The 1979 feature Agatha is a fictional story constructed on the foundation of facts on the public record, "an imaginary solution to an authentic mystery," in the words of the statement that opens the film. Vanessa Redgrave stars as Ms. Christie, who in the winter of 1926 was a best-selling author in a failing marriage to Col. Archibald Christie (played with clipped, irritable reserve by Timothy Dalton) and Dustin Hoffman is Wally Stanton, an American newsman in England who, following his instincts while the police scour the countryside near the abandoned car, traces Christie to a spa in Harrowgate. Stanton is a creation of the screenwriters but the spa was real: Christie checked in under assumed name, ostensibly to spy upon her husband's mistress, a pretty young woman by the name of Nancy Neele (Celia Gregory in the movie). The story woven by the screenwriters, however, is pure creative license, a mix of intrigue, romance, and role-playing in the manner of one of Christie's own mysteries.
Redgrave's Christie is painfully shy and borderline neurotic, an emotionally wounded woman with a nervous, tremulous manner that she overcomes only when she takes on a new persona at the spa. In sharp contrast is Hoffman, all urbane confidence and worldly sophistication as Stanton, who follows Christie's lead and creates his own assumed identity to befriend her. They are opposites in temperament, personality, and physical appearance, with the American Hoffman a half-foot or so shorter than the British Redgrave. Films tend to compensate for such height discrepancies between leads, especially in romantic dramas, but director Michael Apted and the actors embrace the contrast as an added element in their unusual chemistry.
The original story, which grew out of the research that screenwriter Kathleen Tynan conducted for a BBC documentary, focused on the complicated relationship that develops between Agatha and Nancy, with the newsman a small but key supporting role. When Hoffman signed on, the producers insisted on expanding his role and shifting the focus of the story. As Tynan explained to Hoffman biographer Douglas Brodie, "When I wrote the part of the journalist, he was a tall blond Englishman with a supporting, minor role. Now, he's a small, dark American with one of the leads." Hoffman took an uncredited role in the rewrites, which continued as production began without a completed script, over his objections. "I literally got on my knees and begged them not to start the film," he told Brodie. "Once you go on the floor to make a movie, it's crazy time. It's painting a picture on railroad tracks, with the train getting closer." The chaos behind the scenes, however, is nowhere to be seen on screen, which plays out with an unhurried pace against an atmosphere of intrigue.
Director Michael Apted had only made a couple of features when he was hired to direct Agatha but had a long and impressive background as a TV and documentary director. His most celebrated accomplishments were 7 Up, 14 Up, and 21 Up, the first three installments in the documentary series he has returned to every seven years through 56 Up in 2012, an unprecedented commitment to a film project. "All I'm interested in when I make films is verisimilitude, finding something interesting and creating an atmosphere or putting a slice of color onto film," Apted told interviewer Michael Singer. For Agatha he creates a vivid recreation of 1926 England with close attention to the details that become key to weaving the central mystery. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who later won Oscars for Apocalypse Now , Reds [, and The Last Emperor ) shoots the handsome production with a touch of soft focus and muted colors, as if viewed through the mists of time.
It was a production plagued with problems that continued through to the release. Hoffman battled with the production company when they shut down the production before a key scene was shot and, despite the disclaimer that opens the film, Agatha Christie's heirs sued to stop the film's release, claiming an invasion of privacy. The suit was dismissed and the film released to mixed reviews but has aged well, thanks to the intriguing performances and unlikely chemistry of the two leads and the evocative photography. If anything, the film's reputation has undergone a rehabilitation over the years.
By: Sean Axmaker
The Films of Dustin Hoffman, Douglas Brodie. 1983, Citadel.
Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave, Dan Callahan. 2014, Pegasus.
Vanessa Redgrave: An Autobiography, Vanessa Redgrave. Random House, 1991.
A Cut Above: 50 Film Directors Talk About Their Craft, Michael Singer. Lone Eagle, 1980.
"Unraveling a Christie Mystery," Beth Ann Krier. Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1978.