Few writers have had the sustained popularity of Agatha Christie, the Queen of the brilliant mystery set-up. She was a phenomenal writer, but it’s really the hooks of works like Ten Little Indians and Murder on the Orient Express that people remember more than her gifts with a turn of phrase. It’s the intrigue created by her masterful set-ups, so many of which have been ripped off by inferior writers over the years. One of her best set-ups is the one she devised for 1958’s Ordeal by Innocence, in which a young man goes to jail for murdering his mother—a year later, another man shows up at the family home and reveals that he is the convicted son's alibi. He couldn’t have done it … which means someone else in the house that night did ...
The concept of a stranger who completely disrupts a well-to-do family’s already fragile peace isn’t entirely new, and wasn’t even in 1958, but it’s brilliantly handled here by a highly pedigreed cast. The always-great Bill Nighy plays the patriarch, Leo Argyll, who we meet as he’s about to wed his former secretary Gwenda (Alice Eve), with whom he was sleeping before the murder of his previous wife, played in flashbacks by Anna Chancellor. One horrible night, Leo hears the family housekeeper Kirsten (Morven Christie, no relation) screaming her head off and rushes in to find the bloody body of his wife Rachel. In flashbacks, we see Jack (Anthony Boyle) accused, convicted, and sent to prison, the case particularly closed when his fingerprints are found in his mother’s blood. From the beginning, he protests innocence, but no one believes him.
Eighteen months later, a man calling himself Dr. Calgary (Henry Treadaway) lands on the Argyll doorstep with a story to tell. He picked up Jack that night outside the Argyll home and drove him into town, and he knows the time that he dropped Jack off, right when he was supposedly murdering his mother. At first, the Argylls refuse to believe it—Calgary’s story does have some holes—but the possibility that Jack, who was killed in prison, was innocent brings all of their skeletons screaming out of the closet. In classic Christie fashion, everyone in the house had a reason to murder Rachel, and the only one who couldn’t have is the wheelchair-bound Philip (the fantastic Matthew Goode), and he’s loving every minute of how this news is eroding the social constructs of the Argyll clan.
Fans of the source material should note, it has been changed drastically, adding minor details through the set-up and making major alterations to the finale, including the identity of the killer. So if you think you know this story, you don’t know this version. Purists will likely be aghast, but I think Christie would approve. Once again, it’s the set-up that really drives the storytelling, not the resolution. And some of the details have been added to enhance the mystery and expand the narrative, however I did wonder if this would have been better served by a two-hour movie instead of a three-episode series, which basically unfolds like a three-hour movie. There are times when one can feel the stretching in terms of writing.
As for everything else that makes a show like “Ordeal by Innocence” work, it’s all top-notch here, including the production design and the work of the entire ensemble. It didn’t get nearly the attention of the scandal surrounding “All the Money in the World,” but an entire role was re-shot here when one-time star Ed Westwick, who played the temperamental son Mickey, was accused of sexual assault and replaced by Christian Cooke. You’d never know it. Every part is well-performed, but the most-acclaimed veterans—Nighy, Goode, Treadaway—do somewhat steal the show. All three are, as they almost always are, reason enough to watch on their own. And you get a crackling mystery too.