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Director: Michael Apted
Rating ****

In 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days. The episode, which she never satisfactorily explained, remains an unsolved mystery.

The literary world's Queen of Crime, who died in 1976, would doubtless be pleased with this gorgeous 1979 movie, based on the facts of her disappearance but providing a speculative solution as dramatic as any of her novels. Filmed in an England shrouded in mist and cigarette smoke, the movie is clearly fashioned after the Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries. Superintendent MacDonald (Barry Hart) is mysteriously similar to Chief Inspector Japp. Vanessa Redgrave plays a completely believable Agatha, while Timothy Dalton does a riveting rendition of her arrogant, steely-eyed husband, Colonel Archibald Christie. Dustin Hoffman as the solemn reporter, Wally Stanton, is a hoot, playing to the hilt the "American in England" who falls in love with the famous author he is stalking for a story.

The movie begins by establishing Agatha as a frail, frightened introvert who is totally dependent on her dashing husband for continuous hand-holding. We soon meet his secretary, Nancy Neele (no Miss Lemon), played by Celia Gregory. Agatha is distraught by the discovery that Nancy and her husband are lovers, and devastated when the Colonel asks her for a divorce. Finding her home unbearable after that, she flees to a spa in Harrogate and registers under an assumed name (Mrs. Teresa Neele from Capetown, South Africa). Nancy is there, too, and Agatha spends a lot of time ostensibly plotting her rival's demise. Wally finds Agatha there, wines and dines her and gives her one of the most scrumptious on-screen kisses I've ever seen.

The film portrays Harrogate, Yorkshire's splendid spa town of the day, with sensitive cinematography and great style. At the Royal Baths Assembly Rooms, Agatha gets wrapped in steamy towels in the Turkish baths. Massages, physiotherapy, cold showers and drinks of murky, sulphurous water are all part of the package. But, unlike today's spas, they used electro-shock therapy as well.

The characters all stay at the Old Swan Hotel, a grand and elegant establishment, whose airy dining room is crowned with a domed skylight. The pale wicker furniture in the palm-filled conservatory adds a pleasant note while the arched, leaded-glass windows let in showers of light. Agatha's room has a garden view, reminding us that this is, after all, England's Floral Town. The costumes are striking – Agatha's wardrobe includes a large mink stole that perches proudly on her shoulders, a richly patterned jacquard coat that hugs her tall, slim figure and several stylish cloches that help her remain incognito. The props are great, too: Wally even has a "laptop" typewriter that folds into a small carrying case.

This movie is a marvelous excursion into Yorkshire, the flapper era and the lives of the upper-crust British. As an Agatha Christie fan, I found it not only endearing in its familiarity, but also enlightening, since it showed me a whole new side of the great Dame.

Agatha is available on video in the GreatestEscapes.com store: www.greatestescapesstore.com/videos_1.html.

To learn about Agatha Christie in Southern England, visit www.literarytrips.com.

Literary Trips is now available in U.S. and Canadian bookstores. It can also be purchased through www.literarytrips.com and www.greatestescapes.com