finally hauled off to an insane asylum. That’s the only real spoiler I'll include here.

As far as the cast of characters goes, the actors are all top-notch performers extremely familiar to those of us who like our Brit telly, especially those mysteries. What is slightly less familiar to readers of the book is how extreme, and to a certain extent, unlikeable those characters were portrayed as being.

Philip Durrant (Matthew Goode) with his wife Mary (Eleanor Tomlinson)

Take Philip Durrant (Matthew Goode), the paraplegic husband of Mary (Eleanor Tomlinson), the eldest of Mrs. Argyle’s five adopted children. In the novel, the paraplegic Durrant is bright and intuitive and with time on his hands, intent on helping to solve the crime. To that end he gets together with Dr. Calgary, pumping him for information. In the televised version, Matthew Goode plays him as extremely embittered and angry—his response to the pain of a broken back. In one scene he and Dr. Calgary dine out together at a restaurant and he actually takes out a kidney-shaped bottle urinates into it in his lap. At the table! He then puts the container on the table so the waiter can remove it. He tells the shocked doctor that he tips the waiter extra for the service. Such a nasty, vulgar and angry man. In the novel, he is captivated by the lovely young Hester. In the series, he forces Hester (Ella Purnell) to kiss him on the cheek which he then turns into a full-on assault with his tongue. The problem is, I don’t like Matthew Goode as a nasty type. I buy it, he’s brilliant, but it’s not who I want him to be. He fares far better with me when we see some of his own inherent lightness, warmth, and sense of humor. 

The most important change from the book is who actually dunnit. Writer Sarah Phelps apparently had no compunction in changing not only whodunnit but why! Her response to critics seems to be something along the lines of, if you want Agatha Christie, read the book. 

That major change, mind you, is believable. It’s just not how Christie wrote it and one wonders why Phelps didn’t just go ahead and write her own original script instead of pilfering the great Agatha Christie’s plot and turning it inside out. But of course, Christie is bankable. And remains one of the most bankable writers out there. 

What I liked

I actually did enjoy the show despite my reservation about Durant’s character as portrayed by Goode—one of my faves. Any and all of the assembly could be guilty—except for Durrant—and I admit I enjoyed the unfurling of the plot, and how the red herrings worked out. Also intriguing, a subplot featuring a relationship between two of the adopted children, one of them a person of color (Crystal Clarke) to make things extra interesting. Is it incest when the brother and sister have family ties but aren’t blood relatives? 

The production design, set decoration, and costume design were outstanding. While I think of Agatha Christie in sepia tones, this production, set in the late 1950s was in full, fabulous modern color. Deep teal walls. The sour yellow of Mrs. Argyle’s dress. And lots and lots of blue throughout. 

No rating stars but 3 out of 4