If you grew up in my household, you watched movies and read books - a lot of them. And particular emphasis was placed on all things English. Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness, among many other Britishers, were kings of The Box, and Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple paperbacks, with colorful, intriguing covers, were strewn all about the house, always within reach wherever you might flop down. So I'm familiar with her works, and, after later study, with her life. That's why the new DVD release of the 2004 BBC television production, Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures, is such a disappointment. Familiar facts are retreaded, suppositions are hinted at with no conviction, all in the monotone droning that is the epitome of the BBC at its most bland.
On December 3, 1926, England's rising mystery novelist Agatha Christie suddenly left her comfortable home near Berkshire, England, and disappeared for eleven days, creating a media frenzy of speculation in her homeland. When she was found, her husband claimed she was suffering from amnesia and a total loss of personal identity. Reportedly, she was treated by a psychiatrist (who has remained anonymous to this day), who helped her regain her identity. Christie refused to speak of this event later in life, even leaving it out, in total, from her autobiography. The facts of her disappearance are not as mysterious as are often portrayed by the media - then or now. I won't specifically detail what happened to Miss Christie prior to her disappearance, or what may have caused her to flee, in deference to those who may watch this DVD, or those who may not be familiar with the story. Suffice is to say, there were far more people at the time who felt the whole affair, to put it kindly, "smelled,"and that it was either an elaborate hoax, or at best, an impulsive act that went too far, too fast.
If this all sounds vague or slightly confusing, what until you watch the film. From its clumsy, unconvincing opening, where we see the first framing device of Christie, in 1962, talking to reporters at a tenth anniversary of her play, The Mousetrap, to the second framing device, of Christie talking with her psychiatrist after the disappearance, we're alternately pulled this way and that, unconvincingly given flashback snippets of Christie's life that purport to be meaningful, but which only come off, at best, as obtuse. Intriguing details are hinted at, such as a menacing figure, referred to as "The Gunman," who inexplicably pops up during the flashbacks, but little or no explanation is given for his significance to Christie, or to the story. We're also given pat psychological answers to why Christie may have disappeared, but they're presented in such a confusing manner, that many times we're not sure if we're watching fact or fantasy. A good case in point is the film's dramatic denouement, which is presented in such an inept manner by writer/director Richard Curson Smith (both in its staging, and in its juxtaposition with the preceding scenes), that one wonders at first if this scene explaining her disappearing act, is set in the time period before the disappearance, or after.
The film is populated with good actors: Olivia Williams (The Sixth Sense and Rushmore fame); Anna Massey (The Looking-Glass War, Hitchcock's Frenzy); Raymond Coulthard (The English Patient); Stephen Boxer (Mary Reilly, TV's Prime Suspect); Anthony O'Donnell (Love's Labour Lost, Vera Drake); Mark Gatiss (TV's The League of Gentlemen). However, none of them are shown to much advantage, particularly Ms. Williams, who rarely varies her expression (the above photo is a pretty fair approximation of her total performance). Mysteriousness is fine in an actor; inscrutableness is not. Technical credits are adequate. The set details are correct, if on the sparse side, with the flat, broad lighting that goes with a fast TV shooting schedule. The director's choice of varying film stocks, lighting schemes, and editing rhythms to energize the various flashbacks is inconsistent in usage, and ultimately, gimmicky in execution. The score is at times gratingly anachronistic, and as a whole, inadequate.
Picture quality is extremely clean and sharp for this TV drama, presented in 16:9 widescreen.
A stereo mix unfortunately picks up the inadequate score nicely. No close captioning is available.
This bare-bones disc provides partial, titles-only filmographies for the top players, and a photo gallery of Agatha Christie, containing a whopping seven pictures. That's it.
Agatha Christie book fans, if they're unfamiliar with her life story, may want to give a cursory look to this blah BBC production. Agatha Christie movie fans will find it woefully pale in comparison to even the weakest cinematic Christie vehicle. And everyone else, I suspect, won't go near it. Interestingly enough, 1979's Agatha, with Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman, tried to cover the same ground of Christie's disappearance, albeit in fictionalized form, to little effect, as well.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.