05 January 2016

TV Review: And Then There Were None

Review by Tom Newsom

First of all, I’ve made a point of reading all of Agatha Christie’s output, and And Then There Were None was definitely one of my favourites. Less of a blessing and more of a curse - would this new TV adaptation be right up my street, or will I just pick up on all the changes they make? I wouldn’t be alone though - it’s the world’s biggest selling mystery novel at over 100 million copies apparently - a very strong 8 million people watched this one.

For fans of the book, I think they got the tone about right, which is a trickier task than it appears. When I read it, the sense of dread was there from the off in the careful plot construction, rather than the fairly ordinary prose. Then the danger escalated as one-by-one, people started dying. It was a scary book - I think I read it at Halloween coincidentally, but it certainly fits that mood. Rightfully they emphasise this on TV, though they come close to overdoing it. It’s a tense watch from the off, but where do you go from those opening moments of dread?

The story becomes bloodier (and swearier) in later parts, as the tone turns more primal and brutal. It’s what stands out as modern - yes, the book goes from civility to barbarity in a few hundred pages, but this one starts out with barbarity (a little more civility would have helped) and goes even further than the book. The choice additions made a few headlines in certain tabloids - drug taking, F-bombs, grisly murders - but it didn’t take me out of the story, instead, the opposite.

There’s a dark heart I’ve been trying to avoid so far in my review - and it’s not the ending (that was brilliantly done, a faithful recreation of the book). No, it’s the running time - three parts, three hours long in total. Oo-err. Chopping any story into three is sacrilege enough, although by construction this one is pretty well suited to it - and when it’s shown over three consecutive nights at Christmas, it almost rolls into one anyway.

But oh lord, there’s really not enough plot to go round. As such, it’s very slow. Most of the first part is set-up, the other two parts end up being a bit baggy, really. It’s very tense - it’s a miracle it’s still tense when nothing much is happening - but I still feel like there’s an absolute knockout two (easily, two and a half) hour version in here, struggling to get out. Maybe that’s because I knew already what was going to happen next.

It makes for an interesting watch though. No spoilers here, but the writer, Sarah Phelps, has put in a lot more clues for the TV viewers to pick up on, which makes it more rewarding than the rather too enigmatic book... if perhaps too easy to blindly guess the killer, as the people I viewed it with attested (though it’s a problem that’s in the book, made worse here). The script doesn’t rely on the same tension building tricks, but happily makes the ending easier to swallow.

Then there’s the cast. It’s a dream cast if ever I saw one - there’s ten juicy roles on offer here, so it attracts big names. What makes the thing work is that each person is distinguishable, a must when there’s a lot of characters to set up - thanks to casting, costumes, acting, writing. On the page it’s a lot of names, but they don’t matter - the story is visual.

It’s recommended then - hell, it’s the one of the best mysteries ever, and a story that’s sold out thousands of theatre performances since, of course it’s recommended! It’s a smart piece of TV, and a beautifully designed, modern 1939 (those jade green sculptures!). Just be wary of the slower moments, and enjoy the ride.

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