Agatha Christie Screen Spotlight: BBC Miniseries ‘Ordeal by Innocence’

Part of the appeal of Agatha Christie stories is that they’re old-fashioned, that they represent a certain kind of classic storytelling in the mystery genre. So it’s not surprising that some reviewers criticized Christie’s 1958 novel Ordeal by Innocence for focusing more heavily on the psychology of her characters and losing some of the playfulness she was known for. The novel has been more positively assessed in recent years, and that darker, more complex approach makes it the ideal candidate for an adaptation in the modern prestige TV era.

Creator Sarah Phelps takes full of advantage of the novel’s heavier tone in her three-episode BBC adaptation from 2018. Phelps previously adapted two more famous Christie novels, The Witness for the Prosecution and And Then There Were None, but with Ordeal by Innocence she has more leeway to put a distinctive stamp on the story. She makes major changes to Christie’s narrative, bringing in modern themes about drug addiction, mental health, trauma, and abuse, while retaining the 1950s setting and the general plot structure.

That plot kicks off with a murder, of course; here it’s the killing of Rachel Argyll (Anna Chancellor), the wealthy matriarch of a family of five adopted children. One of those children, Jack (Anthony Boyle), is swiftly arrested and charged with the crime, thanks to seemingly airtight physical evidence. Eighteen months later, the remaining four Argyll children gather at the family’s estate, the ironically named Sunny Point, for the wedding of Rachel’s widower Leo (Bill Nighy) to his former secretary Gwenda Vaughn (Alice Eve).

The family receives another shock thanks to the arrival of Dr. Arthur Calgary (Luke Treadaway), who claims he can provide an alibi for Jack at the time of the murder. Jack is long dead, though, having been killed in a prison fight, and Arthur at first seems like just another untrustworthy opportunist who read about the case in the newspapers. This is a Christie story, so everyone is hiding something, and no one’s motives are pure. “The whole bloody family are suspects,” says Philip Durrant (Matthew Goode), the paralyzed military veteran who’s married to Rachel and Leo’s daughter Mary (Eleanor Tomlinson).

Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He’s the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and the former TV comedies guide for He has written about movies, TV, and pop culture for Vulture, Polygon, CBR, Inverse, Crooked Marquee, and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.