Welcome back, as we hit the home stretch of my Christie film reviews. Today, it’s 2003’s TV film of Sparkling Cyanide.
Film review: “Sparkling Cyanide” (2003)
written by Laura Lamson
directed by Tristram Powell
Sparkling Cyanide is, in many ways, a powerful Christie novel: it’s one-half puzzle, one-half emotional drama. A beautiful woman is poisoned at dinner one night; a year later, her husband reenacts the dinner in a bid to catch the suspect. Naturally enough, this dinner turns out to be equally as murderous as the first.
After an unusually styled opening – with photos of the main cast, suggesting they were considering a series of movies centered around these detectives – we bear witness to that first, fateful party, and the death of Rosemary (Rachel Shelley), wife of wealthy football team owner George Barton (Kenneth Cranham, who turns in a dynamic performance). There’s a wealth of suspects: Rosemary’s stylish sister Iris (Chloe Howman), their caring aunt Lucilla (Susan Hampshire) and her lothario son Mark (Jonathan Firth), Barton’s efficient – and no doubt ironically named – PA Ruth Lessing (Lia Williams), charismatic but thoughtful ball player Carl ‘Fizz’ Fitzgerald (Justin Pierre) and the well-off society couple, the Faradays (Clare Holman and James Wilby) with a relationship that just screams “complex and icy!” from the first moment we see them. It’s actually quite a large cast of suspects and, truth be told, a few like Fizz get the short shrift, but it never feels confusing.
Meanwhile, we’re introduced to our detectives, who are where the real action’s at. Colonel Geoffrey Reece (Oliver Ford Davies) and his wife Dr. Catherine Kendall (Pauline Collins) are seemingly a couple of kindhearted admin drones for Army Pensions, preparing for their imminent retirement. In fact, they’re former spies and now investigators for New Scotland Yard, a secret they keep even from their daughter Rebecca (Ruth Platt) and her young son Sam. Reece and Kendall are the clear centre of the piece and – as I mentioned above – I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea was floated of doing a series. This TV film – like so many I’ve covered – is so very indicative of its era, with a low-key, naturalistic style to the detectives which often contrasts with the slightly melodramatic nature of the suspect-only scenes. Indeed, it’s very X-Files, with chyrons appearing on the bottom of the screen quite regularly.
Perhaps most interesting is that the suspects get quite a lot of scenes to themselves. The detectives are brought in solely to investigate Faraday’s role in the murder, as he’s a former minister and things might damage the government (very timely for 2003). The suspects are left to their own devices in the aftermath of the murder, and thankfully Laura Lamson’s script is nice and subtle in giving them all motives while rarely coming across as those annoyingly ambiguous characters we oft see in television murder mysteries. Later, when the detectives become more integrated, we do get a few of those annoying scenes where the investigator witnesses a key scene for no reason than fate (cf the Margaret Rutherford or Helen Hayes Marple films) but the structure of the mystery is quite well-devised, with our heroes facing first a glut of suspects, and then seemingly none.
Not everything works quite so well, though. Reimagining the story in a world of footballers and their wives makes everything somehow seem… trashy. The concerns of the suspects sometimes seem to be pulled from soap opera. Even the ‘class’y characters largely can’t avoid the fact that they’re actors costumed on a limited budget, who clearly have never hosted a ritzy cocktail party in their life. Only the ever-elegant Hampshire manages to convince. Dominic Cooper, pre-fame, appears as Pauline’s assistant, whose own little ‘crisis of confidence’ subplot yet again leads me to suspect this was partly the pilot for a series of films. Cooper, unfortunately, isn’t quite as charismatic as the director would like to think. but he’s amiable enough and gives the role a quirky charm that may have been poorly handled with a lesser actor.
Impressively for these days, the adaptation retains the original murderers and their motive, although removes the old Christie stalwart that “nobody looks at a servant” which is such a key part of the book’s solution. It makes sense, though, since in our society – at such a large table – I’d argue at least one person is bound to look at the waiter! Due to the isolation of the detectives, though, this becomes more of a thriller, with our heroes spending rather little time with the suspects, and piecing together the truth from afar.
Ultimately, I quite enjoyed Sparkling Cyanide but it never leaped off the screen. Collins and Davies are a very believable couple, very Tommy and Tuppence-like in their interactions, and equally comfortable confronting criminals or dealing with the quotidian events of their home life. (Davies speaks with too much sibilance, which is a pet peeve to my ears, but that’s neither here nor there!) It’s a rather placid little film, and not likely to go down in history as a great adaptation, but Sparkling Cyanide does the job of modernising Christie without losing the intent, and what more can you ask?