If you were to take the charismatic cast of “And Then There Were None” and strand them in a remote country house with cameras but no pre-written lines, the footage that resulted would probably still be worth watching. But what if smart producers took the likes of Charles Dance, Miranda Richardson, Noah Taylor, Anna Maxwell Martin, Aidan Turner, Burn Gorman and Sam Neill, and gave them a streamlined, supple script that ekes every ounce of suspense, commentary and pathos from the classic Agatha Christie novel?
The results are astoundingly and almost absurdly entertaining. This two-night BBC miniseries — snared for the U.S. by co-producer Lifetime — is as addictive as anything likely to air on either side of the Atlantic this year. “And Then There Were None” is wise not to overstay its welcome, but it still ends much too soon.
There are twists aplenty in this tale, which adds several layers of social and psychological complexity to the time-honored formula of the country-house mystery. But the biggest surprise of all — and it isn’t a spoiler — is that newcomer Maeve Dermody more than holds her own in this stellar assembly of actors. Dermody plays Vera Claythorne, a schoolteacher who, like everyone else arriving on a remote island on a gray, windswept day, conceals more than her fair share of secrets. There is a still, silent resignation to Claythorne that imbues the entire drama with a note of regret, but the watchful character is more layered than first meets the eye — as is the case with the rest of the guests.
From the first minute, this drama knows exactly what it wants to accomplish and the kind of crisp yet evocative tone it wants to establish; it’s rare to feel so quickly that one is in sure, confident hands. The miniseries resembles FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” in many respects, in that it entertainingly collects and even celebrates every trope of its particular crime subgenre without the slightest tinge of shame. (At one point, on a dark and stormy night, a character holding a candle listens to thunder and watches the lights of the stately mansion flicker on and off — it’s like an entire game of Clue in one scene.) Taylor is melodramatic perfection as a creepy, obsequious butler; every meal is an opportunity to supply a set of juicy insults and delightfully barbed exchanges; and in each hallway and drawing room, there are significant glances between characters who don’t trust each other — or have begun to hate or lust after each other.
And yet, this isn’t just a diverting excursion for fans of murder mysteries. The mini maintains a crisp pace, but takes the time to make a number of subtle but smart observations about class, gender, condescension and preconception. A puffed-up male doctor accuses a female guest of hysteria as weird events begin to occur, but of course, he’s the one who slowly loses his grip as the house party begins to drift into nightmare territory. The one character who freely admits to the crime he’s accused of comes off as a bit of a brute at first, but over time, he starts to seem like one of the saner members of this self-justifying, craven bunch — but it’s hard to shake the knowledge that his past is full of reprehensible actions as well.
Even so, this adaptation of the novel is remarkably respectful of every character’s emotional state, no matter what each man and woman proves capable of, and it’s that sensitivity that gives the drama a growing emotional undertow as it swiftly progresses from one economical set piece to the next.
Christie’s whodunit, which concerns desperate strangers stranded with each other on a remote island who are manipulated by an unseen puppetmaster, was released in 1939, just as England was at its most vulnerable and on the cusp of a terrible, bloody reckoning. Past misdeeds and future dangers hang over every scene, and as lies and rationalizations are exposed, the mask of “civilized,” middle-class England starts to slip. Like Jane Austen, Christie was obsessed with social hierarchies — and how little it really takes to destabilize them.
As the ostensibly hospitable weekend devolves into a murderous fever dream, all the actors get a moment or two to shine, and given how perfectly the drama is cast, each character’s showcase is better than the next. Richardson, playing the kind of narrow-minded middle-aged woman Christie wrote about time and again, is sheer perfection as the sneering Mrs. Brent; it’s a delight to watch the way she puts aside a drink handed to her by a character she suspects, given that Richardson can make every gesture vibrate with meaning. Turner does the best work of his career as an Irishman whose cynicism hides a fierce, rational intelligence, and his chemistry with Dermody leaps off the screen. Gorman, Maxwell Martin and Neill, always reliably excellent, dig into their calculating roles not just with gusto but with precision and wonderfully effective craft, and Stephens plays the unraveling doctor with increasingly tremulous but effective intensity. Dance — otherwise known as Tywin Lannister on “Game of Thrones” — owns every scene he’s in; a raised eyebrow is all he needs to grab the audience’s full attention.
Writer Sarah Phelps and director Craig Viveiros understand intuitively that classic mysteries linger in the memory — and in the popular imagination — because they are not just about the who did what to whom, but why. All of these stiff-upper-lip characters conceal something terrible from the rest of the house guests, but they can’t hide their worst truths from themselves, and that knowledge slowly sends them close to the edge — a dangerous thing on an island ringed by cliffs.
How can a story with such clear-eyed bleakness at its heart be so very delicious? That may be the biggest mystery of all, but it’s absolutely one worth experiencing.
There’s a discussion of “And Then There Were None” (as well as “The Carmichael Show,” “Of Kings and Prophets,” “Agent Carter” and “The Americans”) on the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here and on iTunes.