Elegant and smart, Agatha has so many virtues it should be a better movie, but a sloppy script and questionable casting get in the way of the film’s lush production values and sensitive performances. An imaginary exploration of what might have happened in 1926, when the internationally famous mystery novelist Agatha Christie disappeared for 12 days, the movie presents a complex intrigue involving adultery, deception, romance, and a wicked plan to kill someone using an offbeat weapon—obviously, the idea was to entangle Christie in a murder plot as ornate as those found in her books. Alas, the piece is more ambitious than successful, largely because the filmmakers fail to properly define Christie and the other main character, an American journalist working in England, before things get weird; thus, viewers are forever racing to catch up with what’s happening, which precludes any real emotional involvement in the storyline.
Furthermore, leading lady Vanessa Redgrave, playing Christie, and leading man Dustin Hoffman, as the journalist, are mismatched aesthetically and artistically. While it’s refreshing to see a female star tower over her male counterpart, the duo lacks chemistry, and Redgrave’s spacey detachment feels natural while Hoffman’s affectation of globe-trotting sophistication feels contrived.
The story proper begins when Englishwoman Christie has a quarrel with her awful husband (Timothy Dalton), who wants a divorce so he can marry his attractive secretary (Celia Gregory). Meanwhile, popular columnist Wally Stanton (Hoffman) has become infatuated with Christie, whom he saw from afar at a press conference. When a distraught Christie flees her home, Wally tracks her down to a spa, where she has registered under an alias. He also learns that the secretary is a guest there. Disguising his true identity, Wally courts Christie and determines she means to harm the secretary.
As written by Kathleen Tynan and Arthur Hopcraft, Agatha wobbles indecisively between drama, romance, and thrills for much of its running time, thereby failing to excel in any of the three genres. Versatile director Michael Apted guides actors well (even though the geography of scenes is muddied by arty camera angles), and legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro elevates the material considerably with his luminous images. Both leading actors are strong, though they seem to be starring in totally different movies: Hoffman’s charming turn is all surface, while Redgrave’s intellectualized performance is all subtext. So, while Agatha has many admirable qualities, not least of which is a genuinely imaginative premise, the lack of a solid narrative foundation prevents these qualities from coalescing into a satisfying whole. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)