The BBC’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic “And Then There Were None” is smart, stylish, sexy and great fun. But is it appropriately Christie in tone? That’s the question we’re wrestling with here.
Of course, if you dress a bunch of fine British actors up in tweeds and cardigans and set them loose in an English country house in the 1930s only to kill them all off one by one, it’s practically impossible not to reach a certain Christie-an tone. And to be fair, there isn’t one person in this cast who doesn’t nail their character. Everyone is uniformly excellent in their role, but Charles Dance as Judge Wargrave, Maeve Dermody as Miss Claythorne and Miranda Richardson as Emily Brent are the real standouts here. Dance commands a scene just by peering out at the world through those shrewd, ice-blue eyes; no one can play a repressed, judgmental bitch like Richardson, and Dermody almost steals the entire show out from under everyone by slowly morphing from tweedy, uptight secretary to wild-eyed, haunted murderess. But when you have characters ripping each other’s clothes off in lust, snorting coke like they’re in a Scorsese film, or engaging in murders so blood-drenched you’d think you were watching Ryan Murphy’s English Horror Story: Beach House, the modernity of it all threatens to take it away from Dame Agatha’s moody, understated and darkly ominous style.
See, we can’t help thinking that “sexy” and “stylish” are somewhat off-brand terms to describe the average Christie murder mystery. Then again, ATTWN is not an average Christie murder mystery. It’s more of a puzzle box full of mysteries than a straight-up whodunnit. And while Dame Agatha is somewhat defined by the darkness of her oeuvre, this is by far her darkest tale; a story that leaves you wondering if literally everyone in the world is capable of murder – or worse, has already committed one. In this televisual recasting, the moral darkness remains, but it’s all enveloped in something more akin to a psychological horror story with vaguely supernatural allusions than an English murder mystery. All of the murderous individuals called to Soldier Island are wrestling with the ghosts of their pasts – and sometimes, the series takes that aspect of the story somewhat literally as characters keep coming face to face with their victims as they relive their crimes. The production design, camera work and aesthetic choices are, in some ways, far more suitable for a ghost story than a murder mystery.
We’re afraid this is all starting to sound far more critical than we mean it to, so allow us to reiterate: this is an excellent adaptation and a highly entertaining story, even with all the bludgeoning, poisoning, axes and hangings. And if we’re wrestling a bit with some of the tonal choices, it should be noted that this is a very good and very faithful adaptation of the original novel. If nothing else, it should be celebrated for not shying away from the true ending of the book, as some previous adaptations have done. We suppose what we’re really trying to come to terms with is the non-“Masterpiece Mystery” feel of the production – which is not a criticism of this production or any Masterpiece ones; just an acknowledgement that the Masterpiece English Murder Mystery is such a monopolized corner of the TV menu that it took us a bit of recalibration to sit through a slightly different take. We wouldn’t call this version of Christie “flashy,” though. Indeed, it’s a production that allows its actors to mostly take their time with the characters; a story that lets everyone breathe a bit before the slow reveals of their pasts start coming. Yes, it’s sexier than one would expect, but it’s still extremely tame. Even better, it does what sex in a story should do first before any titillation: it helps turn the characters into real, breathing (and heaving) people, rather than actors on a stage, which is how the characters in some English murder mysteries can come across. Having said that, the addition of a cocaine party and a lesbian-predator angle where none existed before struck us as unnecessary and a too-obvious ploy to inject some dazzle into the proceedings.
The one change that does tend to miss the point of the novel is the way some of the murders the characters are responsible for are far more overt and violent than the various murder-by-neglect or murder-by-plotting stories in the original. Gone is the slight ambiguity accompanying most of the crimes and the very Christie-an point of view that often saw murder as an unlikely combination of repressed passion and meticulous thinking. Instead of being responsible for deaths that couldn’t be characterized as murder by law, the characters in this version almost all have literal blood on their hands. It removes some of the cool English reserve of the book, replacing it with blood-red murder and lust.
But it is television, after all. And this is 2016. When you have a television landscape either influenced by or currently populated by such blood-drenched shows as American Horror Story, Scream Queens, Hannibal, How to Get Away with Murder, Bates Motel, and Dexter (among many, many others), we suppose a modern Christie adaptation can be forgiven its few slight nods to the more rapid-fire and raw tastes of a modern audience. Besides, despite the occasional blood-drenched sheet and discreetly splattered drape, the gore isn’t really as bad as we’re making it out to be. To say a show in 2016 is slightly gorier than the 80-plus-year-old novel that inspired it isn’t exactly damning.
In the end, let them rip their clothes off and snort their coke if they want to. As long as the story is as engaging and intriguing as this one (and if you don’t know the ending, you’re not likely to guess it), not to mention as beautiful to look at (the stunning seaside location, the gorgeous costumes – almost all of which were for the men, the beautiful but ominous mansion, Aidan Turner in a towel) and as wonderfully acted by literally every single person in the cast, we can’t recommend it enough as a great time on the couch.
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