Monday, November 14, 2016
"AND THEN THERE WERE NONE" (2015) Review
"AND THEN THERE WERE NONE" (2015) Review
Ever since I gave up reading the "NANCY DREW" novels at the age of thirteen, I have been a fan of those written by Agatha Christie. And that is a hell of a long time. In fact, my fandom toward Christie's novels have extended toward the film and television adaptations. Among those stories that have captured my imagination were the adaptations of the author's 1939 novel, "AND THEN THERE WERE NONE".
To be honest, I have seen at least three adaptations of the 1939 novel - the 1945, 1966 and 1974 adaptations - before I had read the novel. Although I found some of the novel's aspects a bit troubling - namely its original title and minimal use of racial slurs, overall I regard it as one of Christie's best works . . . if not my favorite. After viewing three cinematic adaptations, I saw the BBC's recent adaptation that aired back in December 2015 as a three-part miniseries.
I noticed that "AND THEN THERE WERE NONE" was the first adaptation I have seen that more or less adhered to the novel's original novel. But it was not the first one that actually did. One of the most famous versions that stuck to the original ending before the 2015 miniseries was the Soviet Union's 1987 movie called "DESYAT NEGRITYAT". However, I have never seen this version . . . yet. Anyone familiar with Christie's novel should know the synopsis. Eight strangers are invited by a mysterious couple known as Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen for the weekend at Soldier Island, off the coast of Devon, England in early August 1939. Well . . . not all of them were invited as guests. Waiting for them is a couple who had been recently hired by the Owens to serve as butler and cook/maid. The weekend's hosts fail to show up and both the guests and the servants notice the ten figurines that serve as a centerpiece for the dining room table. Following the weekend's first dinner, the guests and the two servants listen to a gramophone record that accuses each of them with a crime for which they have not been punished. The island's ten occupants are:
*Dr. Edward Armstrong - a Harley Street doctor who is accused of killing a patient on the operating table, while under the influence of alcohol
*William Blore - a former police detective hired to serve as security for the weekend, who is accused of killing a homosexual in a police cell
*Emily Brent - a religious spinster who is accused of being responsible for the suicide of her maid by abandoning the latter when she became pregnant out of wedlock
*Vera Claythorne - a games mistress hired to serve as Mrs. Owen's temporary secretary, who is accused of murdering the young boy for whom she had served as a governess
*Philip Lombard - a soldier-of-fortune also hired to serve as security for the weekend, who is accused of orchestrating the murder of 21 East Africans for diamonds
*General John MacArthur - a retired British Army officer accused of murdering a fellow officer, who was his wife's lover during World War I
*Anthony Marston - a wealthy playboy accused of killing two children via reckless driving
*Ethel Rogers - the maid/cook hired by the Owens, who is accused with her husband of murdering their previous employer
*Thomas Rogers - the butler hired by the Owens, who is accused with his wife of murdering their previous employer
*Justice Lawrence Wargrave - a retired judge accused of murdering an innocent man by manipulating the jury and sentencing him to hang
Shortly after listening to the gramophone, one member of the party dies from poisoning. Following this first death, more people are murdered via methods in synonymous with a nursery rhyme from which the island is named. The murderer removes a figurine from the dining table each time someone is killed. The island's remaining occupants decide to work together and discover the murderer's identity before time runs out and no one remains.
From the numerous articles and reviews I have read about the miniseries, I came away with the impression that many viewers and critics approved of its adherence to Christie's original ending. And yet . . . it still had plenty of changes from the story. The nature of the crimes committed by five or six of the suspects had changed. According to one flashback, Thomas Rogers had smothered (with his wife Ethel looking on) their elderly employer with a pillow, instead of withholding her medicine. General MacArthur literally shot his subordinate in the back of the head, instead of sending the latter to a doomed military action during World War I. Beatrice Taylor, the pregnant girl who had committed suicide, was an orphan in this production. Lombard and a handful of his companions had literally murdered those 21 East Africans for diamonds, instead of leaving them to die with no food or other supplies. And William Blore had literally beaten his victim to death in a jail cell, because the latter was a homosexual. In the novel, Blore had simply framed his victim for a crime, leading the latter to die in prison. I have mixed feelings about some of these changes.
By allowing General MacArthur to literally shoot his wife's lover, instead of sending the latter to his death in a suicidal charge, I found myself wondering how he got away with this crime. How did MacArthur avoid suspicion, let alone criminal prosecution, considering that Arthur Richmond was shot in the back of the head in one of the trenches? How did the murderer find out? Why did Thomas Rogers kill his employer? For money? How did the couple avoid criminal prosecution, if their employer was smothered with a pillow? Even police forensics back then would have spotted death by smothering. I understand why Phelps had made Beatrice Taylor an orphan. In this scenario, Emily Brent would have been the only one with the authority to reject Beatrice. But what about the latter's lover? Why did the murderer fail to go after him. And how did Blore evade charges of beating a prisoner to death inside a jail cell? None of his fellow officers had questioned his actions? And if they had kept silent, this made them accessories to his crime. Then why did the murderer fail to go after them, since he or she was willing to target Ethel Rogers for being an accessory to her husband's crime?
One character that went through something of a major change was Philip Lombard. His aggressiveness and predatory nature remained intact. But for some reason, screenwriter Sarah Phelps had decided to transfer his bigotry to both Emily Brent and William Blore. The screenplay seemed to hint through Lombard's comments that if those 21 men had been Europeans instead of Africans, he still would have murdered them to get his hand on those diamonds. In fact, he went even further with a tart comment to Miss Brent by accusing European religious fanatics of being more responsible for the deaths of Africans than the military or mercenaries like himself. It was Blore who used a racist slur to dismiss Lombard's crime. And it was Miss Brent, instead of Lombard, who insulted the mysterious Mr. Owens' intermediary, Isaac Morris, with an anti-Semetic slur. I can only wonder why Phelps deemed it necessary to transfer Lombard's bigotry to two other characters.
There were some changes that did not bother me one bit. Certain fans complained about the presence of profanity in this production . . . especially the use of 'fuck' by at least two or three characters, who seemed like the types who would use these words. Mild profanity has appeared in previous Christie novels and adaptations. And the word 'fuck' has been around since the Sixteenth Century. I really had no problem with this. Phelps also included lesbian tendencies in Emily Brent's character. There were some complaints about this change. Personally, I had no problem with it. This change added dimension to Miss Brent's decision to cast out Beatrice Taylor, when the latter ended up pregnant. Episode Three featured a party scene with the four surviving guests in which they indulged in booze and Anthony Marston's drugs to relieve their anxiety over their situation. It was not included in Christie's novel, but I thought the scene did a great job in showing the psychological impact upon the remaining characters . . . especially for Dr. Armstrong, who went into a drunken rant over the horrors he had witnessed in World War I.
Watching "AND THEN THERE WERE NONE" left me with the feeling of watching some kind of early 20th century Nordic thriller. I have to credit both the producers, director Craig Viveiros, production designer Sophie Becher and cinematographer John Pardue. What I found interesting about the miniseries' visual style is the hint of early 20th century Art Deco featured in the house's interior, mixed with this gloomy atmosphere that truly represented the production's violent and pessimistic tale. Everything visual aspect of this production seemed to literally scream death and doom. Even the production's sound department did an outstanding job in contributing the story's atmosphere, especially in those episode that featured the storm that prevented the survivors from making an attempt to leave the island. I also enjoyed Lindsay Pugh, whose costumes did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions of the late 1930s. More importantly, "AND THEN THERE WERE NONE" was not some opportunity for a Thirties' fashion show, but a more realistic look at how British middle-class dressed on the eve of World War II. My only complaint is the hairstyle worn by actress Maeve Darmody, who portrayed Vera Claythorne. I am referring to the long bob worn by Vera in her 1935 flashbacks, which struck me as a bit too long for that particular year.
Many have complimented both Sarah Phelps and Craig Viveiros for closely adhering to the moral quagmire of Christie's tale. Each or most of the characters are forced to consider the consequences of their actions and their guilt. If I have to be brutally honest, I have to compliment the pair as well. At first I was inclined to criticize the production's three hour running time, which I originally believed to be a tad too long. But now I see that the running time gave Viveiros and Phelps the opportunity more in-depth explorations of the characters - especially Vera, Blore, Miss Brent and General MacArthur. This was done through a series of flashbacks for most of the characters. I said . . . most. There were some characters that hardly received any flashbacks - especially the Rogers, Anthony Marston, Edward Armstrong and Philip Lombard. I could understand the lack of many flashbacks for one or two characters, but I would have liked to see more for Rogers, Dr. Armstrong and Lombard. Especially Lombard. I never understood why he only had one flashback that vaguely hinted his murders without his victims being seen.
On the other hand, I was more than impressed with the production's exploration of Vera, Blore, Miss Brent, Mrs. Rogers and General MacArthur's crimes. Both Phelps and Viveiros seemed to have went through a great deal of trouble to explore their backgrounds and crimes. In the case of Mrs. Rogers, the production did not really explore the crime of which she and her husband were accused. But the miniseries did spend some time in Episode One focusing on the consequences she had suffered from her husband's crime . . . and I found that more than satisfying. I enjoyed how General MacArthur, Miss Brent and Blore had initially refused to acknowledge their crimes . . . and how the growing death count and the possibility of their own deaths led them to finally face their guilt, whether out loud or internally. I found General MacArthur's acknowledgement of guilt very satisfying, for it culminated in that famous line regarding the characters' fate:
"No one's coming for us. This is the end."
From a dramatic point of view, the most satisfying character arc proved to be the one that belonged to Vera Claythorne. She is not my favorite character . . . at least not in this production. Nor did I regard her as the story's most interesting character. But I thought Phelps and Viveiros did a hell of a job handling her character arc. Vera struck me as the type who went through a great deal of effort to hide her true nature via a respectable facade. Actually, the other characters share this same trait. Judging from what I have seen from this production, no one seemed to do it better than one Vera Claythorne. I suspect most people would be hard pressed to believe that this attractive and intelligent woman would deliberately lead a young boy to his death. Like I said, I did not particularly regard Vera as the story's most interesting character. But I do believe that Phelps and Viveiros handled her story arc with more depth and mystery than any of the other characters . . . and with more flashbacks.
While reading several articles about "AND THEN THERE WERE NONE", I noticed that many had placed emphasis on the characters' guilt and the possibility of them facing judgment for their actions. In a way, their opinions on this topic reminded me of why the murderer had set up the whole house party in the first place. Then I remembered that the murderer had also used the house party to indulge in his or her blood lust. And the killer used the guilt of the other inhabitants to excuse the murders . . . in his or her mind. This made me wonder about society's desire for others to pay for their sins. Especially sins that involved death. Is society's desire for killers to pay for their crimes a disguise . . . or excuse for its own blood lust? Like I said . . . I wonder.
What else can I discuss about "AND THEN THERE WERE NONE"? Oh yes. The performances. The miniseries featured a collection of well known actors and actresses from several English speaking countries, especially Great Britain. I must admit that I may have vaguely heard of Douglas Booth, but I have never seen him in any particular role, until this production. But I must say that I found his portrayal of rich playboy Anthony Marston very impressive. Booth did a beautiful job in capturing the selfish and self-indulgent nature of the young elite. I wish Anna Maxwell-Martin had a bigger role in this production. However, I had to be satisfied with her performance as Ethel Rogers, who had been hired to serve as maid and cook for the Owens' house party. I thought she was excellent as the bullied wife of Soldier Island's butler, Thomas Rogers. I was also impressed by Noah Taylor, who gave a first-rate performance as Rogers, who hid his brutish nature with the facade of a servile man. I only wish that Phelps had not made the same mistake as Christie - namely failing to get into Rogers' mind. I think Taylor could have rolled with such material. Miranda Richardson gave a masterful performance as the prim and hypocritical Emily Brent, who hid her own passions and sins with a stream of moral pronouncements. Her performance culminated in that wonderful moment when her character finally acknowledged her role in that young maid's suicide. One of my favorite performances came from Sam Neill, who portrayed the very respectful retired Army officer, General John MacArthur. Neill had claimed that this particular performance was not a stretch for him, since MacArthur reminded him of his own father. But I thought the actor's performance rose above that assessment, as his character not only faced his guilt for a crime of passion, but also faced the realization of his impending death.
On the surface, Charles Dance's portrayal of retired judge Lawrence Wargrave seemed like many roles he had portrayed in recent years - cool, elegant and a little sharp. But I really enjoying watching him convey Wargrave's subtle reactions to the temperamental outbursts from the other inhabitants. And I found his skillful expression of Wargrave's emotional reactions to memories of the man the character was accused of killing via an execution sentence really impressive. "AND THEN THERE WERE NONE" marked the third time I have seen Toby Stephens in an Agatha Christie adaptation. Of the three productions, I regard his work in this miniseries and the 2003 television movie, "FIVE LITTLE PIGS" as among his best work. Stephens did a superb job in developing . . . or perhaps regressing Dr. Edward Armstrong's character from this pompous Harley Street physician to a nervy and frightened man by the third episode. Thanks to Stephens' performance, I also became aware that the character's alcoholism and tightly-wound personality was a result of the horrors he had faced during World War I.
Ever since I first saw 2012's "THE DARK KNIGHT RISES", I have become aware of Burn Gorman. He is one of the most unusual looking actors I have ever seen . . . and a first-rate actor. I really enjoyed his portrayal of former police detective William Blore as this slightly shifty man with a penchant for allowing his paranoia to get the best of him, as the body count rose. Although his Blore comes off as a rather unpleasant man, Gorman still managed to inject some sympathy into the character as the latter finally faces his guilt over the young homosexual man he had beaten to death. Most of the critics and fans seemed to be more interested in Aidan Turner's physique than his performance as soldier-of-fortune, Philip Lombard. I feel this is a shame, because I thought he gave an excellent performance as the shady and pragmatic mercenary, willing to do anything to stay alive . . . or have sex with Vera Claythorne. What really impressed me about Turner's performance is that he is the second actor to perfectly capture the animalistic and aggressive Lombard as described in Christie's novel, and the first English-speaking actor to do so. The miniseries' producers had some difficulty in finding the right actress to portray Vera Claythorne. In the end, they managed to find Australian actress Maeve Darmody six days before filming started. And guess what? They made a perfect choice. Darmody was superb as the cool and intelligent Vera, who is the first to connect the poem to what was going on.
I thought some of screenwriter Sarah Phelps' changes to Agatha Christie's tale did not exactly work for me. But despite a few flaws, I have to commend both her and director Craig Viveiros for doing an excellent job in translating Christie's most celebrated and brutal tale to the television screen. And they were ably assisted by superb performances from a very talented all-star cast. "AND THEN THERE WERE NONE" is one Christie production I can watch over and over again.