Second episodes are always tricky. It might seem like the first episode is doing all the hard work of establishing the setting, characters and tone of the show, but it’s the second episode where all that gets settled in and an interesting one-off becomes a series. So while the second instalment of Agatha Christie's Criminal Games seems to be letting us know we can get comfortable with a traditional murder mystery, it’s soon clear that “expect the unexpected” might be a better approach to take.
We open on two people kissing passionately inside a sleek '50s sports car in the middle of a somewhat fluffy snow storm. A beautiful woman gets out and walks away smiling from her lover, only to encounter a man somewhat less than impressed with her activities. He pulls a gun, fires a single shot and she clutches her side – even for a series known for getting right to the point, this seems a pretty abrupt opening to a murder mystery. What’s going on here?
Turns out the woman is actress Elvire Morenkova (Elodie Navarre) and we’ve just watched the filming of a murder scene in her latest film. It’s a nice touch of meta-comedy – and a handy introduction to the playful tone this French series takes in adapting Agatha Christie’s classic murder mysteries. This particular tale started out as a Hercule Poirot short story (Yellow Iris) before being expanded to novel length (Sparkling Cyanide) with Colonel Race as the detective. And if Christie herself wasn’t above swapping out lead characters while keeping the mystery the same, then this series – which has as its leads all-new characters detective Swan Laurence (Samuel Labarthe) and reporter Alice Avril (Blandine Bellavoir) – is firmly in the best Agatha Christie tradition.
While it looks like Elvire has it all – money, fame, good looks – when she’s found dead, it initially seems like an obvious suicide. Obvious to everyone but Laurence, that is, so he decides to dig deeper into the glamorous movie star’s life. After all, committing suicide by drinking a poisoned glass of champagne at a party isn’t usually how it’s done, no matter how open and shut the case seems, and it doesn’t take long to figure out Elvire was a woman who collected male lovers and female enemies. But is being widely disliked motive enough for murder? Or did a recent large inheritance have something to do with it?
If all of this sounds fairly standard for an Agatha Christie adaptation, that’s because this series hasn’t yet played its full hand. While shifting the location to France and the setting to a lively pop culture version of the fabulous 1950s are breaks with Christie’s more traditionally sedate take on murder, this series’ real split from the source material comes with the double act (and eventually trio, as Laurence’s secretary becomes a main character) investigating the murders. As Christie herself knew, when you have one detective, they’re usually busy working on the case; a double act means one of the team is free to take a different angle on things.
The other big shift in this series is the comedy. Christie may have allowed her characters a wry smile or occasional witticism – and she definitely wasn’t above playing a joke or two on her readers, as the solutions to some of her more famous mysteries show – but her tales were never known for going directly for laughs. So when Avril decides the best way for her to investigate the death of Elvire is by getting dolled up and auditioning for her now-vacant part in the movie, that’s pushing things a little outside the usual Christie comfort zone. And when she actually gets the role? That’s a whole new level.
It’s the kind of comedy that really shouldn’t happen this early in the series. Avril’s character has barely been established as a plucky, overly curious reporter. Having her suddenly – and convincingly – reshape herself into a bombshell actress who can come out of nowhere to score a big movie role is pushing plausibility pretty hard even for a series based around people being murdered in fairly unlikely fashion.
Two things make it work: Bellavoir’s performance totally sells the transformation and Avril’s already been established as the kind of character who’s totally fearless when it comes to tracking down clues. Getting in this far over her head is the kind of crime-solving stunt that (for her) makes perfect sense. And it makes it clear that while this series might be based on some of Agatha Christie’s most classic mysteries, it’s also not afraid to put its own twist on things. And what’s a good mystery without a few surprises?
Stream Agatha Christie's Criminal Games now at SBS On Demand: