Hannibal fans who miss their annual fix of sumptuously art-designed sadism could do a lot worse than the recent And Then There Were None miniseries, available now on home media. Adapted directly from Agatha Christie’s novel (the best-selling mystery novel of all time, and original titled Ten Little Niggers, because sometimes, often, the past is fucking appalling) the three-hour BBC/Lifetime production is a grim, slow-motion descent into madness and mania, and it is riveting from first moment to last.
For those who don’t know the story, And Then There Were None finds ten complete strangers gathered together on a small island (originally called ‘Nigger Island’ in the book because, again, the past sucks), all invited there by a mysterious host or hostess who tailored the invitation to each guest’s particular needs and personalities. Shortly after dinner on the first night, a recording plays that accuses every one of the ten of being guilty of a murder (or murders) for which they escaped justice. The guests are all freaked out, and then one of them drops dead.
Slowly but surely, the assembled guests are picked off one by one, each death corresponding to a verse in a children’s nursery rhyme. And the more deaths that accrue, the more convinced the (shrinking number of) survivors are that one of them is the culprit.
And Then There Were None stunned audiences on initial release. Christie’s earlier mysteries were no strangers to shocking violence and cynicism, but the villains were always juxtaposed with moral figures like Hercule Poirot, investigators that upheld the status quo and made sure that justice and decency prevailed in the end. No such figure exists in None, and there is no decency waiting to be restored. Christie stuck ten rats on a sinking ship and watched as they behaved accordingly. None is structured as a downward spiral, and Christie’s original ending was utterly merciless.
Shortly after publication, Christie set about watering down that cyanide. She adapted the novel into a stage play, and over the course of the play it is revealed that two of the characters are actually innocent of their accused crimes and work together to solve the mystery and fall in love. Most every adaptation of the story follows this version.
The miniseries, adapted by Sarah Phelps and directed by Craig Viveiros restore the twisted black heart to the story and do not flinch. And Then There Were None, the miniseries, may be classified as a ‘mystery thriller’, but its heart is in all-out horror. With the dark and stormy nights, entire sequences lit only by flickering candles, hallucinogenic imagery and oppressive mood, None sets about making your skin crawl before any murders are even committed.
When those murders do come, Craig Viveiros’ camera hits with blunt-impact blows. While virtually every act of violence occurs off-screen (or during memory-sequences) every drop of blood feels like an apocalyptic moment. Heads are bashed, men are chopped into goo, and the victims of the ten return as ghostly visitations, their hideously maimed forms bearing silent evidence of the guilt that plagues these plain-faced monsters even as they insist on their innocence. Once the murders begin, reality becomes a fluid proposition, as the guilty parties lose themselves in hazes of fear, regret, and rage.
Watching horrible people freak out and die, also horribly, does not seem the best use of three hours. But the show is so beautiful to look at and Sarah Phelps’ scripts are so well-crafted (and slyly funny. Phelps especially has an ear for black-hearted class comedy, with some of the biggest laughs coming from the way the survivors doggedly stick to decorum and proper conduct, even after skulls have been caved in) that you are happy to fall under the spell of the program.
It helps to have a cast that is as game for anything as the one assembled here. Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Maeve Dermody, Burn Gorman, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens, Noah Taylor, and Aidan Turner all dig their teeth into the material, playing both the initial reserve and the mounting hysteria to the hilt. Dermody’s Vera is the central figure of the ensemble; it is her initial suspicions which build tension and it is her decaying psychology that transforms the final movement of the piece into a waking nightmare. Dermody is without shame or fear, and she embraces every twisted facet of Vera, refusing to apologize for the damnation this woman has brought down on her own head.
Everyone is excellent, so much so that it often seems a shame when a character is obliterated. MVP for the show might fall to Gorman, though. So good at playing near-feral madmen, Gorman does wonderful work modulating his performance throughout the show. He begins as a twitchy comic relief, becomes a maddened wild card, before finally dissolving into the figure who most embodies the tragedy of what is unfolding.
And Then There Were None milks that tragedy for everything it is worth. While there’s a cheeky sort of bloodsport fun to the initial hour, by the time you reach the final hour the miniseries has really begun to hurt. The remaining cast are so broken, so weary, so beyond the point of hope, that you almost want to absolve them of whatever sins they committed to earn their trip to the island and let them go free. The miniseries has no such interest. Behind the gorgeous compositions and tasteful scenery and sets is a rancid face of cruel cynicism. Bitter medicine, maybe, but well worth taking.
(Below here I am going to talk about the very ending of the miniseries. If you don’t know the ending of And Then There Were None, do not read past)
That said, I do think Burns stumbles a bit with how to stage the final reveal. The solution to the mystery is the same as the book (although the connective tissue that actually explained HOW any of this was pulled off has been cut, leaving one to assume that the Judge was just magic or something), and just as in the book, Vera wanders back from the beach in a daze to discover a noose hanging from her ceiling with a chair right under it.
In the book, Vera climbs up on the chair, puts the noose around her neck and kicks the chair out. The end.
In the show, the Judge enters right as Vera is stepping off the chair and he then delivers an extended monologue about how and why he committed the murders, all while Vera struggles for air and tries to maintain her footing. It’s Charles Dance’s biggest showcase of the series and he makes the most out of it (Dance has one of those faces that can go from benign to LUCIFER HIM-FUCKING-SELF with a simple eyebrow lilt) but turning Vera’s death into an info-dump/suspense sequence robs it of the thudding, brutal finality of Christie’s ending.
One minor misstep is nothing against the totality of what And Then There Were None gets right. It’s a mean piece of work, but meanness done this well must be appreciated.
And Then There Were None is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Acorn Media