Ten Little Indians (1974)

aka And Then There Were None

2016 #120
Peter Collinson | 94 mins | TV | 1.66:1 | Italy, West Germany, France, Spain & UK / English | PG / PG

Ten Little IndiansThe third English-language screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s famed mystery, one of the best-selling novels of all time, relocates the action to the middle of a desert but is otherwise a word-for-word remake of the 1965 version — though it does lose the gloriously ’60s “Whodunnit Break”. (Both versions were made by the same producer, who would later remake it again in the ’80s.)

It’s interesting, therefore, that this lacks the atmosphere or tension of that version. I don’t think it’s just because I’m now more familiar with the story (having seen not only the ’65 version a couple of years ago, but also the new BBC adaptation that was on last Christmas) — it feels rushed at times, like a summary of the novel rather than a full retelling. Considering the screenplay is nearly identical to the ’65 version (merely tweaked to reflect the relocation), I can only assume that’s down to the way director Peter Collinson chooses to handle certain sequences. For example, in this version I never bought the relationship between youngsters Hugh and Vera, and sequences like the group searching the cellars contain no real sense of menace.

The cast is made up of recognisable faces from ’60s/’70s European cinema, led by Oliver Reed and Richard Attenborough, but also including the likes of Herbert Lom, Gert “Goldfinger” Fröbe, and Adolfo “Emilio Largo” Celi. Not that anyone’s bad, but there’s the sense they were probably there to earn a bit of cash while having a nice exotic holiday, and making a film on the side.

As a précis of the storyline, with some nicely photographed locations (the Iranian hotel they filmed in looks fairly stunning), this isn’t half bad. However, there are at least two better screen adaptations of the novel, and if what I’ve heard of the 1945 film and ’80s Russian adaptation are to be believed, I guess this comes pretty far down the chain.

3 out of 5

Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

2009 #64
Bryan Forbes | 111 mins | TV | PG

Seance on a Wet AfternoonDespite being an early-60s British domestic drama, Seance on a Wet Afternoon has a plot that one might describe as high-concept: a medium kidnaps a little girl so she can prove her abilities by revealing where the girl is. But, unsurprisingly, the execution is more in line with its roots: more drama than overblown thriller, not so much about the kidnap plot as the psychological state of Kim Stanley’s medium, Myra Savage, and her downtrodden husband, played by Richard Attenborough.

It certainly doesn’t start high-concept either, beginning with a near-15-minute dialogue-driven enigmatically expository two-hander. Some would consider the whole film too slow, I’m sure, but once it gets past this (to be frank, over-long) opening it maintains an appropriate pace. It never threatens to become a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride, but what it does do is build tension and gradually unveil the true natures of the two leads. In this regard it becomes something of a showcase for Stanley and Attenborough.

In a word, Stanley’s performance is stunning. Initially just a Hyacinth Bucket-esque overbearing wife, as the film continues we learn more about her almost solely from what Stanley brings to the role. By the final scene, when the truth of her character is laid bare, there’s little doubt that she’s given an extraordinary performance. She was Oscar-nominated for her role, losing out to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins. I love Mary Poppins as much as the next well-adjusted human being, but Andrews’ relatively simple role isn’t a patch on the complexity Stanley has to offer.

In the face of this stiff acting competition, Attenborough holds his own throughout. His transformation is more understated perhaps — the ‘revelation’ here being that he is not downtrodden but in fact incredibly supportive, something that will only dawn on the viewer late on but shed a subtly different light on what has gone before — plus there is a degree of skill in portraying a character doing reprehensible things but who remains the audience’s surrogate ’til the last.

Bryan Forbes’ direction is also first-rate. He keeps things clear and simple during dialogue scenes, but adds scale with location work in busy London streets, and flair during a few tense sequences. The best of these is the second seance, where the kidnapped girl sleeps in a room next door. As she begins to stir, the viewer is torn between wanting the Savage’s plan to succeed and wanting the girl to be rescued from their misguided scheme. Such a dichotomy of feeling is entirely reliant on the skill displayed by Stanley, Attenborough and Forbes up to that point, building our allegiance to these characters in spite of what they’ve done.

Unfortunately, the film isn’t without its flaws. The story doesn’t always hold up — some of the police procedure is dubious at best, while the Savages’ scheme comes off as much through chance and luck as planning. In fairness, our ability to spot the former is probably in part thanks to decades of police procedurals filling the TV schedules, while the latter actually fits the under-confident, ill-prepared, dubiously-sane protagonists, and coincidence is mostly confined to the plot’s early stages. Some elements of the plan make you wonder how they ever thought they’d get away with it, though at the same time you have to allow that maybe they just weren’t that self-aware.

The real key to the film, however, is what’s slowly revealed over its course: Myra Savage’s mentality, as well as the truth about the history of her abilities and marital situation. To reveal any details would ruin the carefully controlled slow explanation of who these people are and what background they come from, all of which builds to a beautifully performed final few scenes. Seance on a Wet Afternoon may have a high concept driving its plot, but the true delights are to be found in its characters and the actors’ performances of them.

4 out of 5

Hamlet (1996)

2008 #50
Kenneth Branagh | 232 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

Hamlet (1996)Following his success with Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh tackled arguably Shakespeare’s most revered play, Hamlet. And he didn’t do it by half. It’s the first ever full-text screen adaptation, which means it clocks in just shy of four hours; he unusually shot it on 70mm film, which means it looks gorgeous; and, while he grabbed the title role himself, he assembled around him a ludicrously star-packed cast from both sides of the pond — in alphabetical order, there’s Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gerard Depardieu, Nicholas Farrell, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, John Mills, Jimi Mistry, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Spall, Don Warrington, Robin Williams and Kate Winslet — not to mention several other recognisable faces. Even Ken Dodd’s in there!

But, with impressive statistics and name-dropping put to one side, what of the film itself? Well, it’s a bit of a slog, especially for someone unfamiliar with the text. While there is much to keep the viewer engaged, the high level of attention required can make it a little wearing; certainly, I took the intermission as a chance to split the film over two nights. Amusingly, the second half uses the original text to provide a sort of “Previously on Hamlet“, which was very useful 24 hours later. None of this is the fault of Branagh or his cast, who do their utmost to make the text legible for newbies — for example, there are cutaways to events that are described but not shown by Shakespeare, which, among other things, help establish who Fortinbras is (Rufus Sewell, as it turns out) before he finally turns up later on.

That said, some of the performances are a bit mixed. Branagh is a good director and not a bad actor, but his Shakespearean performances are variations on a theme rather than fully delineated characters. While there a new facets on display here thanks to the complexity of the character, there are also many elements that are eerily reminiscent of his Henry V and Benedick. The Americans among the cast seem to be on best behaviour and generally cope surprisingly well, while Julie Christie achieves an above average amount of fully legible dialogue. Perhaps the biggest casting surprise is Judi Dench, appearing in what is barely a cameo — one wonders if the film-career-boosting effects of a certain spy franchise would have changed that.

The best thing about this version, however, is how it looks. Much credit to cinematographer Alex Thomson for using the larger 70mm format to its full, loading every frame with vibrant colours and packing detail into even the quietest moments. Not every frame is a work of art — there is, after all, a story to be told — but there’s more than enough eye candy to go round. Also, a nod to the editing (the work of Neil Farrell), which makes good use of long takes — many of them full of camera moves — but also sharply edited sequences, such as the all-important play. The fast cuts make for a joyously tense scene in a way only cinema can provide, which I suppose is rather ironic during a ‘play within a play’.

For fans of Shakespeare, I suspect Branagh’s Hamlet is a wonderful experience, finally bringing the complete text to the screen and executing it all so well. For us mere mortals, it’s a beautifully shot and engagingly performed film, that I’m sure would benefit from a greater understanding of the text.

4 out of 5