Ordeal by Innocence
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Faye Dunaway, Christopher Plummer
Directed by: Desmond Davis
Mystery movies are usually safe affairs: even if it’s bad, it’s not horrendous. That’s quite the opening sentence for Desmond Davis’s Ordeal by Innocence because it’s definitely not horrendous, but it’s definitely forgettable. Even with the star power in front of the screen and Agatha Christie behind the source material, this movie has trouble holding up throughout the ninety-minute runtime. Even though the acting talent has a strong pedigree, this movie falls short.
Dr. Arthur Calgary (Sutherland) is returning to England after a two-year expedition in Antarctica. He’s looking to return a phone book belonging to Jack Argyle. However, Calgary is dismayed to hear that Argyle had been hanged for killing his mother (Dunaway); a crime that took place on the day of Calgary’s departure. Realizing that he was Jack’s alibi, he sets forth to solve the mystery. The police aren’t willing to reopen the case and every member of the Argyle family seems good for the crime.
This film screams that it’s a mystery-thriller from the eighties with its jazz compositions playing throughout and the cool, washed-out images. Too bad that it was trying too hard to be stylish because it struggles to make such an interesting story compelling. Even if you barely try to make a good mystery-thriller, it usually comes out decent. This film is just not that interesting and for an Agatha Christie movie, that’s saying something.
Before this movie continues to be ripped apart, it must be said that Donald Sutherland was quite good here. His character shows quite a bit of depth and you can see the mental anguish Calgary is dealing with concerning the death of Jack, which he may have been able to prevent (actually, it would have been difficult for him to do that from Antarctica but everyone in the film seems to think that flights from small town England and Antarctica seem to be happen 30 times a day). Sutherland’s Calgary is insightful, witty, complex, and troubled and the actor does a great job making the character feel multi-dimensional.
Sutherland is a diamond in the rough because everyone else is one-dimensional and wooden. The police inspector (Michael Elphick) acts tough and surly, Plummer’s character (who plays Jack’s father, Leo) comes across as incredibly narrow-visioned. Even the housekeeper (Mary Durant) who is supposed to portray multiple emotions, only really nails one: annoyed. Considering the acting pedigree (with several actors in this film having won Oscars and Golden Globes), it feels like comes down to poor directing or a lousy script. The wooden acting comes across as if it were intentionally done to typecast characters that are there to only make the viewer think that character ‘x’ has something to hide.
The story itself is sometimes difficult to follow as there are so many people in the Argyle family and everyone is a suspect. Perhaps trying to cram a novel into a ninety-minute movie was too ambitious because it feels like the film moves too fast at times for the story to keep up. Mix that with flat performances and this feels more like a community play where everyone involved needs to be home early and beat traffic. Perhaps the worst offence is that the movie reveals the mystery well before the ending. It goes from everyone being a suspect to smacking you in the face as to who the murderer fast enough to give you whiplash. Even the chance of feeling of being proud of oneself for figuring out who the guilty party is before the big reveal is taken away from the audience.
It takes a lot to mess up a movie like Ordeal by Innocence. The genre of mystery-thrillers is generally a safe bet, but Desmond Davis lowers the bar for mediocrity. Agatha Christie’s source material can’t save it. It’s flat, too fast, and not clever. It’s watchable, albeit just barely. Considering that the genre is filled with decent films, you can do better than something that’s barely tolerable.