Playing Nice with And Then There Were None, by Sarah Brinks
Thank you for reading “Playing Nice,” a series of articles that will examine group dynamics in film. I’m not a behavioral psychologist or anything but I am an avid movie watcher and life-long member/observer of the human race. One of the things that have fascinated me over the years is how group dynamics are depicted in film and especially how they are depicted when the thin veneer of society is stripped away.
**This article will contain spoilers. I highly recommend you watch the mini-series first and then read the article if you care about spoilers.** In this article, I will be specifically referring to the 2015 Acorn/BBC three-part mini-series. This mini-series was adapted from one of Agatha Christie’s best mystery novels: And Then There Were None. It is about a group of ten strangers who are invited to Soldier Island by U.N. Owen where they begin to die one by one. The poem “Ten Little Soldier Boys” hangs in each of their rooms and the deaths occur in the same order and fashion as the poem. The guests realize they have all been asked to the island for different reasons and that the mysterious U.N. Owen is an unknown person bent on killing them all. They search the house and each other but no one can solve the mystery of who is the unknown killer.
Morality is a key driver in And Then There Were None. The first night the guests are on the island a record is played that accuses each guest of murder(s). Though most deny it and none have seen the inside of a jail for their crimes, as the series goes on, it’s revealed that they were all guilty whether directly or indirectly. Judge Wargrave (played by the fantastic Charles Dance) is the mastermind behind the events on Soldier Island. As a judge, he has become obsessed with justice but he has a darkness inside him. He wouldn’t break the law and kill without reason but he decided he could bring justice to those who had escaped it before he succumbs to cancer. Each of the ten guests was brought to the island under false pretenses so the group is a strange one at first sight.
Suspicion is the other key emotion in the series. It grows slowly since the first two murders seem like they could be accidents; that is, until General MacArthur is killed. When the figures go missing after Marsten and Mrs. Rogers die, Vera is sure something is wrong but she is dismissed as a hysterical woman. But MacArthur is the first obvious murder as he is bludgeoned to death. That is when mistrust works through the whole group. The fact that they are all strangers makes trust nearly impossible. People won’t eat or drink anything prepared by someone else and when they are culled down to five they begin to institute a rule that they stay together as group or they leave the room one at time to keep track of each other’s movements. Of course, none of this keeps any of them alive.
Since all the guests are strangers, the depth of their relationships is limited. One of the most complex relationships is between Phillip and Vera. They are clearly sexually attracted to each other, but there is more than just sex to their relationship. They meet on the train when Vera catches Phillip admiring her legs, she claims to be put out by his behavior but he sees through her act. Vera uses him to stay alive right until the end but Phillip seems genuinely protective of her. He is the sort of man who will choose his own life over others but he goes out of his way on a number of occasions to keep her alive. When Vera and Blore are at odds, he tells her not to go downstairs without him. He tells her on the last night they are on the island that they are too good for death and that together they’ll survive. Even at the very end when Vera steals the gun from him, Phillips tells her that he is not going to kill her and he means it. But Vera is more self-serving than we realize and she shoots Phillip in cold blood.
The breakdown of the social order is swift and leads to a lot of finger-pointing and accusations. Phillip is clearly a man of action who has no qualms about fighting or killing for prophet. Dr. Armstrong was a surgeon in the war and an alcoholic. Blore is a police officer and knows how to fight. The three combined are often a power-keg of masculine energy that nearly explodes several times. Wargrave is the one who clings to order and good behavior. When the other three men start to fight he repeatedly reminds them that there is a lady present or to act like gentleman. He is the oldest among the group but he is also the puppet-master so he is never as afraid as the rest of the group. They each react to the stress in a different way. The men have out-bursts, blaming the others. Vera also lashes out, but she maintains an eerie calm most of the time, but she does panic and faint a few times in a typically feminine way for the time.
Keeping in mind when the book was written and when it is set, the role of women in the story is limited. Vera Claythorne is the main character we follow but she isn’t given much agency in the situation. There is a great deal of tension between Dr. Armstrong and Vera. When Vera realizes that the figures are disappearing as people die, Dr. Armstrong accuses her of being hysterical. She in turn demands that his supply of medicine is checked when it is discovered that Marston was poisoned. He is insulted and angry. He demands she explain who she thinks she is since is just a secretary and he is a doctor. Ms. Brent is a very religious woman who helps girls with “loose morals,” though it is suggested that perhaps she harbors more than motherly affection for one of the girls. Ms. Brent is dismissed as a religious maniac by the men in the group. Despite them dismissing the actions and thoughts of the women Vera is the last survivor on the island except Judge Wargrave who orchestrated the whole event.
Vera is the character we spend the most time with and whose motivations we most clearly understand. There are a series of flashbacks to when the boy she is governess for drowns. We see Vera running to save him and nearly drowning herself trying to save him. Until the very end when we see that it was all an act. She let Cyril swim in the ocean when she knew he was too weak and only pretended to try and save him so that her fiancé could inherit Cyril’s money. She is clearly haunted by what she has done and feels the loss of her fiancé because of it. Vera’s motivations for self-preservation lead her to kill Phillip on the beach and when Justice Wargrave interrupts her suicide at the end to explain his motivation, she tries to convince him to save her. She says they will blame it on Phillip. She tells Wargrave she got away with it once, she can do it again. In this way she reveals that is not truly sorry and Judge Wargrave lets her swing, maintaining his reputation as a “hanging judge.”
The way each person in the group confronts their crime is different. Ms. Brent remains in denial that she bore any responsibility for her young wards death. On the other hand Phillip is completely honest about his guilt and shows no remorse. Wargrave also insists that there was proper evidence of Edward Seton’s guilt. Vera, Blore, Mac Arthur, Marsten, the Rodger’s, and Dr. Armstrong all insist at first that they are innocent but as events unfold they come to terms with the burdens they bear for their crimes. The act of being confronted with death makes them reexamine themselves.
We all know guilty people walk freely away from the justice system every day while, unfortunately, innocent people serve time for crimes they did not commit. We rely on the justice system to get it right but what about when it doesn’t? Judge Wargrave made it his business to exercise the law outside his jurisdiction and brought ten murders to justice, as he saw it. Was he right? What would you do if you knew someone got away with murder? What if you found yourself on an island with strangers? Would you play nice?