One of the greatest offshoots of Peak TV has been the revival of the miniseries, now more fashionably referred to as a “limited series.” Whether or not these series stay limited is always a question, but for the most part, they are designed to tell a complete story in more time than a movie and less time than a TV show. They are also the perfect visual method via which to tell a murder mystery, especially one adapted from a novel, allowing a full exploration of the plot but not so much so that you forget why we’re all there in the first place (that is to say, murder most foul).
Following a similar format to the recent adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, writer Sarah Phelps and director Sandra Goldbacher bring Christie’s novel Ordeal by Innocence to the small screen with a cast full of exceptional U.K. actors draped in perfect period wear. The three-part series, which was originally broadcast on the BBC and is now available in the U.S. on Amazon Prime, picks up 18 months after the murder of a wealthy family’s matriarch (Rachel Argyll, Anna Chancellor) by one of her own children, who was sent to jail and later died there. Of course, the proof of Rachel actually being murdered by that son, Jack (Anthony Boyle), remains in question, which is where we find the unhappy household as they sit in emotional limbo.
The Argylls include the widowed Leo (Bill Nighy) who is about to marry a rather rotten young woman, Gwenda (Alive Eve), to the dismay of his adopted children: bitter Mary (Eleanor Tomlinson) who is married to the horrible Philip (Matthew Goode), defiant Mickey (Christian Cooke), quiet Tina (Crystal Clarke), and innocent-seeming Hester (Ella Purnell). The group is rounded out by an all-seeing housekeeper, Kirsten (Morven Christie), who holds the key to unlocking the show’s central mystery.
In its first episode, Ordeal by Innocence moves quickly, jumping back and forth in time to show snippets of life before Rachel’s murder, from strict childhoods to the misery of the current day. And things are, largely, miserable for the bickering Argylls. Making them all so unlikeable is a useful way to keep each character a plausible suspect, but less successful in making us care much about any of them. While the Argylls seem more or less willing to accept that their troubled and deceased brother Jack committed the crime, an alibi then shows up in the form of a physicist, Doctor Arthur Calgary (Luke Treadaway), who claims he has been on an Arctic mission. Calgary then becomes the catalyst for the family realizing that the killer is still free — and among them.
Purists will note that there have been some key changes to Christie’s 1958 novel, including but not limited to the identity of the murderer, the relationships among some of the family members, as well as the ultimate fate of Rachel’s killer. It does keep viewers on their toes, even if they are familiar with the novel, but the ending in particular feels a world away from Christie’s work. This adaptation also seeks to separate itself from more staid presentations of these novels on TV in the past, like Poirot and Miss Marple, by introducing a hefty dose of profanity, which doesn’t add anything but makes for a jarring inclusion.
And yet, so much about Ordeal by Innocence’s rough patches can be overlooked thanks to the excellent work by its cast, particularly Matthew Goode who seems to absolutely relish in being as nasty as possible. The family are all pretty nasty to one another, and the miniseries, which slows down a bit in its second hour and rushes through its third, could have paced itself to show us more shades of the siblings. They could all be killers because they all seem like selfish, bitter, haunted people, but it would have been more compelling to see more of their personal issues with Rachel as mother-tyrant played out earlier, rather than tossed in at the very end when we already can guess who the killer is (it’s given away fairly early to careful viewers).
The series excels though in Goldbacher’s direction and the dynamic editing that knocks viewers off-kilter just enough at the start to keep even TV-crime-watching aficionados curious about what the series is doing. Occasionally it’s a little too jumpy, but Ordeal by Innocence is saved, again, by gorgeous costuming and set design, with the colors coordinated in ways that make every frame an artistic expression.
For those looking to watch a relatively quick crime story that makes for a very good binge watch (coming in at just under 3 hours), Ordeal by Innocence is a finely-told option that might not be exactly what Christie intended, but puts enough of a twist on a classic to keep things interesting.
Ordeal by Innocence premieres on Amazon Prime Friday, August 10th.