We live in an era in which it seems every horror is caught on video tape. Presumably that renders those horrors clear and unambiguous. Pictures don’t lie, right? Except it seems that every picture, every scene of footage that makes its way onto a news broadcast or social media, has a thousand interpretations. On the night of July 7, when five police officers were fatally shot in Dallas during a night of peaceful protest, Fox News was showing live feed of the demonstrations and happened to catch bodies clad in uniform lying on the ground, before anyone knew what was going on. The anchor, Megyn Kelly, clearly not sure what to make of the footage, said uncertainly, “We don’t know what we’re seeing here.” And, in truth, it seems we never know what we’re seeing when some newly videotaped horror makes it into the public domain. Or, we do (think we) know what we’re seeing but our neighbor sees something entirely different. The hope of transparency, of the unmediated “real” –especially the truth of a sin or a crime—always eludes us. In fact, now everything is caught on tape, it seems especially to elude us.
And that’s where Agatha Christie comes in. In every detective novel she ever wrote, all of which begin with a crime (usually murder), Christie offers us “the truth.” We know exactly what happened, we know how, and we know why—usually laid out for us by the incomparable Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple.
I suspect that it is her unraveling of a clear unambiguous truth that is in part at least behind the resurgence of interest in Christie’s fiction. There are currently two Hollywood studio biopics in the works (starring Emma Stone and Alicia Vikander, respectively) as well as productions of Witness for the Prosecution and Murder on the Orient Express, the latter starring and directed by Kenneth Branaugh.[i]
The recent BBC production of And Then There Were None (2015) is part of the Christie revival—and it’s not only a wonderful adaptation of one of her most interesting novels, but it shows us the way in which Christie offers us the unmediated truth of things, dispensing justice accordingly. The production uses visual narrative (not dialogue) to show us this truth, giving us, in the end, the unambiguous truth we long (and often fail) to find in the latest uploaded video of a violent event.
Very faithful to the book, And Then There Were None follows ten strangers who are invited to Soldier Island, under various pretexts, by a Mr. and Mrs. U. N. Owen—although the hosts are strangely absent. On the guests’ first night on the island, a gramophone record interrupts the festivities and accuses all ten of them of having committed a murder. All but one of them—Philip Lombard (Aidan Turner)—denies their guilt, but they are, nonetheless, remorselessly killed, one by one.
What’s interesting about the crimes of which the guests are accused is that they seem at first to be only arguably crimes—hence their perpetrators’ having escaped punishment. Their crimes are for the most part interwoven with and masked by their professional duties. A doctor’s patient died, a prisoner died in the custody of a police officer, soldiers died under the command of a general, an old woman died in the care of her housekeepers, and a child died under the protection of his governess. Such things happen. As Emily Brent (Miranda Richardson) says: “Everyone was simply doing their duty—as was I.”
While the crimes begin in ambiguity, though, and the guests in denial of their wrongdoing, ATTWN slowly shows us the truth of what happened. And it does so through using flashbacks of the crimes, flashbacks that are different each time and that slowly reveal more and more of what happened.
The case of main character Vera Claythorne (played wonderfully by Maeve Dermody—also in the little-known but brilliant Australian survival horror film, Black Water )—offers the best example. Vera was governess to a small boy, Cyril, who drowned while in her care. Over the course of the three episodes, we are shown flashbacks of what happened, each one adding more information and extending what we see of the events surrounding the drowning. In the final flashback, we learn that Vera not only let Cyril drown but engineered an elaborate plan to ensure he drowned (so the man she loved, Cyril’s uncle, could inherit the boy’s money). In early flashback scenes, we see Vera apparently deeply affectionate toward the boy, and when he drowns, we see her running desperately, swimming out to try to save him, distraught over his death. In the final flashback, however, we see the truth: we see Vera floating in the water, intentionally waiting while her charge drowns.
And Then There Were None uses the strategy of the flashback, then, to show us the truth of the crime—and crimes they are indeed, in the case of every guest. The guests themselves move from denial to acceptance of their actions—and the viewer moves equally surely toward knowledge. And the show (as did the novel) moves toward justice.
It is precisely this movement toward acceptance, knowledge, truth, and justice that explains why Christie’s novels are once again seeing a resurgence of popularity. Unambiguous knowledge and transparent justice seem nowhere else to be found. But they are found in Christie. The use of frequent objective long-shots looking down on the characters from a location that feels like omniscience in ATTWN dramatize this vantage point of the unmediated truth.
As something of a side-note, it’s worth noting that ATTWN at several moments, including as the guests steer toward the island as the series opens, evokes Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), in which a man also confronts his past crimes. Shutter Island, though, is the antithesis of And Then There Were None, as it plunges viewers into doubt and confusion, offering nothing –even flashbacks of the past—as unarguably true. We don’t even know who the main character (Leonardo DiCaprio) really is. Is he a US Marshal or a patient at Shutter Island’s facility for the criminally insane?
Shutter Island is a symptom of our present crisis over what’s true and what’s just. And Then There Were None is the fantasized remedy.
In another side-note, and proving that life is never as unambiguous as art, Christie was herself at the center of a mystery after she famously disappeared for eleven days in 1926.[ii] Presumably the forthcoming biopics will shed some light—whether it be “true” of not—on this disappearance.