Well, after one day of Doctor Whos and Downton Abbeys and Gogglesprogs and improbable amounts of gluttony and strange food combinations, we’re back to the crime drama grind today with a three-part series that once again brings an Agatha Christie best-seller to the small screen. The question is: will this one be any good?
The common consensus in the Christie fan community was that David Walliams’ Partners In Crime was way off the mark. I’m not a huge Christieite so I’m not in a position to comment on the various criticisms of that series, but what I saw if it there seemed to be a lack of chemistry between its two leads and some terrible miscasting (especially of Walliams himself. Jessica Raine was actually rather good) – not ideal for a drama based around a husband-and-wife team.
So the second BBC Agatha Christie adaptation of the year had a bit more riding on it than usual, as many Christieites were scarred by the whole Partners In Crime experience and were holding their breaths to see whether this adaptation was more on the money.
“In the midst of life, we are in death.”
It’s actually quite tricky to review a show like this because pretty much everyone who watches it will know the plot, but half the appeal of an Agatha Christie story is experiencing that balance of the familiar and the suspenseful – we know whats going to happen but are quite happy to go through the whodunit process because it’s a thrilling thing to do. In fact, if history has told us anything people don’t want their Agatha Christie mucked about with. They don’t want it to be relocated to different eras, the characters interpreted differently or the plot to change in any way whatsoever. Murder has never been so comforting.
Originally published in 1939, the novel (which had a, ahem, very different title on its publication day) has gone onto become the best-selling mystery novel of all time and yet… it’s the first time this story has been given the TV treatment since ITV’s version in 1959.
The good news is that this was just a treat from start to finish. A proper mystery thriller story told extremely well with an ensemble cast that just oozed class and gave the whole thing huge amounts of gravitas. There was current favourite Aidan Turner as Philip Lombard, a mercenary soldier; Charles Dance as infamous Judge Lawrence Wargrave; Douglas Booth as reckless playboy Anthony Marsden; Miranda Richardson as spinster Emily Brent; Toby Stephens as Dr Armstrong; Burn Gorman as nervous policeman DI William Blore; Sam Neill as General MacArthur; Maeve Dermody as mysterious nanny Vera Claythorne; Noah Taylor as the creepy butler Thomas Rogers; and Anna Maxwell Martin as the terrified maid Ethel Rogers.
That’s quite a cast and they all do brilliantly with such rich material. Each one of them is invited to an island off the coast of Devon for different reasons by ‘the Owens’ (some for employment, some for a social occasion) and as this disparate group of people cross the choppy sea, get acquainted on the island and settle down for a posh dinner they realise that not everything is as it seems. It’s such a pure, single-location drama and, as the different personalities start to clash and rub each other the wrong way, things start to come apart at the seams, which is exactly what their hosts – still unseen – want. The Owens want to torment them, scare them and, ultimately, punish them for crimes they have committed.
Remember, this was originally written and published in the year World War II started, a time when a menace was looming large on the horizon and people were rightly suspicious and paranoid of all things. These emotions and feelings are all present in this story and as ‘the we know what you’ve done’ message is played to the group and their secrets start to tumble out, it’s uncomfortable to watch. As viewers, we start to judge each one of them the same way each of them judges one another, and that’s a skill of the writer and the director. There are some astonishing scenes even before the message sends them down a rabbit hole of noirish madness that illustrate the sickening arrogance of the class system and the way humans interacted within it. Philip Lombard has the glint in his eye when he sees Vera and starts to trot out his smouldering soldier routine (to no avail, which makes him even more interested), Emily Brent acts as a stuck-up ass towards timid Ethel and there’s needle between Anthony Marsdon and Dr Lawrence. There’s plenty of social and territorial jostling before the message and its implications kick in. It’s fun to observe and note the little digs and simmering rage within each of the characters as their anxieties and secret pasts come to light.
What I liked is that from the very start Vera seemed to be the main focus – she’s perhaps the most mysterious and perhaps the most sane as all about her start to lose their heads.
There are flashbacks (which are expertly and imaginatively woven in to the timeline), there are deaths within the group… it’s a story very well told, well adapted (should we expect anything else from Sarah Phelps?) and very well-directed by Craig Viveiros (some of spookier moments reminded me of The Shining), which is crucial to any new version of an old story.There’s a sense of the epic here, some beautifully rugged landscapes and, thanks to the flashbacks, a deft hand as different colour palettes and different types of action are mixed in. As the story progresses and they move out of the single location, it’ll be interesting to see how the action is widened and then narrowed again.
Whatever. It was an excellent start to And Then They Were None and a sumptuously delicious Christmas treat.
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