One Agatha--Two Archies

Vanessa Redgrave as Agatha Christie
This summer, I watched Agatha: A Life in Pictures (starring Olivia Williams of The Sixth Sense fame) and rewatched Agatha (Vanessa Redgrave; Dustin Hoffman) with my mom.

I can't say I recommend Agatha: A Life in Pictures, which should really be subtitled Agatha: A Movie About A Few Weeks in Agatha Christie's Life Of Which She Herself Never Spoke and Which Were Relatively Unimportant When Compared to the Rest of Her Life.

Agatha also focuses on the same few weeks, but it doesn't pretend to be about anything else!

Background: not long after her mother's death in 1926, Agatha's husband, Archibald informed her that he wanted a divorce. That December, Christie disappeared. She was found ten days later at a spa in Harrogate. At the time, the official explanation was "amnesia," which--regarding the medical nature of long-term amnesia--is highly unlikely.

My theory is that Christie suffered an emotional breakdown brought on by an uninterrupted series of devastating events. In her emotionally fraught, not entirely rational (but still cognizant) state, she developed a romantic plan to force her husband to "find" her (and thus save their marriage). Christie was a mature and intelligent woman; rationally, she would have known that Archie wasn't the type to go looking for anyone. Overwhelmed as she was by depression, a feeling of "I must get away" and panic at the looming dissolution of her marriage, she came up with her plan. Unfortunately, she completely underestimated her own fame plus the reaction of the press to her disappearance: it didn't remain a "family affair." 

In terms of viewing pleasure, I recommend Agatha, a respectable and well-acted film with a great Christie twist. Although some fans were offended by the ending, the movie is impressively faithful to the known events of those ten days; it also captures the emotional reality of Christie's breakdown. Redgrave's portrayal of Christie's pained unhappiness is made all the more real by its understatement. She doesn't wail and weep; rather, she exercises a kind of catatonic discipline: I will survive the next hour, minute, second; I will continue to put one foot in front of the other.

Both movies tackle the character of Christie's husband, Archie although each stresses different aspects of the man's personality. The combination provides insight into the Christie marriage in 1926.

Agatha's Christie is played by Mr. Handsome, Timothy Dalton. He plays Archie as stern, aloof, angry, domineering, and, most importantly, obsessively aware of his own status. The movie argues (correctly, I believe) that Archie could have found Agatha if he had tried. (She left clues--for people who think like detectives, at least.) Instead, his sense of personal affront (how dare she do this? how dare she make me a laughing stock?) led to a situation where the furor grew far beyond what it needed to, resulting in far more embarrassment to Archie than would have occured if he'd cared enough to hunt her down in the first place.

Agatha: Life In Pictures's Archie is played by Raymond Coulthard. His Archie is charming, out of his depth with the ensuing chaos, and petulant.  The movie contains a pitch-perfect scene where Archie storms out of Christie home, crying, "Not everyone can be happy! Someone has to suffer!" And it won't be him. It never occurs to him to comfort his wife after her mother's death or, even, to just let her be and wait for her to find her balance. His need to be comfortable eclipses all else.

Agatha Christie never talked about the ten days of her "disappearance" and rarely discussed her divorce. True to her upbringing and time period, she doesn't attack Archie in her autobiography.

She did, however, write a number of mystery books in which the heroine learns that true marital love and affection comes from falling in love with a best friend rather than an object of infatuation. My favorite example comes in Sad Cypress. The main male character--who cheats on his fiance--is a dead ringer for Archie (I have no idea how much Christie was aware of this): he is charming, pleasant, good-natured, fastidious, and standoffish. He hates inconvenience. He winces at strong emotion. He finds demonstrations of affection distasteful and ends up pursuing an ephemeral--and ultimately unattainable--woman. His fiance--the heroine and main suspect of the novel's murder--is never entirely at ease in his presence, despite intense infatuation. She idolizes him (he wants to marry me?!) which doesn't make her happy. Or comfortable.

In the end, she gains the affectionate adoration of a much better man--as Agatha Christie did with Max Mallowan. Agatha and Max were married for 46 years.



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