Fox-trotting their way through a crowd of oldsters at a fashionable Yorkshire spa, they look like a couple out of the ballroom skits on The Muppet Show: he short and ferrety, she a stately, blue-eyed giraffe. They are not. They are Dustin Hoffman (five-feet five-inches) and Vanessa Redgrave (six-
feet), bringing their impressive reputations and incongruous personalities to a bit of pastry called Agatha.
The plot (confected by critic Kenneth Tynan’s wife, Kathleen) proposes a solution to the unexplained disappearance, for 11 days in 1926, of mystery writer Agatha Christie. We shall say only that the film’s murder scheme is, mmm, fiendishly clever, and involves the one surprise ending Mrs. Christie never used in her whodunits—but which can be found (we will tantalize, just a bit) in Aaron Latham’s CIA thriller, Orchids for Mother. It’s a pleasant enough short-story conceit, and could have, been an engaging episode on Not Quite Masterpiece Theatre. But stretched out to 98 minutes, the idea begins to look emaciated. And with two genuine stars towering over the material (he figuratively, she literally), even the seeker after that most honorable of movie pleasures—a good time—is likely to say, “Nice. But why bother?”
Michael Apted’s retort might well be that it’s not just a mystery, it’s a love story between the missing authoress and the American newsman hot on her trail (sort of It Happened One Fortnight) and that a love story must have atmosphere. There’s atmosphere aplenty in Agatha: period cars and clothes, ’20s songs on the soundtrack and, everywhere, enough vapory mists to cure even Karl Malden’s sinuses. To get the underlit, cinnamon look he wanted, Apted engaged Bertolucci’s cameraman, Vittorio Storaro—but to what end? You could achieve pretty much the same effect by holding a large maple leaf in front of a 25-watt bulb shining on an old radio that is broadcasting reruns of I Love A Mystery.
Redgrave the Magnificent, with her great-lady smile and little-girl gestures, suggests both a passion and an intelligence that, if transferred to Agatha Christie, would have made the mystery writer a first-rate novelist. And Hoffman is his usual, gravely droll self. You would never guess from his performance that, until the last minute, he
refused to participate in the dubbing of his lines: the producers had been prepared to hire a Rich Little-type impressionist to complete the task. It might have proved interesting. (“Frankly, Mrs. Christie, I don’t give a damn” . . .
“Hey, Stella, —I mean, Agatha” ... “I may be a reporter, inspector, but I’m not a crook.”)
Isn’t there something a tad tawdry about speculation on the private lives of public people? In fiction, and in the movies, of course, anyone is fair game.
And, after all, did you hear about what happened when the fugitive Patty Hearst met Idi Amin in Monte Carlo? Kristy McNichol and James Earl Jones are set to do the movie.
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