Agatha Christie’s eleven-day disappearance in 1926 isn’t really great mystery fodder, in as much as the cause is fairly evident. The only debate surrounding the event is whether she purposefully left hubby Archie – who had requested a divorce, so he could marry Nancy Neele – in order to land him in the soup on suspicion of murder, or she was so distressed that she fell into a genuine fugue state (two doctors diagnosed “an unquestionable genuine loss of memory”). The fact of the manhunt for her was a big national thing, though, so it’s unsurprising it should have yielded a number of dramatic riffs on the subject over the years. Agatha’s probably the most prestigious but possibly the most pedestrian, despite some decent performances.
Title: What follows is an imaginary solution to an authentic mystery.
Not for Michael Apted and screenwriters Kathleen Tynan – based on her The Summer Aeroplane – and Arthur Hopcraft (BBC’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) the typical RTD-era Doctor Who extravagance of Gareth Roberts’ The Unicorn and the Wasp, complete with enormous alien insect, rampant innuendo (there’s porn, gay lovers and illicit liaisons, the sort of thing that was ten-a-penny in classic Who) and murder mystery as whacky farce (about half of it works quite well, but only about half). That Agatha ends up amnesiac of her experience – the best state with regard to all things nu-Who, I find – in contrast to Channel 5’s Agatha and the Truth of Murder, where her disappearance is accounted for by her going undercover to solve a murder (an actual murder). This, by contrast, is a much more down-to-earth account of her attending a health spa and being wooed by diminutive Dustin.
The production was first envisaged as a documentary, it seems – where Tynan’s book came in that process, I’m unsure – before David Puttnam got involved and said it should be a movie. He then washed his hands of it after Hoffman entered the scene – Dustin was also a producer – and initiated star-powered script changes, provided by pal Murray Schisgal. There was a lawsuit (from Hoffman) and a lawsuit (from the Christie estate). The latter was thrown out, the former’s result isn’t known (that I’m aware of). It seems it filmed 1976-77 but didn’t get a release until ’79, which speaks volumes about the tribulations involved.
The biggest issue with the result is that there isn’t much to Agatha. Vanessa Redgrave is fine as Christie – she’s always good value – and Hoffman, when he’s concentrating on being the assured and insightful reporter Wally Stanton, is quite presentable. It’s a different, very mannered take on journalism to his more famously unkempt and contemporary Bernstein a few years earlier, but he wears the clashes with establishment figures, not least Timothy Dalton as Agatha’s philandering hubby Archie, well (Dalton was Redgrave’s long-time toy boy at this point, from 1971-86 in all).
Unfortunately, as soon as Wally locates Agatha and falls for her, the picture turns to meandering mush. Any investment in their burgeoning bond is based more on the hilarious height disparity between the thesps than strong chemistry (Redgrave’s about half a foot taller than Dustin. In fairness to the latter, his “Come on, if I can walk here, you can”, while trying to teach her to swim in the deep end of the pool, was surely a self-effacing piece of improv).
Besides swimming lessons, Wally tutors Agatha at billiards (such is Apted and/or Redgrave’s lack of prowess, the trick shot ends up comprising several shots, with the first obviously way off), they dance (more chuckles at the height difference), kiss (outright hilarity at the height difference), and Agatha sets in motion a plan to kill Nancy – only for the reveal she’s planning suicide! The picture looks quite nice. Lots of smokily diffused light (Vittorio Storaro was DP, something of a coup for the moribund Apted). The score from Johnny Mandel, however, is romantic garbage (this after the one by Howard Blake was thrown out for being old-fashioned and melodramatic).
Pauline Kael has it that Christie left home on Friday and her brother-in-law had received a letter from her by Tuesday. She asks “How do you make a whodunit when nothing happened?” (fortunately, she was no longer around to see Gareth Roberts’ answer). She amusingly observes “Hoffman’s lively-eyed, self-aware Wally Stanton has such a preening grand manner that you almost hear the drumroll each time he appears” and gets to the nub of the interposing star’s presence: “Agatha invades the privacy of Agatha Christie and then gets fixated on her imaginary suitor”.
I nevertheless can’t help ruminate, from the nuggets of actual facts surrounding the case, that something more imaginative might have been conjured. And without resorting to oversized alien wasps. You still have the essential dilemma Kael identified, but you also have the lure of an incident where a famous crime writer goes AWOL, and in response, not just one but two other famous crime writers become involved in the case. Dorothy L Sayers, we are told, searched the scene of Christie’s disappearance (her car was left above a Surrey chalk quarry with an expired driving licence and clothes inside); she came up short, alas.
But never fear, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got involved too. He consulted psychic Horace Leaf, presenting one of Christie’s gloves for reading. Leaf conveyed “The person who owns it is half-dazed and half purposeful. She is not dead as many people think. She is alive. You will hear of her, I think, next Wednesday”. Which would be, funnily enough, when she turned up. Of course, Conan Doyle had been thoroughly inundated with ridicule for his occult interests by 1926, what with his vouching for the Cottingley Fairies and all. Agatha doubtless had no interest in such illustrious presences as they’d have detracted from Wally and his whimsies.
Christie herself was much more conservative in her beliefs than Conan Doyle. She was a “quietly devout” Church of England attendee, although it seems her mother had occult interests. Agatha, bloodthirsty as she was, tends to appeal to the traditional Christian mindset, largely because it’s safe and clear in its moral grounding (of crime fiction, “Where leftish and non-religious commentators stumble is their belief that the genre seeks to restore innocence lost; that, with the identification of the culprit, she can be expelled, punished and the innocent return to Eden. The radical flaw at the heart of this interpretation is the failure to see that the whodunit is premised on the doctrine of Original Sin. Everybody is guilty of something; it may offer hope that the problem has a solution, but evil will not be expunged as a result. It is one problem with one solution; it is a small victory in a much larger, indeed an eternal, war”).
Her work ran the gamut of curses, witches, seances, psychics, reincarnation and cults, but these were all, pretty much, a prelude to a more rational and materialist explanation (see also Scooby Doo). Indeed, Christie has an inspector use the old (I guess that depends who came up with it first) account that “…The supernatural seems supernatural. But the science of to-morrow is the supernatural of today”.
She also mentioned a friend/ suitor Wilfred, who developed an abiding interest in theosophy (“not only tedious, I thought they were completely false; worse still, I thought a great many of them were nonsense”) and mediums (“They could hardly ever go into a house without gasping, stretching, clutching their hearts and being upset because there was a terrible spirit standing behind one of the company”). So no, it’s doubtful she’d have had much time for Conan Doyle’s strange fascinations. When Wilfred went off to search for Incan treasure, on the nod of a psychic, she was all for it, because while “I thought the treasure-hunting idea was rather silly, and almost certain to be bogus…. oh joy, oh joy! I would not have to read any more theosophy”. Blavatsky was surely huffing in her grave.
Once could doubtless formulate a theory as to Christie’s global fame such that, for her level of success to transpire, it needed to be endorsed and indeed encouraged by TPTB. But to what end? Well, on a surface level, dwelling on the morbid and invidious capacities of humanity, but in a “palatable” way. The murder mystery – not that it’s obsolete or anything – was the serial-killer genre of its day. The latter’s a patently engineered one, of the nowhere is safe variety, and while much less extreme, one may see connective tissue in the encouragement to see a potential killer everywhere, in otherwise innocuous parties (the murder-mystery writer’s stock-in-trade). On some level, a trickle-down in attitudes towards one’s fellow not-murderers might be expected. In such as Christie’s case, it might simply be, per much predictive programming, that those feeding it into the system had been well trained along with the rest of us.
Agatha made money, but not that much. Hoffman had no sustained worries, as Kramer vs. Kramer would be released at the opposite end of the year. Apted too had a big hit coming (Coal Miner’s Daughter). Why, one day he’d even get to crap all over Bond. Redgrave already had an Oscar at this point – for her preceding movie – but its Best Supporting Actress nature rather defined her big-screen status going forward. She wasn’t winning the lead roles. The “real-life author gets involved in their own adventure”, meanwhile, seems like an evergreen for half-baked nonsense, and while Agatha could be found taking a nominally more mature approach, settling on a romance as its avenue ultimately yielded no greater dividends.