Friday, March 11, 2016

And Then There Were None: U.N. Owen Throws a Dinner Party

The nursery rhyme that inspired Dame Agatha Christie’s greatest bestseller has gone through several politically correct facelifts. Currently, it is ten little soldiers who expire one by one. For years, those soldiers were Indians and we never speak of what they were before that. The story also evolved when Dame Agatha wrote a more upbeat ending for her equally successful theatrical adaptation. Most film versions have followed the stage play, but screenwriter Sarah Phelps went back to the original novel for a new television miniseries commissioned to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth. In any event, ten stranded house guests will be bumped off in an orderly fashion unless they can figure out who among them is the killer in And Then There Were None (promo here), which premieres this Sunday on Lifetime.

A lot of you already know who the killer is, yet you will watch anyway. Even knowing the big twists, And Then There Were None (a.k.a. Ten Little Indians) continues to fascinate us. It has often been dramatized in film and on-stage and it has been ripped off even more regularly. It is back again and just as welcome, thanks to an ensemble of first-class character actors.

The premise remains unchanged. Ten strangers are lured to “Soldier Island,” an isolated isle with spotty ferry service, under a variety of false pretenses. It turns out their mystery host, “U.N. Owen” (as in unknown) has concluded they have all unjustly escaped punishment for their own capital crimes, so he intends to execute them one by one. His judgment also applies to the servants, who had unknowingly play his prerecorded accusations and thereby launch the murders that will roughly correspond to the nursey rhyme.

Former governess Vera Claythorne still does not seem to belong in the company of killers, such as the unrepentant mercenary, Philip Lombard. At least he readily cops to the crimes attributed to him. Everyone else maintains their innocence, at least until panic and cabin fever start to jog loose the truth.

It all still works. In fact, the Lifetime/BBC version might just surprise a few viewers who only know the Hollywood ending. To be completely honest, the two-part, three-hour running time feels a tad bit padded (the great 1945 and 1965 movies were both just a smidge over ninety minutes). Most of the flashbacks to the ten houseguests’ crimes are wholly unnecessary, but they do build dramatic tension rather effectively in the case of Claythorne.

In any case, the cast pulls viewers through those slow patches and really digs into the meat of Christie’s iconic thriller. Toby Stephens falls to pieces pretty spectacularly as the unnerved Dr. Edward Armstrong. Noah Taylor and Anna Maxwell Martin are suitably twitchy as the butler and cook. Aidan Turner broods and glowers like a champ as Lombard, while Charles Dance portrays Justice Lawrence Wargrave with elegant gravitas and a withering stare. Sam Neill certainly looks the part of Gen. John McArthur, but he gets somewhat shortchanged on screen-time. Maeve Dermody (from Serangoon Road) is relatively okay as Claythorne, but there are times she seems to problematically fade into the background.

There is a reason Christie’s story has been so enduringly popular. In some ways, it taps into some of our unspoken frustrations (especially this one). After The Most Dangerous Game, it established the other great template of the presumably psychotic madman scrupulously following his own set of rules. Well worth seeing, especially for (more or less) incorporating the novel’s arguably superior climax, And Then There Were None begins this Sunday (3/13) and concludes the following Monday (3/14) on Lifetime.