The most appealing element of a drawing-room mystery is usually the entrances of the characters, where we learn how their eccentricities clash with one another while a detective regards them intrepidly. Crooked House, though, embraces this trope with excruciating monotonousness, spending nearly 40 minutes introducing the spoiled and bitter inhabitants of an English mansion. In scene after scene, Charles Hayward (Max Irons), a private detective, questions a deceased rich businessman’s relatives, who taunt the investigator with suggestions of their complicity in the magnate’s murder. If the suspect is a man, he regards Hayward with hostility, and if she’s a woman, she shoots him come-hither eyes that suggest the possibility for illicit pleasure.
In the right hands, these moments can be the stylish highlights of a film, but they require subtext. In even the most routine murder mysteries, there’s often something going on underneath the exposition, whether it’s desire or resentment or an encroaching shift in a diseased hierarchy. By contrast, the self-consciously theatrical duets of Crooked House revel only in the star power of the film’s cast, with the characters’ motivations out in the open. This trust in the actors to transcend flimsy material is occasionally warranted, as is the case here with Glenn Close, Terence Stamp, Christian McKay, Julian Sands, and Gillian Anderson, who invest their various stereotypes with emotional fervency. But of these actors, only Close—playing Lady Edith—matters to the narrative, as the others are scattered about in anecdotes that whet our appetite for a crackling whodunit that never arrives.
Throughout the film, we’re stuck with Hayward, a cipher who merely guides us through the case. Imagine The Big Sleep if Humphrey Bogart was replaced with Farley Granger at his most earnest, and if Howard Hawks’s playful sense of sin had been scrubbed away in favor of televisual “efficiency.” Agatha Christie wrote the film’s source novel and created many a legendary detective, though Irons hasn’t been allowed to invest Hayward with theatricality or self-interest. He has little chemistry with the promising Stefanie Martini, who plays Hayward’s love interest as well as a prime suspect in the murder mystery.
The film’s screenplay was co-written by Julian Fellowes, who also wrote Gosford Park, a classic English whodunit that abounds in everything that Crooked House is missing, particularly texture. Robert Altman’s film offered a precise glimpse of a society and its many castes and internal tensions, while Crooked House features a set with actors delivering dialogue. Gilles Paquet-Brenner directs the film proficiently and impersonally, which is a step up from his work on Dark Places, though Crooked House is ultimately a genre item that operates on alternately prestigious and campy autopilot.