What Would Agatha Christie Think?
Unlike those that found this 'almost absurdly entertaining', my own enjoyment was far from total. The reason? I often had to look away. This production, though perfectly cast, wonderfully scored, and often gorgeous, is not only darker than Agatha Christie's novel (which I have read, along with most of her other works, at least once), but it is also gory. Agatha Christie didn't DO gore. The Golden Age of Crime Fiction was all about character, motivation, detection, and psychology. The gross and repulsive nature of actual murder and death were largely veiled, and seldom dwelt upon.
I’ve read most of what Agatha Christie wrote, her books being the first ‘adult’ reading of my late childhood. I’ve also seen, over the years, many screen versions of her stories. I’m happy to judge the films on their own merits, but I don’t see anything wrong with comparing the films with the books, not least because they bear Christie’s name and therefore some responsibility for her reputation. I’ll say more about this in a moment.
This 2015 adaptation of the 1939 serialized novel, written by Sarah Phelps and directed by Craig Viveiros, has an awful lot going for it. The casting is superb; the pace is brisk for the most part, and the action certainly takes off without longueurs. Much of the time it’s beautiful to look at, and the two most charismatic characters — the ones that seem most attractive despite their past — are also the ones that have most of the screen time. (I shall refrain from giving specifics because, even with a long-lived tale, those that come to it fresh deserve not to have the plot’s surprises spoiled for them.) The tone of the film seems about right at the beginning: unlike the 1945 film version, there is no slightly goofy, semi-comedic introduction to the characters. If you’re going to do Gothic, take it seriously — and this version does.
Yet, I have strong criticisms. Although the film is generally entertaining, I found it far too dark and violent: it’s really quite gory and several times I looked away, even turning the sound down and fast forwarding past the action. I know that contemporary times have a taste for gore, but Agatha Christie never intended us to wallow in brutality. What interested her, and her readers of many decades, was the puzzle of human nature and the complexity of the mystery. She wanted to assert morality through a civilized investigation of facts and motives; she was not keen to plunge anybody into a wretched contemplation of cruelty. To the extent that this film takes the cruel route instead of the more atmospheric and mysterious one, it errs. Agatha Christie’s approach was superior. I wanted to see her mystery made visual; I was not prepared to watch a horror film or slasher.
Other aspects of the storytelling also struck me as not being quite right. Take for instance one character’s backstory. It seems to unfold not only on the same day, but in the same afternoon, on the same beach — and characters that had only just met seem to be glimpsed having a torrid affair there. Later you think: what, minutes after meeting? Hours? In such an unlibertine year as England in 1939? Compression happens in fiction, but this undermines our sense of the story’s reality. Even presented to us as flashbacks, it would have been more convincing if we’d seen changes of clothing, different times of day, and a sense of a situation developing. As it is, the character falls for someone and then takes a morally grotesque decision apparently in the blink of an eye.
Another problem is that the most attractive character, presented in the decidedly toothsome handsomeness of the actor Aidan Turner, is accused of a crime that hardly squares with his chivalric behaviour.* There is something unconvincing about that: either his crime should be less culpable and less sweeping, or else he should be a nastier character than the one we’re presented with. In the end, I found myself asking which would be the better resolution. Since I liked him as the man with some rational decency, I decided that the backstory was the aspect that should have been adjusted. Nothing would have been lost in the action or narrative drive of the film. In the same way, the character played by Maeve Dermody seems to me to stray too far from the less vicious creature she started out as. Her last actions have various explanations — being driven mad over many hours would certainly warp one’s judgement — but her actions end up making less and less sense. Since we don’t believe that she began as entirely morally bankrupt, her last scenes for me were particularly unsatisfying from a character point of view. The first rule of dramatic plotting is that you never make characters behave out of character for the sake of the plot. If they do, you must provide good reason. If they even strain against what we see as their character, we the audience must feel that the strain is theirs, not ours. In this case, I wished for a different and more human ending.
Considering how busy the action is, the pace flags oddly at times in the last hour, and loses originality by giving us a filmic trope that’s been done many times: the dead person that ‘appears’ in a doorway, etc. It’s okay to suggest the dreamy disconnection from reality that both guilt and fear of death might bring. But a little goes a long way, and one shadowy figure glimpsed once is surely all we need.
One final point. The house on the island of Christie’s tale is a rather ordinary one. The house in the film is extravagant and massive — which, though visually evocative, nonetheless doesn’t make much sense. Why would such a house be built in such a remote and unpopulated location? How is the house supplied? It’s one thing to imagine that the murderer could arrange such a complex set-up as bringing a goodly number of strangers together on an island. It’s another to imagine that he was also extremely wealthy yet unknown into the bargain — or that he could borrow another person’s island for the sake of his plans. In short, the house of cards that is a work of fiction stands best when it is just a house. When you try to give it a bell tower, a conservatory, and a garage, it begins to hold up less well as a spectacle.
Update: Weeks later, my further thought about this production is that it represents a missed opportunity. If you're going to burst out of the genre constraints, then why not go the whole hog, but in a much more uplifting direction? Have the last people standing be new lovers that suddenly turn from mournfulness and defeatism to a newfound will to survive together at all costs (which is the opposite of what the movie gives us). Have it so that the clichéd nursery rhyme is wrong, and the lovers get away. Maybe the mastermind of the deadly weekend does what he does anyway: but the lovers at least have survived, through and for each other. Now that's what I call a powerful ending!
* I realized that Mr Turner is a curly-haired man when he goes to the cliff edge and the sea spray makes his lank hair suddenly springy. Continuity may not have noticed, or else they could do nothing about it. A tiny thing: but unless we are to imagine that the character had a hair-iron with him, and used it even in the midst of a nightmare, they should have tried. In the next frame he is back to being straight-haired again, most mysteriously!