“Ladies and gentlemen, silence, please. You are charged with the following indictments...”
There’s no conceit like a handful of mysterious characters locked in a room with a ticking bomb. And Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, a no-holds-barred downward spiral of a novel that stands in stark contrast to her cozier mysteries, epitomizes that particular dark alley of this exercise where you have to decide if you even want anyone to make it out alive.
And Then There Were None is one of Christie’s most famous works, and has been the inspiration for more than a dozen adaptations. But this new production (a joint BBC/Lifetime production, written by Sarah Phelps) will be the first English-language version to fully embrace the bleakness of the tale. If you’re hoping for a satisfying whodunit, perhaps look elsewhere; from the unfinished open maw of the island’s coastline to the loaded silences that punctuate the dinner conversation, And Then There Were None revels in unsettling you. But if you’re looking for an unabashedly bloodstained gothic take on pre-war psychological horror that locks 10 great actors in a room and makes them battle it out? Are you ever in luck.
It’s no surprise that a Christie/BBC project can gather thespian heavyweights, but this ensemble—including Charles Dance, Miranda Richardson, Anna Maxwell Martin, Toby Stephens, and Burn Gorman—has that peculiar alchemy that would sell a series less finely tuned than this one. Maeve Dermody anchors the cast as Vera Claythorne, the sort of slightly nervous, haunted heroine that midcentury gothics love so much—and who reveals a fascinatingly twisted interior as things begin to break down. But honestly, a cast like this turns even brief scenes into showstoppers. Dance glancing around a room carries more authority than a handful of action-movie presidents; Noah Taylor manages to balance some distinctly Hammer Film buttling with grounding humanity. An early, intense two-hander between Richardson and Martin instantly crystallizes the undercurrent of class tension that runs beneath the civilized sniping; Gorman spends the opening act with the affect of a man who’s actually a pile of badgers in a trench coat, effortlessly angling the comedic bent into the darkness as the bodies pile up.
And what delicious darkness. Director Craig Viveiros gives a somehow-gruesome glaze to the deco details of the house perched incongruously on the island (with stylized flashbacks interrupting the present like old-Hollywood intrusive thoughts), and composer Stuart Earl loads the score with hopeless high-tide strings. The bleakness is laced with great black comedy, of course—every good gothic needs a sense of humor. But every frame is a reminder that this house party isn’t just a horror story; it’s a self-made tragedy for people whose guilt is beginning to catch up to them.
That thread of guilt is what generates most of the suspense. (There’s the occasional jump scare, but the series hardly needs it.) To sustain a singular note for three hours might seem impossible, but one of the greatest pleasures of And Then There Were None is that it allows enough breathing room for the rot to set in. It makes its greatest study in Vera, whose determination grows in tandem with her panic, and proves to be a perfectly gothic canvas for the series. Whether sizing up self-loathing lothario Lombard (a suitably broody Aidan Turner), or trying desperately not to become consumed by her own past, it sets a tone for all that follows—Richardson’s Emily Brent and her smug middle-class righteousness crumbles as much as Lombard’s casual callousness inside that strange, beautiful house.
No adaptation of this novel can quite escape the camp implications of the poem that forms the murderer’s shopping list, but this iteration skirts the problem as nimbly as possible, self-aware without self-mockery. And there’s plenty of additional food for thought in the adaptation’s architecture, which is both thoughtful and suitably creepy. From an early glimpse of an unsuspecting fellow in a recording booth—a self-conscious theatrical flourish—to the broad thematic strokes of the kind of revenge only the guilty can understand, this iteration is well aware that it’s distinctly modern dread masquerading as a period piece. Much as the novel has spent its publication history quietly scraping away terms as they become too racist to support, any production of this novel is going to reflect the times as much as it does the source material. (It’s perhaps one of the driving reasons that the notorious happy-ending alterations made to the stage version have been neatly removed.) The most interesting updates don’t change the outcome so much as they carry a deliberate modern weight. It says something about where we are now that, for example, Detective Blore is accused of beating a man to death rather than of perjury; it bears the uncomfortable implication that the latter doesn’t still scan as a capital offense.
You don’t need to gnaw on any of this to enjoy the miniseries, of course; a room full of actors at the top of their game trying to out-goth each other is more than reason enough to tune in. But in embracing the dark again and again, And Then There Were None manages to skirt camp without falling into preciousness. From its first golden images of drowning to the drawing-room showdowns on a dark and stormy night, And Then There Were None is a triumph of atmosphere and an adaptation bold enough to make you uncomfortable to the very last.
Written by: Sarah Phelps, from the novel by Agatha Christie
Directed by: Craig Viveiros
Starring: Charles Dance, Maeve Dermody, Burn Gorman, Miranda Richardson
Debuts: Sunday, March 13 at 8 p.m. Eastern on Lifetime
Series watched for review