Saturday, August 18, 2012

Agatha (1979)

          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

Agatha: FUNKY


The Rush Blog said...

I didn't have a problem with Redgrave and Hoffman as a screen couple.

Anonymous said...

I saw the set up with the death a lot differently; it seems she was so angered by the affair and seemingly defeated, that she started out on a quest for revenge by the end of the film she decided that if she couldn't have HIM (Christie) then she would not want to live. She set it up so that the mistress would be accused of her murder and would be sent away or executed and wouldn't have a life with her beloved Christie. That's why she's in the chair instead of the mistress. In fact Hoffman's character reiterates to Agatha at the end of the ordeal that her idea was brilliant (in a macabre sort of way). Maybe I'm wrong but I saw it this way, as a mystery and it's clever summation.

F. Ben Martin said...

You definitely are a lot more comfortable with films which reside firmly within genre conventions. As if a film should find a genre and stay there where it belongs. [And can you imagine - a short man might just find a taller woman attractive. The idea.]

By Peter Hanson said...

All remarks worth considering, Ben... FWIW movies that bend genre conventions are tops with me so long as the resulting hybrid is compelling, which wasn't the case here for me as a viewer... And the height difference, while novel and thus worth noting, is not, as I tried to articulate in my remarks, the reason for my resistance to this particular screen couple; it's more that I didn't feel any attraction or compatibility... Plus one more note on the height difference -- Tootsie, released just a few years later and featuring the very same diminutive leading man with a comparatively Amazonian female counterpart, is one of my favorite screen love stories. So for me it was about this particular combination not working... Nonetheless, points taken, and I appreciate being alerted whenever my reviews veer in an uptight direction.