The art of the whodunnit is an elusive one, especially in the instant-gratification world of today’s media consumption. It’s become rare to see a true devotion to the build-up, patiently lining up the clues, gradually thickening the plot until eventually revealing what has been staring you in the face all along.
That’s why it’s so refreshing, so impressive, to get a series such as And Then There Were None, broadcast on BBC One in the UK on 26, 27 and 28 December 2015, and headed for US eyeballs in 2016. Adapting Agatha Christie’s best-known novel for a new audience, it ups the horror factor, assembles a star-studded cast, and provides three hours of near-relentless atmospheric tension. In it, ten strangers are invited to an isolated island off the coast of UK’s Devon county, and face a mysterious killer – as well as their own dark past – in a fight to stay alive.
First off, the cast is nothing short of sensational. Mixing veteran heavyweights (Sam Neill, Charles Dance, Miranda Richardson), respected character actors (Noah Taylor, Burn Gorman, Toby Stephens, Anna Maxwell Martin) and up-and-coming stars (Aidan Turner, Maeve Dermody, Douglas Booth), each character is excellently portrayed. Each member has been cast for their ability to be suspicious from the start, and for some, that suspicion even extends beyond their on-screen deaths. It’s unfair to pick highlights, but life’s unfair, so:
Turner, having become a sex symbol in 2015’s TV series Poldark (mostly shirtless, very fit), gets to put his natural Irish accent to good use as the intense, brutally honest and violently charming Lombard. While having played a romance-smitten dwarf in one of The Hobbit‘s 95 subplots, and played the reluctant hero in Poldark, he seems to enjoy playing the more-than-slightly sinister Lombard more than all of his previous roles combined.
Dermody, a last-minute casting choice, is also a revelation. Seemingly meek and withdrawn, she plays off her fantastic cast mates to unveil a much more complex character than she appears at first. She handles a tricky character with ease and treads the path between passive cypher and tortured protagonist with an unexpected maturity. Maeve Dermody is definitely one to watch in 2016 and onward.
In addition, Stephens and Gorman are an explosive combo here, with their paranoia and suspicion of each other keeping the others – and the viewers – on their toes throughout.
And finally, it’s such a treat to see Dance, Richardson and Neill get the opportunity to properly show the youngsters around them how it’s done. Dance is his predictably brilliant self, brooding, suspicious and unstoppably charming all at once, while Richardson imparts her substantial knowledge on Dermody through her cretinous Emily. Neill’s General MacArthur, meanwhile, owns perhaps the understated highlight of the lot, in a devastatingly simple scene opposite Turner’s Lombard at the end of the first act, as the reality of the strangers’ dire situation dawns on them. Through a simple conversation, the grizzled veteran sees – and articulates – their doom more clearly than any one of them could, ominously describing the “calm before the carnage.” All the while, that simple scene brilliantly underlines how Neill, a consummate professional through his 40-year career, is showing the promising Turner how, if he works very, very hard, he could one day possibly become as good an actor as Neill or Dance.
And speaking of carnage. There’s no shortage of that here. Eschewing the normal murder-mystery approach to an Agatha Christie story, And Then There Were None feels very much like a horror thriller. Sensing how today’s audiences aren’t shocked by mere death on-screen any more, director Craig Viveiros treats us to a gory feast of blood, innards on display and things sticking out of things they really shouldn’t stick out of. Agatha Christie purists may not like it, but it works.
Viveiros’s background as a cinematographer is also on full display. Nearly every shot is perfectly framed, the angles add to the atmosphere, and through the lens, the seemingly innocuous mansion takes on an eerie character of its own. Add the booming dread of the music, and you’ve got yourself a tension-filled old-school thriller made for a new-school audience.
Flaws are few and far between. First, the story is simply so famous that it might undermine the suspense somewhat, as the entire plot is leading up to a single revelation; that of who the mysterious “U.N. Owen” is. However, while staying mostly faithful to the original text, there are enough tweaks and changes to maybe, just maybe, make even an Agatha Christie scholar second-guess the conclusion. Another slight drawback is that as the characters start dropping, the plotting and conversations start stretching out just a little. This leads to something of a lull in the proceedings around the end of the second act and start of the third. However, it more than makes up for that with a thrilling final showdown, making And Then There Were None one of the most effective pieces of dramatic TV drama in years.