Written and published on the cusp of WWII, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is an incisive allegory, dressed up as a murder mystery, about mankind’s fundamental inhumanity. It’s a story that resonates within its cultural moment, but also far beyond because people have never entirely lost their instinct to debase and destroy themselves and others. This is not a hopeful tale, in other words, though plenty of previous adaptations, bowing to either institutional pressure or self-censorship, have softened Christie’s hopeless vision. On the opposite pole, Quentin Tarantino’s recent 70mm Western, The Hateful Eight — a loose adaptation — fully embraced the pessimism, but lost the narrative dexterity and metaphorical import.
Quite happily, Lifetime and BBC’s jointly produced version of Christie’s best-seller — written by Sarah Phelps and directed by Craig Viveiros — is a bracingly nasty blast, even doubling-down on the gloom and doom in intriguing ways. (The series aired as three hour-long installments in the U.K., and is screening in two two-hour blocks in the U.S.) It’s a simple setup: Ten people of various social standings, most of them strangers to each other (and played by an across-the-board brilliant cast), are invited to a mansion on an isolated English isle. There, an unknown assailant starts killing them one by one in seeming accordance with a nursery rhyme called “Ten Little Soldier Boys.” (In several versions of Christie’s book the rhyme is titled “Ten Little Indians,” though the first U.K. edition had it, even more troublingly to modern sensibilities, as “Ten Little Niggers,” a popular British blackface song of the period.)
It quickly becomes clear that each of the guests has a murderous secret, and that these killings are a perverse form of justice. The ‘whodunit’ aspect is highly pleasurable and, despite the story’s popularity, best left unspoiled. What matters more is the oppressively bleak and paranoid atmosphere that hangs over the whole production, evident in everything from John Pardue’s shadowy cinematography (claustrophobic even in the many windswept island vistas) to Stuart Earl’s creepily droning score, which runs through almost every scene like a satanic whisper.
“Perhaps we’re dead already and just don’t realize it,” says one of the characters at a particularly screw-tightened point, bringing the purgatorial feel of the series to the fore. Why, though, is there such bliss in watching a 10-person microcosmos come apart at the seams? In large part it’s because of the people trapped in this particular hell. Old reliables like Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson and Charles Dance (the latter’s every syllable sounds like a disdainful judgment from on high) are nicely paired with fresher faces such as Maeve Dermody, Aidan Turner and Douglas Booth. No one performer is treated as above another, and all are equally likely to be shot, stabbed, beaten or hung. Don’t get too attached, in other words. Celebrity won’t save anyone here, and any gentility, urbanity or sensuality is a mask that will eventually be dropped to reveal the rotting soul underneath.
Phelps also makes a bold choice to slightly rejigger how the murderer is exposed: Where the book implies that the outside world might eventually know the truth behind the killings, the miniseries keeps the savage reality contained solely to the island. It makes it feel like we, the viewers, are part of a devilish pact, gleefully delighting in Christie’s pointed brutality even as it’s being reflected back at us.
Cast: Charles Dance, Maeve Dermody, Aidan Turner, Burn Gorman, Toby Stephens, Miranda Richardson, Noah Taylor, Sam Neill, Anna Maxwell-Martin, Douglas Booth
Writer: Sarah Phelps, based on the novel by Agatha Christie
Director: Craig Viveiros
Airdate: Sunday, March 13, 8 p.m. ET/PT; Monday, March 14, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Lifetime)