In the grand tradition of Agatha Christie stories, “Ordeal by Innocence” has, at its heart, an unsolved murder. In this case, the victim is Rachel Argyll (Anna Chancellor), wife and adoptive mother of four, found beaten to death in her own study. It’s a homicide that tears at the seams of an already threadbare family, only held together by a faint sense of familial obligation and a shared animosity toward the now-deceased matriarch.
But this version of “Ordeal of Innocence” goes beyond the standard murder mystery fare to become a ghost story as well, a monster movie told in three parts, with humans barely cloaking the darker parts of their nature. Though Rachel’s death is the opening scene of the series, released this week on Amazon after airing earlier this spring on the BBC, she’s an instrumental part of the story as it weaves through the Argyll children’s younger days.
Her son Jack (Anthony Boyle) is arrested for the crime, shown also to be the child who most locked horns with Rachel. A fraught psychological atmosphere is created by all, including Rachel’s husband Leo (Bill Nighy), as demonstrated in a handful of flashbacks that gradually unpack the Argylls’ dysfunction. In the present, as Jack languishes in prison, his siblings Mickey (Christian Cooke), Mary (Eleanor Tomlinson), Tina (Crystal Clarke), and Hester (Ella Purnell) all set their sights on each other as alternate explanations for why their hated mother is no longer living.
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The closest “Ordeal by Innocence” comes to an outside observer is Arthur Calgary (Luke Treadaway), who arrives at the stately Argyll manor with a claim that he has an alibi for Jack’s whereabouts on the night of the murder. Far from a skilled detective, Arthur nevertheless becomes the match that lights the fuse on an accelerated series of allegations and revelations that threaten to explode the tenuous family bonds that somehow managed to remain intact this long.
Arthur arrives at the perfect time to help the Argylls escape the gravitational pull of Philip Durrant (Matthew Goode), a paraplegic war vet, morphine addict, husband of Mary, and an individual determined to inflict misery upon whatever room he occupies. Tearing into each abrasive monologue, Goode plays Philip’s vindictiveness with a certain unreserved glee. Without much below the surface of Philip’s machinations, aside from being an agent of domestic chaos, Goode’s performance is a blunt instrument, the first major hint that “Ordeal by Innocence” is not an adaptation governed by subtlety.
Even as many of the Argylls are dealing with their own individual struggles with repression, getting the whole surviving family gathered together unlocks a special level of viciousness that everyone beyond Philip gets a turn to dole out. As direct as the series is in connecting plot points to get to the final reveal, each Argyll seems uniquely equipped to deliver a savage psychological blow to at least one person they grew up with. Each outburst — many directed toward Leo’s younger, would-be second wife Gwenda (Alice Eve) — becomes another addition to the ever-growing pile of clues that in turn implicates every one of the Argylls for Rachel’s death.
Director Sandra Goldbacher and writer Sarah Phelps mirror that unshackling of decorum and manners by taking stylistic liberties with the traditional locked-camera literary adaptation visual approach. Aside from a handful of Arthur’s hallucinations, few of these additions give extra insight to the story unfolding. But there is a certain freedom in the disjointed narrative timeline that hints what a version of “Ordeal of Innocence” not burdened with churning through so much plot might be able to achieve. At the very least, it’s refreshing to hear a Christie character curse once in a while (one even gets to drop the Roy family’s favorite phrase a few times).
Amidst a wave of finger-pointing and overall unpleasantness, Chancellor is the anchor of the series. Even as Rachel actively refuses hugs and berates her chosen children, Chancellor embodies the kind of warped maternal instincts that make her such a unique murder victim. There’s a certain tragedy in how finding out the truth behind her death is only a cudgel in an interfamily squabble. No one wants to find out why she died as a form of healing. If anything, her killer’s identity is a means to exploit grievances that have existed for a generation.
It may seem like an overly facile comparison to connect this Christie story to “Clue,” but that’s an inevitable byproduct in the coyness with which “Ordeal by Innocence” unfolds. Up until the final confrontation scene, when the killer is revealed, there really is the sense that it could be anyone who’s been introduced, with different endings as the logical endpoint to the many suspects the show has put forward. (The liberties taken with the original novel only bolster this idea.) It’s made all the more frustrating when the whodunit aspect of “Ordeal by Innocence” is the rare element treated here with any sort of elusiveness. It doesn’t take long for any of Christie’s subtext to shoot to the surface, especially where Mickey is concerned.
The sense of dread and guilt that permeates each interaction, combined with the flashback structure that makes this more ghost story than murder mystery, almost makes each of the Argylls at fault in their own way. With various motives and plenty of animus toward the dead family members to fuel a few different drastic actions, the cloud that hangs over “Ordeal by Innocence” is less an investigation of who’s at fault and more an explanation for why solving that one mystery won’t really fix anything for the Argylls.
It’s another layer of tragedy to what unfolds, but it’s also what makes the final moments of these three hours feel antithetical to the whole buildup. The conclusion only bolsters the idea that the Argylls have been set up to be interchangeable, a collection of broken psyches that could be selected and charged depending on a random change in circumstances. That’s a bold foundation to build a narrative on, but it makes this adaptation feel just as dispensable.
“Ordeal by Innocence” is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.