As WWII is brewing in Europe, ten strangers are invited to a lonely island off the Cornish coast. Everything seems above board, but their hosts are nowhere to be found. And when one of their number is poisoned at dinner, they come to the chilling realisation that they were never meant to leave. Adapted from the Christie novel of the same name, this dark and stylish story had me hooked ‘til the end.
Early on, the decaying grandeur of the house and the harsh beauty of the island create a sense of timeless isolation. Most period dramas revel in their setting, working hard to build up a strong sense of time and place. But here, that sense is deliberately muted; details are impactful (that red swimming costume!) but sparse. The house seems to be from the 30s, but already carries an air of neglect. There’s nothing clean or new on the island, it’s all tainted and used, weighed down by memory and regret. The locale is brilliantly atmospheric, but also serves to keep everyone in close quarters. Once we arrive, we never leave; there is nowhere else to go, and nowhere to hide.
Similarly, the dialogue does the job, but avoids unnecessary embellishment. There are no jarring anachronisms or overly fruity ‘period’ phrasings. Usually in period drama, language is used to make the audience comfortably distanced from proceedings. You’re glimpsing another world, comfortable, beautiful and refined. There’s none of that here. Right from the start, with Lombard leering at Vera, there’s a sense of things coming apart at the seams, of social conventions shunted to one side. The formalities of the dinner party give way to recriminations and back-biting, as everyone becomes increasingly frayed around the edges. It gives events a sense of urgency, reeling you in. How will each person respond to the next death? Who’ll crack first? What would you do in their place? Who is the killer? Do they deserve this?
Characterisation was deftly handled, with the flashback structure giving depth and motivation without breaking the tension or confusing the timeline. We’re shown just enough to convince of everyone’s guilt while seeing only as much as that character chooses to remember. We get only moments of Brent’s creepiness, glimpses of the repressed desires and cruelty concealed beneath layers of self-serving piety. Lombard only gives us pieces too, but for a different reason – he doesn’t regret what happened, or think it noteworthy. As it doesn’t warrant his attention, it doesn’t need ours.
I particularly liked how the memories sometimes bled into the current day – like the General finding himself back in the trenches without ever leaving his room; or Blore partially ret-conning the memory of his crime, ‘That’s what I should have said.’ The slow build to Vera’s appalling crime was especially brutal – with simple, almost abstract images gradually adding up to the awful deed itself. As little Cyril runs to his death in the distance, Vera sits with the tranquillity of a portrait sitter in the foreground. In a story full of disturbing actions, it’s this passivity that hits the hardest.
Performances were all superb, as you’d expect from a cast of this quality. Burn Gorman stood out for me as Blore. Conflicted and regretful, with a chip on his shoulder and wholly out of his depth, I somehow felt sorry for him. And for all his weakness, he’s the only one who seems to clock Vera: ‘You’ve got some right brass neck!’ After seeing Aidan Turner as Lombard I’m now convinced he should be the next Bond – he’s got the physicality, charisma and polish, but also that lurking brutish streak. I found myself rooting for him, despite myself. Was it just his charm? Or does his honesty make him the best of a bad bunch? Or is it that no one else seems to think that badly of him? Only the hypocritical Brent responds with any real hostility. As the increasingly desperate group tries to band together, his natural authority quickly establishes itself. When things are at their worst, Lombard is actually at his best, and it’s a very appealing quality. I honestly thought he might make it…
But this isn’t that kind of story. As Vera prepares for her lonely suicide, I thought it would be a fitting, if downbeat, ending: she has accepted her crimes and is at peace with her punishment. But when Wargrave walks through the door, even this glimmer is snuffed out. The signs were there, of course. Right from the start, as charges were read out, we should have spotted the rather judicial air to proceedings. But as he explained his reasons, all sense of humanity and justice evaporate. While dealing with a serial killer, he became aware that his own life and his death would be meaningless. Terrible crimes are remembered in a way that law-abiding citizens never are. So he decided to write himself into the history books as part of a gruesome and unsolvable crime. Even as Vera tries to talk him down, he counters that the only difference between himself and a serial killer is that all his victims were guilty.
‘Quite my favourite.’ Wargrave regards Vera almost like a teacher does a favoured pupil, and even as he puts the finishing touches to his plan, after all we’ve seen you can’t help but wonder if he’s right. The worst people are often the most engaging, the most memorable. Leaving us with the final image of that awful rictus grin, he was certainly in no doubt. It’s the darkest parts of humanity that linger longest.
What did you think? Did you work out who the killer was before the big reveal? Was Vera your favourite too? The most recent Christie adaptation, Ordeal By Innocence caused some controversy when it made changes to the story – did this version stick to the original? As always, let me know!