Monday, August 2, 2010

Russian "Ten Little Indians" (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Came across this little treasure on YouTube last week and was mighty impressed.  Finding it elsewhere is likely to be quite a chore, but for now at least anyone can watch it online.

For those who don't know, Ten Little Indians or And Then There Were None is one of Agatha Christie's most famous and oft-adapted works of fiction.  The title has undergone some changes over the years, indicating how some things have changed for the better.  Quite by accident, I stumbled across a Russian version of the story filmed in 1987.  It is easily and by far the best version--as well as being the most faithful.

The story is simple enough (which is often a hallmark of complex themes, not coincidentally).  Ten strangers are invited to a mansion on a remote island off the coast of England.  Some have been hired as staff, yet have never yet met their employer.  Others are guests urged to come via friends, usually second-hand.  But the hosts, a Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen ( i.e. "unknown") aren't present and after dinner the butler follows directions and puts on a specific record.  Upon that record is the voice of a man accusing each person present of murder.  All react in shock.  Many do so with some measure of guilt.  Within a few minutes one of them has died, poisoned by his drink.

Upon the wall of each person's bedroom is a nursery rhyme about "Ten Little Indians" and it isn't too long before someone remembers the first line:  TEN little Indians went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were NINE.  Sure enough, the mysterious Mr. Owen intends to execute every one of them, using the nursery rhyme as a pattern.

Many previous adaptations of this book try to infuse humor into the proceedings.  This one does not.  Others have changed the locale, shifting it to an oasis or a sky lodge atop a mountain.  But this film retained the island, and what an island!  Literally a barren rock surrounded by mists and crashing waves--yet with mansion built into the rock like a small castle.  Its interiors are comfortable, even luxurious, but with more than a hint of claustrophobia.  Each guest reacts differently to the situation of course, but in this one even the laughter has an hysterical, uneasy ring to it. 

Near the end, someone even points out "We're not human anymore.  We've become beasts."

The characters are a broad range.  A judge.  A  doctor who drinks too much.  A former police officer governess.  A retired general.  As the story unfolds we learn also about their victims.  A supposedly innocent man.  The woman dead on an operating table.  An innocent man framed, who died in prison.  The lover of a commanding officer's wife, sent deliberately into harm's way.  Rather like peeling an onion, the facade of civilization gives way to what sorts of people these really are--with the implied question about who are we the audience?  Would we call running over a pair of children with our car a piece of "bad luck?"  If we held a position of power over a helpless girl who'd gotten herself into trouble, would we dismiss her or offer to help?  Here is where most adaptations (starting the stage play penned by Miss Christie) pull their punch.  Two guests--a young man and woman--seem to hook up on some level.  Other versions sweeten this, portraying it as a growing love affair.  When they become the seemingly only two people left on the island, they simply cannot bring themselves to believe the other a murderer.  And they are right!  Not only are they themselves innocent, but the real killer has already faked his death and is waiting for them to kill each other.

But that isn't what happens in the book--nor in this film version.  Everyone really is guilty. Oh sure, the real killer faked his death but otherwise his plan worked perfectly.  The former governess is haunted by thoughts of the child she killed, an act of weakness on behalf of the man she loved who then rejected her.  She turns to the arms of a ruthless young army officer in a desperate attempt to feel alive, or at least blot out her own despair and terror.  At the end, she kills him.  Discovering a noose hanging from the ceiling of her bedroom, she gives in to depression and fulfills the last stanza of the nursery rhyme:  ONE little Indian left all alone; He went out and hanged himself and then there were NONE.  Everyone is guilty.  Everyone dies.  But was that justice?  And if it was, then is it a mere accident we ourselves haven't earned as much?  More, is the desire for such justice any better than what it is punishing?

The performances in this film are uniformly good.  Rather than becoming stock characters, each remains an individual.  One even gets a sense of a life before this story begins, a subtle but vital point.  More, there is a grittiness to them that seems real, rather than a glossy stereotype.  The romantic male lead for example (who left 20 men to starve to death) is somehow both handsome and repellent at the same time.

Behold links by which you yourself can enjoy this remarkably faithful adaptation of Christie's murder mystery.  Yes, there are English subtitles.  You might also notice that the title is mistranslated, as one can figure out when looking at the figurines stolen/broken as each victim meets his or her fate.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen

1 comment:

Amy said...

Awesome, I will definitely check this out.