Welcome back, as I continue reviewing the many adaptations of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Today, I’m looking at the bleak, faithful Russian adaptation, Desyat Negrityat (Ten Little Negroes).
Film review: “Desyat Negrityat” (1987)
written and directed by Stanislav Govorukhin
I suspected I would like this film from the moment I saw Indian Island – a tiny, rocky outcrop with an even tinier home perched at its peak. Not that I’m a crazed literalist when it comes to adaptations – 1965’s icy chalet was just as functional and iconic a setting – but it’s quite nice, in a book that is so well-constructed as is, to see a film that plays by the existing rules. The inside of the house is equally small, without being chintzy: as a result, things feel particularly claustrophobic as the weekend marches on. Even better, Govorukhin – a popular filmmaker in Russia who subsequently left the arts to become a politician of some note – adjusts his direction accordingly, with great scenes of people casually pressing their heads against the wall in hope of overhearing their neighbours, and so on.
This is the first film to portray Anthony Marston (Aleksandr Abdulov) like the book – indeed, all the characters adhere relatively closely to their original source – although, like the book, this Marston gets a tiny amount of screentime, deprived even of the traditional role of getting to sing the title song. As you can see, the characters remain English, even though the actors are Russian. Obviously, it’s no different to an English-language film where the actors play Russians but speak English, but it took me a while to figure out what was going on! There are some intriguing elements in the script which are hilariously Russian – not helped, admittedly, by the ropey subtitles on the version I have – such as Abdulov possibly overplaying the fact that Marston literally has forgotten about the children he ran over. My favourite little touch was how one suggestion for why there are Indian statues on the table is that the house’s owner must be “going through a second childhood”! The idea of an eccentric, upper-class Englishman with a penchant for knick-knacks is possibly too bizarre for the rest of the world. (and fair enough!)
As the first evening gets underway, Govorukhin lets his camera move throughout the guests in a way that – while inevitably less dramatic than the 1945 film – manages to convey the growing sense of unease amongst them. Truthfully, a few of the retained moments from Christie’s book are perhaps a bit too long for a film; because they’ve kept in the varying letters of introduction, for instance, we have to sit through a lengthy sequence where each person explains their relationship to their fictional host. While it’s more believable, certainly, that each of these people was lured by someone they thought they knew, it’s an arduous piece of exposition. However, the decision to adapt Christie’s book more literally pays off, with each character – except Marston – very well-rendered, even in their tiniest moments. Mrs. Rogers (Irina Tershchenko) for instance doesn’t get much to do, but she shades in her character very well as someone who isn’t that interested in the richer people she’s been sent to serve. (This is also the only one of the films in which her fainting at the grammophone record is rendered believably.) Moreover, the growing concern that spreads after Mrs. Rogers’ death shows how – with the right director – there’s no need to rewrite her murder. Sure, opening the story with two poisons isn’t exactly the most dynamic of options, but it’s done well here, while allowing those in denial to continue believing that it’s all just an unfortunate accident.
The slew of red herrings that are thrown in are marvelous, since they allow every character to be more conceivably the villain of the piece. Blore being under a false name – a moment that comes out quite early in the book and this film – is a good example, particularly because – in a nice touch – each character is so well-drawn, with Blore putting his detective skills to good use and being the one who pieces everything together on the first night. Although every film has allowed the guests to debate whether Rogers is the killer, this film’s discussion is particularly Christie-esque, particularly when the guests wander off on to a dangerous tangent, assuming that the deaths may just be one accident and one spousal murder. As Rogers, Alekesi Zolotnitsky is wonderful: it’s a quiet performance, but one that is imbued with sadness. Amazingly, Zolotnitsky is the first Rogers since 1945’s Richard Haydn to remember that HIS WIFE DIED LAST NIGHT, thus allowing him to make even a line such as “we ran out of bread” seem so tragic. Mikhail Gluzsky as the General, meanwhile, is also returned to his original book form. Gluzsky doesn’t quite have the natural gravitas of 1945’s C. Aubrey Smith, but he creates a majestic and rueful character, particularly in his final scene on the beach with Vera, where he notes how all of life is just “waiting for the end”.
It’s perhaps not surprising that the film is bleak, given its country of origin, but it’s also fitting, since this is ultimately a tale of ten guilt-ridden murderers isolated in an alien landscape and being slowly killed. The white-rocked, empty landscape of the island – often accompanied not by music but the distant squawking of seagulls – makes the middle third of the film suitably hopeless. The cast do a good job of showing how the guests come together – rappelling down the rock face, for instance, to search for a hidden murderer – while also coming to realise it is one of them. (One of my favourite scenes reminds me of David Lynch’s stunning work on the Twin Peaks pilot, when the surviving men have a discussion in which they discreetly try to figure out who the most likely suspect is amongst them. The convention is held in the slightly kitsch bedroom of the Rogers, with Mrs. Rogers’ body lying between them, just to add a lovely note of the macabre.)
Thank goodness, too, for a return to the religious nutter that is Emily Brent (Lyudmila Maksakova). This film gives Emily a slightly more worldly point of view, making her seem like one of those brassy Sarah Palin types, the kind of woman who would get out of bed to protest the funeral of a gay soldier, or some such other nonsense. Emily, like the others, is more openly haunted here, with the spectre of her dead, pregnant maid appearing at the window. Vera and Lombard are also beset by flashbacks or visions, lending the movie a certain dreamlike quality. To be honest, if the film had ended with the knowledge that Vera was actually a mental patient, and this was all in her mind, I wouldn’t have been too surprised! The sparse, dissonant score helps in this regard too, as the world never seems as lush as the earlier films. (I also like how each movie has become more and more bold in killing Emily in plain sight!)
The best thing about this new script is that close attention is paid both to presenting us with believable red herrings – blame shifts from the General to Rogers, to Emily to the Judge – while also retaining a sense of logic in the killings, which was sadly absent in the 1974 version. Little moments of logic – such as Blore actually checking on the dead bodies to make sure they seem dead – are highly appreciated too, as none of the characters ever become just ‘waiting victims’ as they will in the somewhat silly 1989 film. The cast are clearly having as much fun as the director, and it shows in the vibrant portrayals. Anatoli Romashin as Dr. Armstrong and Vladimir Zeldin as the Judge probably stand out a little less than their colleagues, but both give solid portrayals which, most importantly, fit in believably with the ultimate denouement.
Things really take off after the Judge’s shooting, with the surviving characters beginning to crack under the pressure. Given that the previous films – like the stage play before them – have rendered Vera innocent, it’s particularly satisfying to see the guilt-ridden woman who let a young boy die, so that her lover would come into his inheritance. The film uses black-and-white flashbacks to taunt Vera first, but as time goes on she is instead haunted by ghostly voices, and the pitter-patter of children’s feet in the corridors. Ultimately, Desyat Negrityat is Tatyana Drubich‘s film, and she makes every shot count. The camera loves Drubich’s face: she’s beautiful and waiflike, yet can turn in an instant to seem sunken and pallid, as if the years of guilt really have aged her terribly. This Vera is a psychologically disturbed woman who was already on the brink of madness, and by the time she and Lombard (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) give into their passion on that final night, she’s clearly snapped. The sex scene would undoubtedly drive feminist academics mad, given that Lombard starts things off by forcing her onto the bed before she submits. Well okay, I’m both a feminist and an academic, but I’m not both, if that makes sense. To me, the moment makes perfect psychological sense. Kaidanovsky is possibly the best Lombard of the bunch, but he’s certainly not conventionally attractive. This isn’t the chic but twee love affair of the previous movies; here, Lombard and Vera are both giving into a passion that is less about the other person and more about themselves. Lombard, too, gets flashbacks to the murders he committed – two dozen native Africans whom he left to die – and we see both the horrors he faced in wartime (explaining how it really was a matter of survival), and the fact that this has haunted him ever since. (The eerie flashback sequence where mud-covered natives rise dead from a swamp is powerful.) Both Vera and Lombard are broken people, who find each other out of their fear, their guilt, and their near-acceptance that their deaths will occur once the sun comes up.
Looking back, I realise that I’ve written 2000 words on how great this movie is, but it’s true! Okay, if you want one complaint: I don’t really see why every film has required that Vera take her clothes off at some point, but other than that I really have no complaints. The bleak atmosphere of the novel’s final chapters is, if anything, amplified in the film. Once that final morning dawns, Vera, Lombard and Blore (Aleksei Zharkov) become fascinating character studies: each of the three knows they are innocent, and want to – but don’t quite – trust the other two. More to the point, they’re all on the verge of losing their mind (Vera already has), and that acceptance of death is lurking around the corner. The camera becomes increasingly angular after the Judge’s death, while the score largely gives way to sounds of the sea. The tragic moment when Vera laughs at the nursery rhyme’s mention of a visit to the zoo, only to realise that “don’t you see? We’re the zoo!” is perfectly pitched. As Blore, Zharkov is lucky enough to play a gritty film noir detective while not having to be the rather bland, mysterious dude of the previous attempts. His death is perhaps the most questionable of the film’s moments, since the clock isn’t very big, and it appears that it was quite conveniently timed. Nothing is impossible, but this death is still quite a gamble.
And then there were two. The previous movies did quite well to convince us that Dr. Armstrong was the killer, so we’re left in genuine surprise when his body is found. Govorukhin’s camera has been edgier, and I don’t think we completely trust either Vera or Lombard at the film’s climax, which leads to the film’s most spectacular scene, as the two find the good doctor’s body on the rocks. It’s a moment of great location filming that you wouldn’t find in the Hollywood era, with the waves genuinely crashing down over the actors as they pull Armstrong from the water, and then Vera makes her ultimate choice. The location, the direction, the cinematography: it makes for a stunning climax, and Drubich completely sells her lonely, maddened return to the house, where she is confronted with the last little Indian boy, and with a conveniently-placed noose.
So, as the only completely loyal adaptation of And Then There Were None, how does it hold up? The ending, of course, is quite a challenge: even if you can convincingly pull off Vera’s death, you’re left with the book’s ending which consists of one long letter to the police. Govorukhin takes this rather literally, and it works, as we overhear the killer’s thoughts as he calmly, rationally explains his methods to us, and then prepares to end his own life. It’s certainly bleak (although, did you really expect anything less?), but it completely works. I’m not surprised that Hollywood balked at the opportunity, but I have to say that this becomes the most powerful film adaptation of the novel. It’s a psychological character study that, no, doesn’t quite have the frivolity of the 1945 film, nor the opulent design of those that came between. But it has so, so much more.