Saturday, April 16, 2016

"And Then There Were None" Done Right

Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" is one of the few mystery novels that I can still recall almost all the twists and turns of twenty years after I read it.  There's no question why it's considered Christie's masterpiece, a classic of the mystery genre that still thrills to this day.  It's been adapted for the theater and for film and television many times, but rarely with the original, downbeat ending.  Christie herself was responsible for some of the earliest adaptations featuring a lighter, happy resolution.  However, in recent years the darker ending has come back into fashion, and the BBC recently won the rights to adapt several of Christie's works for television.  And so, we have the new "And Then There Were None" miniseries, which is the most faithful adaptation to date.

In the late 1930s, eight strangers are invited to a mansion on an isolated island off the Devon coast.  Some believe they've been hired to fill various positions, and some are there on holiday.  None of them know their hosts, the Owens, who conduct all their business through written instructions.  The guests are attended to by a pair of recently hired servants, Thomas Rogers (Noah Taylor) and his wife Ethel (Anna Maxwell Martins).  All total, there are ten people on the island who are notified by recording that they are all accused of murder, and begin to be killed off, one by one.  The eight guests include car enthusiast Anthony Marston (Douglas Booth), a retired judge, Wargrave (Charles Dance), a police detective, Blore (Burn Gorman), a general, MacArthur (Sam Neill), a mercenary, Philip Lombard (Aidan Turner), a doctor, Armstrong (Toby Stephens), a severe older woman, Emily Brent (Miranda Richardson), and a young woman who thought she was being hired as a secretary, Vera Claythorne (Maeve Dermody).  Vera is our POV character, whose stay on the island is intercut with flashbacks to her time as a governess and the circumstances of the crime she's accused of committing.

There are a lot of familiar names in that cast, but the performance that really ties it all together is Maeve Dermody's.  This is the first thing I've seen her in, and I spent the first hour of the series wonder how that was possible.  Dermody has the most complicated role to play, juggling Vera's difficult emotional state as old ghosts come back to haunt her and the body count continues to climb.  I found the original ending of "And Then They Were None" pretty farfetched when I read the novel, but in the series, Dermody sells it with everything she's got.  Now, I can't imagine the ending being anything else.  Other standouts in the cast include Burn Gorman, as the miserable detective who eventually reveals his humanity, Aidan Turner, as the only guest who readily admits his guilt, and Charles Dance as the matter-of-fact judge.  However everyone makes an impression, no matter how brief.

The series also distinguishes itself by being much more psychologically introspective than any other version I've seen.  The various crimes that the guests are accused of play a bigger part, helping to flesh out the various characters.  While the primary driver of the story is still the suspense of the murders whimsically following the old "Ten Little Soldiers" nursery rhyme as they dispose of the cast, what's going on in the characters heads is much more interesting.  Some feel no guilt or shame at all, but past wrongdoings clearly eat at others, especially Vera.  The handling of her arc veers close to psychological horror films like "The Orphanage" or "The Others."  Director Craig Viveiros and writer Sarah Phelps deserve a lot of the credit for creating a moody, heady atmosphere that sustains the drama throughout.  And a few modern touches don't detract from the otherwise very faithful adaptation.

 I'm very fond of Rene Clair's 1945 version of "And Then There Were None," the first filmed version.  However, it's so good to see the story the way I remember it, dark and haunting and merciless.  It's a load of fun to watch a passel of great actors execute a memorable whodunit, but I suspect that the 2015 version is going to be best remembered for humanizing several of its players and giving them new dimensions.  I cared about characters I never expected to, that that gave their deaths real impact and tragedy for the first time.  
I'm definitely looking forward to more Agatha Christie adaptations from the BBC, and more are surely on their way.


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