‘Ordeal by Innocence’ reinvents detective genre

Amazon recently released an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1958 whodunnit “Ordeal by Innocence.” The novel follows the struggle of the Argyles, an upper-class British family, to determine who among them is responsible for the murder of the family’s late matriarch Rachel. After an abundance of twists, the true nature of and motivation for the murder are revealed to be rather ordinary.

In director Sandra Goldbacher’s take on the classic novel, the setting is moved to an appropriately gloomy Scottish manor. While the premise and characters remain largely unchanged (though “Argyle” is changed to “Argyll”), the Amazon miniseries is a completely new beast, something much darker and much more cynical than anything Christie ever wrote.

When the three-part miniseries opens, the audience is introduced to the Argyll family and the horrible crime of which Rachel Argyll has been the victim through a series of fast-moving non-chronological clips which set an exceptionally dark tone and disorient the viewer.

While these clips do an excellent job of controlling the flow of information to the viewer and set them up for a strange tale, the sequence is one of the weakest of the miniseries. It draws on a bit too long and does too little to advance the story.

Still, as soon as the viewer escapes this sequence, they are immersed in the gorgeously vibrant world which is perhaps the best feature of Goldbacher’s adaptation. Every set is immaculate. Every shot perfectly set up. The series is a joy to watch if only for the beauty of its universe, and even viewers who are skeptical of such things will begin to take notice of Goldbacher’s meticulous use of symmetry and powerful imagery to create a haunting effect.

The viewer must be careful not to let the overwhelming beauty of the miniseries distract from the complexity lurking beneath the surface. Goldbacher’s work is far from a simple adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel. She makes deliberate changes to the plot and characters which enhance the story and change the tale from a traditional piece of detective fiction into a postmodern thriller rife with flawed characters, substance abuse and moral ambiguity.

Every character in Amazon’s “Ordeal by Innocence” is either deeply flawed or struggles with serious personal troubles, from drug addiction to alcoholism to mental illness. Few of the characters are likable, but at some point the viewer feels sympathy for each of them. The cast deserves the credit for portraying the characters convincingly.

Perhaps the least likable character in the series is the one most masterfully acted. The character of Phillip Durrant, a former war pilot who is paralyzed from the waist down by a car accident, is the Argyll family’s resident provocateur. Portrayed by Matthew Goode (“The Imitation Game”), he airs out each character’s doubts about who has committed the crime with detachment and brutal honesty, as though he approaches the consequential issue as a mere intellectual exercise.

In the hands of a lesser actor, Durrant would come across as a villain, but Goode’s performance highlights the character’s brokenness and demonstrates that his cruelty is simply a method by which he copes with his
own disability.

Ella Purnell (“Churchill,” “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”) turns in an equally superb performance as Hester Argyll. Purnell does an excellent job of portraying her character’s internal struggle over the possibility that she may have murdered her mother in a fit of rage. Hester is also quite possibly the most likable character in the entire miniseries. She labors under the imposed burden of her mother’s perfectionism, trying desperately to please her until she can simply no longer stand to be at home. Just before her death, Rachel’s excessive control over Hester’s life becomes so unbearable that Hester later believes that she may have killed her mother without realizing it.

Thematically, the most compelling feature of “Ordeal by Innocence” is the nuance with which it treats the central murder. One of the recurring motifs in the miniseries is the idea that “it could’ve happened to anyone.” The characters can sympathize with their mother’s murderer; they understand that their mother placed enormous pressure on everyone in her life and that any one of them could have just as easily been the one to snap.

This is what makes the series so refreshing. Stylistically, it is very similar to a traditional whodunnit crime story, but it lacks the central moral voice which typically defines that genre. Whereas traditional detective fiction features a clear cut villain who is typically motivated by money or self-gain, the flawed characters in “Ordeal by Innocence” are simply the product of their environment. The series poses questions about what makes a person evil and what that means for the idea of justice.

Since the midpoint of the 20th century, the detective fiction genre has declined and largely died out in western culture, in part because its moral framework is too black and white for the world of contemporary literature. Goldbacher’s greatest accomplishment with this miniseries is reconciling the genre with the morally ambiguous values of modern thought.

She treads the fine line of contemporary morality with plenty of nuance. While the viewer and the characters sympathize with the circumstances which led to Rachel Argyll’s murder, justice is still ultimately delivered; even if the crime is a product of the perpetrator’s circumstances, the criminal is responsible for his individual actions and deserves punishment.

“Ordeal by Innocence” is positively fantastic to watch, and the miniseries has the potential to revolutionize the crime fiction genre. If the impact of the series is that viewers get to see more shows like this one, the future of television is certainly bright.

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