When Fact Mirrors Fiction: AGATHA (1979)

agathatposterOn December 3, 1926 the popular mystery author Agatha Christie vanished following an argument with her husband who was demanding a divorce. Agatha was devastated by his decision but he responded to her distress by leaving the lavish home they shared together with their young daughter to meet up with his mistress. No one knows for certain what prompted Christie to pack her own bags and follow him into that cold winter night but the next morning her abandoned car was found with the hood up and the lights on. Christie’s coat and suitcase were still in the car but the author was missing. The authorities were called in while massive search parties were organized and the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie captured the world’s attention. Was it a prearranged publicity stunt? Had she committed suicide? Or had Christie become the victim of a murder plot similar to the crimes outlined in her fiction? Speculation ran rampant in local as well as international newspapers until 11 days later when the missing writer was suddenly discovered unharmed at the posh Hydropathic Hotel in North Yorkshire. Christie claimed she’d suffered a head injury while driving and had temporarily lost her memory but she refused to discuss her disappearance with reporters. And when her posthumous autobiography was published in 1977, the author was suspiciously quiet about the strange event that had captured the public’s imagination some 50 years earlier. So what exactly happened to Agatha Christie in December of 1926? We’ll probably never know the entire truth but Michael Apted’s curiously engrossing film AGATHA (1979) does a superb job of dramatizing this fascinating event.

AGATHA stars Vanessa Redgrave as the painfully shy and withdrawn author, Timothy Dalton (Redgrave’s real-life paramour) is her indifferent husband and Dustin Hoffman plays Walter Stanton, a cocky American journalist who investigates her disappearance. The film, based on Kathleen Tynan’s book and script, doesn’t waste a lot of time setting up a motivation for Christie’s vanishing act or filling us in on her background. It treats its audience like adults and expects us to have some understanding of who the author is before the film begins. This casual ambiguity adds an element of mystery to the proceedings and AGATHA plays out like one of Agatha Christie’s own detective novels with Hoffman’s inquisitive character filling in for an observant Hercule Poirot. The film sensitively explores the possibility that Christie was deeply depressed following the demise of her marriage and this allows a romantic liaison to develop between the lovelorn author and the curious journalist who becomes obsessed with her. It is obsession that drives the entire narrative of the film beginning with Agatha’s husband who is so consumed with desire for his mistress that he’s willing to abandon his family followed by Christie whose obsessive love for her husband is driving her to the brink of madness. The public’s obsession with Christie’s disappearance is reflected in Hoffman’s Walter Stanton who becomes fixated on the elusive author. This peculiar circle of desire seems to have no end and fittingly, the film concludes without answering every question it raises.




Redgrave and Hoffman make an unlikely pair and some critics apparently found their height difference distracting but I think the two actors have an incredible chemistry on screen. Redgrave seems to be channeling Garbo while Hoffman displays the kind of arrogant charm that made William Powell so likable. Both performers have rarely been as vulnerable, sympathetic, affable and flat out sexy as they are here, which is partially due to the way they interact and seem to identify with one another’s characters. Their unconventional but utterly convincing on-screen romance is one of the many reasons why I find AGATHA so compelling.

British Director Michael Apted (THE SQUEEZE; 1979, COAL MINOR’S DAUGHTER; 1980, CONTINENTAL DIVIDE; 1981, GORKY PARK; 1983, GORILLA’S IN THE MIST; 1988, NELL; 1994, Etc.) shot this leisurely paced thriller on location at the Hydropathic Hotel (now called the Old Swan) and in the surrounding spa town of Harrogate where the real events occurred 50 years earlier. Much of the area remained the same and the timeless atmosphere of the place was brought to vivid life by skilled cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE; 1970, THE CONFORMIST; 1970, LAST TANGO IN PARIS; 1972, APOCALYPSE NOW; 1979, REDS; 1981, Etc.) and production and costume designer Shirley Russell (wife of director Ken Russell) who at that point had mainly been associated with her husband’s films including WOMEN IN LOVE (1969), THE MUSIC LOVERS (1970), THE DEVILS (1971), SAVAGE MESSIAH (1972), TOMMY (1975) and VALENTINO (1977). With that impressive pedigree it’s not surprising that AGATHA is a great looking movie that has an ambiance reminiscent of some of Agatha Christie best detective stories.




AGATHA didn’t receive the kind of critical accolades or praise that greeted many of Apted’s other women focused films such as COAL MINOR’S DAUGHTER, GORILLA’S IN THE MIST and NELL, which all earned their female stars Academy Award nominations but I think it’s the most interesting film of the bunch. And although Redgrave didn’t win any awards her nuanced portrayal of Agatha Christie is really remarkable. With very little dialogue she was able to give her character immeasurable depths and her all-consuming melancholy seems heartbreakingly real.

The production may have suffered due to all the drama going on behind the scenes beginning with the Agatha Christie estate, which denounced it and claimed that this fictional account of the author’s disappearance was an intrusion into her well-guarded private life. That dust-up was followed by Dustin Hoffman’s lawsuit against the production company First Artists, which had promised him creative control over the film as well as editing rights but they refused to follow through when the movie supposedly ran over-budget. Hoffman sued for breach of contract and unfortunately disassociated himself from the film. Although AGATHA managed to garner Shirley Russell her first Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design, the film seemed to languish in obscurity for decades but thanks to the folks at Warner Archives you can now see a nice widescreen print of this late 1970s gem on DVD.

In the mood for more mystery? Tune into TCM July 22nd where you can catch a series of films based on the work of Agatha Christie that includes AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945), EVIL UNDER THE SUN (192), MURDER SHE SAID (1961), TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1966) and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1958).

7 Responses When Fact Mirrors Fiction: AGATHA (1979)
Posted By doug n : July 17, 2014 7:02 pm

‘Agatha’is one of those “sleeper” movies that deserved a lot more attention than it received at the time of release.

Posted By Doug : July 17, 2014 9:04 pm

I liked this film when I saw it on screen back in ’79-had read many of Christie’s mysteries (which rhymes); this was a good solid dramatization of an event I hadn’t known had happened.
Kimberly, when you mentioned “Valentino” I remembered how strange it was to see John Ratzenberger (Cliff Clavin in Cheers) as a newspaper reporter. Both “Agatha” and “Valentino” should be seen by more people, especially the next generation of film lovers who might appreciate Russell’s art.

Posted By kingrat : July 17, 2014 10:48 pm

I also like AGATHA. Michael Apted made one of the most convincing films set in the South, COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER, and his “Up” series is a landmark. 28 UP is a masterpiece, with 56 UP perhaps the next best. Apted is a much underrated filmmaker.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 17, 2014 10:59 pm

Welcome back, Kimberly. Nice job.

Posted By Stephen White : July 20, 2014 10:46 am

I’ve seen this movie exactly once in my life on HBO, probably when I was in eighth grade, shortly after I had seen TOOTSIE in the theaters and was very high on Dustin Hoffman at the time. Also, I was in the middle of attempting to read all the Hercule Poirot stories in order of publication, which in those days you could buy in paperback at the local Waldenbooks for about five dollars a pop. So, everything I loved in pop culture at the time was encapsulated in this one movie. I imagine it was a bit too subtle and “grown up” for me, but I watched the whole thing, which I certainly didn’t always do with HBO’s offerings. I must confess I had largely forgotten about it in the intervening years – it doesn’t ever seem to turn up on television. But reading your analysis makes me curious to watch it again.

Posted By Doug : July 20, 2014 7:31 pm

Steven White wrote:”I was in the middle of attempting to read all the Hercule Poirot stories in order of publication,”
I’m doing the same with Rex Stout’s “Nero Wolfe” series-I have all of the books on one shelf and keep track of how far along I am by inverting the books I’ve finished. Good stuff, and I should get back into Christie’s works. I’m watching series two of “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” right now, and they echo back to Christie.

Posted By robbushblog : July 30, 2014 8:32 pm

kingrat- 28 Up is next for me. I just watched 21 Up the other day.

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