Hi all! The exciting news that Poirot and Marple will be returning in 2012 inspired me to review one of the more interesting – if not entirely successful – Christie adaptations. Today, it’s 1995’s Innocent Lies.

Film review: “Innocent Lies” (1995)

written by Patrick Dewolf & Kerry Crabbe

[no credit for Dame Christie; see below]

directed by Patrick Dewolf

Joanna Lumley in "Innocent Lies"

Joanna Lumley as Lady Helena

I’d heard about this film long before I saw it, for the simple fact that it’s a rare Christie adaptation in which the author herself receives no credit. The novel in question is Towards Zero, and the film doesn’t really have that much of a connection to its source text. More importantly though, some of the subject matter goes way beyond anything the Christie estate probably wanted to be associated with (even if that’s the most fascinating element of the film).

September, 1938. Inspector Alan Cross (Adrian Dunbar) arrives in a coastal French town with his daughter Angela (Florence Hoath, later to be known for her work as Nancy in Doctor Who’s “The Empty Child”). Cross is a man filled with melancholy, on a sorrowful trip to learn about the death of his friend Joe. After meeting with his French liaison Solange Montfort (Sophie Aubry), he meets the family of Joe’s lover, Lady Helena Graves (Joanna Lumley). Lumley is marvelous as Lady Helena, who is a tragic grotesque, presiding over her clearly psychologically unsettled adult children. She doesn’t get much to do, truth be told, but Lumley makes the most of every moment.

I’ll get into my issues with Innocent Lies below, but the film certainly creates an unsettled atmosphere, and had me fascinated, throughout its first half. There’s a mournful, ruminative atmosphere to the film which – if I hadn’t known it was a Christie work – wouldn’t have prepared me for murder in the slightest. For the first 50 minutes, Cross simply wanders through this family’s lives. The Graves (subtle name, no?) remind me of an Albee play. Having a stranger in their midst allows every member of the family to flaunt themselves, and to toy with Cross like cats with mice. Of particular note are the two ridiculously attractive Graves heirs: daughter Celia (Gabrielle Anwar) and son Jeremy (Stephen Dorff). There was a third child – Jeremy’s twin brother – but he was killed in a childhood accident, which Jeremy has always felt responsible for. Dorff in particular is exquisite as the reckless cad who knows how attractive he is, and believes he can have anything. It’s clear from early on that both Celia and Jeremy are deeply disturbed, and it isn’t long before the film reveals the dark truth to us.

(Just in case you were hoping to view this odd film, we’re going all out spoiler warning from here on!)

Keira Knightley in "Innocent Lies"

Keira Knightley as the young Celia

Celia and Jeremy are both in relationships – he to Maud (Marianne Denicourt) and she to Christopher (Alexis Denisof, here speaking in an American accent which confused me after years of seeing him on Angel), but their true passions lie with each other. Since childhood, the pair have had an incestuous relationship that surpasses all other love. Their relatively insular lifestyles haven’t helped either, as the pair have become increasingly reliant on each other for survival. Flashbacks to their childhood show us that their brother died during a game which, really, was a pre-pubescent fight over their sister’s love. (Keira Knightley plays the young Celia, her beauty already apparent.)

It’s only halfway through the film that murder strikes, when Lady Helena is killed. Cross feels compelled to investigate, largely because he has fallen for Celia, but the murder is really a subplot to the strange love triangle that dominates the piece. As Cross and Celia become closer in the aftermath of her mother’s death, he begins to realise just how unsettled she really is, and how reliant upon her brother she has become. Anwar wonderfully underplays the melodramatic role, as her character slowly reverts to a childlike state under the stress of the situation. The second half of the film, while nominally a murder mystery, is really a story of Cross finding himself in the middle of their lifelong subservient relationship Celia has with Jeremy, and being unable to save this woman from her fate.

Innocent Lies is a most unusual film. The atmosphere throughout is seductive and terrifying, and yet the tension level remains deceptively placid the entire time. The relationship between Celia and Jeremy is, quite frankly, fascinating, and all three of the main actors leave no stone unturned in their desire to make the roles as psychologically rich as possible. However, at the end of the day, I don’t really think it’s a success.

The addition of Maud’s Jewish parents going into hiding from Nazis seems incredibly unnecessary. Maud and Christopher exist primarily as stepping stones: functionary characters to show that Celia and Jeremy have attempted to have separate lives. Since the Nazi element doesn’t really affect the main plot, it feels out of place. And, indeed, given the insular nature of the film – much time is spent with the three principals or Lady Helena – it’s easy to forget this is a period piece altogether. In fact, the scenes focusing on pre-War life just pulled me out of the story entirely.

Stephen Dorff

Stephen Dorff. Okay, it’s not from the film. I just think he’s pretty.

The scenes following the revelation of the murderer also seem less focussed. Cross does everything he can to protect Celia once he realises that she was just as heavily involved as her brother, but it’s at this point that we never really understand why the two of them connect. It works earlier because we believe that he is sexually attracted to her, and to a degree he is intrigued by her mysterious nature. But Celia is never very nice to him (from a psychological standpoint, she recognises herself enough to explain to him that she is using him, but she also doesn’t want to use him. It’s basically involuntary at this point in her life) and beyond this, his police work is shoddy at best. Why is no one arrested at any point? Why does Jeremy have the power – apparently – to get Cross fired? And why Celia helped is never really explained, beyond what we already know about the siblings’ psychology.

Perhaps the problem with Innocent Lies is that the writers didn’t pull away enough from Christie’s original work. The central triangle is soapy, sure, but it’s endlessly fascinating. The murder plot, however, exists solely to give some level of risk to the proceedings. As such, the attempts to resolve it in a standard murder-mystery manner just ring false. And, while the final confrontation between Jeremy and Celia is wonderfully messy (emotionally and physically) and has a great sense of catharsis, Cross’ character doesn’t really fit in. Given the ambiguous atmosphere of the film, I had no problem with him as a man with a depressing life caught up in an intoxicating woman. But by the end, he seems to exist primarily as an automaton: his actions don’t really come from anywhere particular, he’s just a puppet to Jeremy and Celia. Dunbar does a great job of creating a character, but he isn’t helped by the script.

At the end of the day, Innocent Lies is not a success. I can’t see why the writers bothered to adapt a Christie novel at all, given that they jettisoned 80% of the book, and the key selling points of the film are three entirely new characters in a relationship Christie would never have even dreamed. The protagonist remains a cipher for the most part, and it must be said that some of the events could have been taken from a Victorian melodrama. However, the film is a stirring success from a cinematographic and acting standpoint.  The atmosphere of the melancholy that pervades the film catches you from the first and doesn’t let go. All the performances are praise-worthy, particularly the radiant Dorff. But, truth be told, the script is almost non-existent. An intriguing experiment, but not one that needs to be repeated – at least, not with a Christie novel.