Written by Liz Dircks
And Then There Were None PLOT SUMMARY:
Based on Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery, ten people are invited to a remote island, all with one thing in common: each guest is accused of murder. As their chances of leaving the island alive fade, the guests are forced to grapple with their past sins, as they’re killed off one by one.
And Then There Were None is my favorite Agatha Christie novel, and possibly my favorite mystery of all time. It’s the quintessential thriller, with rapidly-heightening stakes, a compelling assembly of characters, and it’s fantastically creepy even without visuals. So when I watched the 1945 movie adaptation of it several years back, I felt vastly disappointed, even knowing that WWII movie-goers were far more likely to respond to feel-good endings. It robbed the story of its hopelessness with a happy ending, ignoring the carefully-crafted build to oblivion. Christie’s insight into humanity’s sinister side and the different ways it manifests itself was hard to see. Luckily, this updated BBC version restores her vision.
For those who are unfamiliar with the story, ten people are summoned to the fictitious Soldier Island off the coast of Devon, England, by a couple known as the Owens (who turn out to not exist). They’re from various walks of life: a general, an ex-governess, a detective sergeant, a butler, and a maid comprise just some of the characters. As they assemble for dinner the first night, a record plays throughout the island’s lone, stately house that accuses each of them of a heinous murder. As the guests attempt to make sense of their situation, people are killed, and everyone slowly realizes they’ve been corralled on the island with no hope of escape. To make matters worse, the killer has a profound taste for theatrics, as every death somehow fits with a framed poem in each guest’s room, called “Ten Little Soldier Boys.”
And Then There Were None is Christie at her darkest, and this version is rightfully a far cry from the relatively light-hearted Poirot and Marple shows that have graced both British and American TVs. Without straying too much into snobbish territory, the Brits tend to pull off two things consistently better than everyone else: period dramas and miniseries. And Then There Were None is both, following in the footsteps of series like The Game, The Hollow Crown, and Parade’s End. In a shifting TV landscape, the market for shorter, more intense storytelling appears to be thriving.
The sheer abundance of talent in this cast is mind-boggling, and combined with some distinct characterization, makes And Then There Were None intriguing not just as a mystery, but as a psychological analysis. Miranda Richardson’s Emily Brent is a stuffy, pious woman who demands the moral high ground. Aidan Turner’s Phillip Lombard is a cocky rascal who is composed in a crisis. Toby Stephens’s Dr. Armstrong is neurotic, overly defensive, and quick to incite panic. The dynamic feels like watching a tug of war in multiple directions, one that begins with broad suspicion and ends in a feverish race to stay alive. Ironically, as more people are killed and the cast shrinks, the manor becomes more claustrophobic as viewers simply expect more deaths with no simple resolution.
Despite the phenomenal ensemble scenes, two characters quickly stick out as the cleverest: Justice Wargrave (Charles Dance) and Vera Claythorne (Maeve Dermody). Vera seems to emerge as the “sleuth” of the story when she connects the murders, the “Ten Little Soldiers Boys” poem, and the disappearing statuettes on the dining room table. She’s more or less written off by the others as hysterical, but when Wargrave starts following her lead, the true intent behind their grim vacation starts to become clear. Wargrave is almost sagely in his input — a strange sort of father figure — but this is the same actor who nailed it as Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones, and his reputation for playing cunning men precedes him. In the end, we find out that Wargrave orchestrated the entire get-together, playing judge, jury, and executioner, as he calmly explains to Vera moments before kicking a chair out from under her and leaving her to hang. To me, this is a small improvement on the book, where Wargrave’s guilt is made known in the epilogue via manuscript. The final confrontation between Vera and Wargrave is much more dramatic here, and given the build-up of their loose partnership, resonates as a kind of betrayal.
I can’t help but admire the lush but bleak colors in And Then There Were None; the greys, browns, and greens that are so characteristic of rainy England only enhance the unsettling nature of the story. The stark white of the manor on Soldier Island is also beyond scary, in the sense that it’s too pristine, too untouched, and therefore has to be dirtied up by ten rather creative deaths within and without its walls. In fact, the cinematography seems to lean heavily on a number of visual and narrative horror tropes. There are mirror scares, real and imagined blood seeping into the frame, and troubling “ghosts” that appear in the background of a shot, only to disappear seconds later.
My knowledge of the horror genre, unfortunately, isn’t great, so I wasn’t sure how to interpret those visuals. Horror movies tend to be about the blood and gore, the jump scares, and the unique pleasure of knowing exactly what’s going to happen with no way to stop it. For this reason, I initially felt that foisting modern horror upon a classic mystery resulted in a little dissonance. Plus, who actually cares about character exploration when you know everyone is going to die anyway? Eventually, though, it became clear that Christie’s story employed a number of tropes long before the horror genre became oversaturated with them, making this particular creative choice an inspired one. Even if the numerous flashback scenes stalled the pacing, it was a necessary sacrifice, and one that I daresay Christie herself would’ve approved.
If there’s one thing to take away from And Then There Were None, it’s that the act of taking justice into one’s own hands is fraught with moral dilemma and subjectivity. The BBC’s adaptation of the much-loved mystery embraces that skewed morality and makes itself at home amongst a plethora of shows that dutifully work to make their viewers suffer. It’s a rare treat to see a book adaptation handled with such consideration, and this one is well worth the four terrifying hours if you’re looking something to keep you on your toes.
RATING: 10 OUT OF 10