And Then There Were None is an Emmy-worthy modern classic of elegant suspense layered with subtle explorations of the nature of evil. It should be considered for the Primetime Emmys Awards, but it’s not…
We must be strong… In these times. We must be valiant and virtuous. We must be English women. – Emily Brent (Miranda Richardson)
It happens on occasion, although extremely rare, that a television event will strike you in unexpected ways. It’s always a good thing, of course, to be so pleasantly surprised. It’s not as if television were completely devoid of quality, but quite a bit of what I come across manages to meet my already high expectations. Maybe I’m an easy lay, but it’s far more likely to be crushingly disappointed (see: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, or don’t and take my word for it). Consider me, then, to have been blown away by the quiet brilliance of Lifetime/BBC’s sterling production of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. For some arcane reason, the series will only be considered for International Emmys, which is a terrible shame (and bizarre given War & Peace‘s placement in this year’s US-based Emmy race). It’s one of the best Limited Series of the Emmy year and deserves recognition and to compete as such.
Positioned as a Downton Abbey meets Friday the 13th, And Then There Were None is a delicate, fine-tuned handling of the well-trodden material. The central story – that of the systematic butchering of an assembled group of party goers at a remote island mansion – has a resonance and popularity that has permeated our culture since original publication (as, I swear, Ten Little N****** before it settled into its slightly more socially acceptable name of Ten Little Indians) back in 1939. That’s part of the reason this modern interpretation knocked me for a loop. This is hardly a new story, yet the highest compliment that can be paid to it is how fresh and unique the production felt.
Directed by with an assured hand by Craig Viveiros from a screenplay by Sarah Phelps (EastEnders), And Then There Were None gradually unfolds in two styles. It weaves a dreamlike narrative to gradually construct each character’s past while pushing forward with clinical precision to detail their ultimate fates. Despite having an ensemble cast at her disposal, Phelps brilliantly centers the revelations around the character of Vera Claythorne (Maeve Dermody), a former nanny seeking new employment. Vera appears the most relatable character in And Then There Were None. As each guest is presumably guilty, the audience pushes back against the belief that Vera committed such a terrible crime. The most brilliant aspect of this gradual unveiling of her character is ***slight spoiler*** that she may be the most deranged criminal of them all.
And Then There Were None weaves an intensely foreboding atmosphere. I’m not just talking about storms, flickering lights, and ghostly shadows. It uses a carefully constructed system of death imagery to set the tone. Window tassels drawn like nooses. Lobsters boiled alive and subsequently, brutally eviscerated. A foyer clock containing four horses, no doubt a nod to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Like most great directorial strokes, these touches aren’t immediately noticed on first viewing (save the lobster scene), but they accentuate the mystery and eventual terror that permeates the isolated mansion.
Same set of rules whether you’re posh or not. – Detective Sergeant William Blore (Burn Gorman)
Aside from the technical expertise, the cast appears under the Agatha Christie spell. Veteran actors mingle with younger faces to reflect the mix of socio-political statures in the film. While the cast is uniformly excellent, my attention was squarely focused on Miranda Richardson’s brilliant supporting role as the nauseatingly proper Christian Emily Brent. Richardson has two awards-worthy scenes that, in the hands of a lesser actress, would have been throw-away material. First, as maid Mrs. Rogers attends Brent, Richardson snidely (but always with the blood-curdling smile of a Proper English Woman) eviscerates her by effectively telling her it must be hot in the kitchen because she smells. Second, in Brent’s flashback, she is revealed to have an “unnatural affection” for a young girl she is mentoring. As the girl pricks her finger on a needlepoint, Richardson takes the finger and almost seductively licks the blood. It’s an insane, way out of left field moment that tells you volumes about the character and her inner struggle.
Ultimately, viewers may appreciate the creative merits of And Then There Were None but stop just shy of fully embracing because it masquerades as a classic slasher film. I encourage everyone – Emmy voters included – to look closer. Aside from its obvious class struggle theme, the film becomes a thought-provoking exploration of the nature of evil. Who really deserves to die? Who deserves to judge? What causes a person to break? These are questions that And Then There Were None raises without directly addressing the issues, leaving the audience to ponder the answers long after the final credits have rolled.
The Television Academy has a staggering amount of high-profile quality films to consider in this year’s Emmy race. Despite the troubling International Emmy placement, I would urge them, however, to look beyond the trappings of what people assume tony BBC productions to be and lose themselves in the morally complex And Then There Were None. Because a story has been told before doesn’t mean it’s always been told right. This creative team captured the original spirit of Agatha Christie’s novel and evolved it for a modern audience.
They struck creative gold in the process.
One little Soldier Boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.
The International Emmy eligibility window runs until September 30, 2016. The ceremony will be held in New York on November 21, 2016.