Warning: this Soviet adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel uses the initial title and version of the nursery rhyme that’s so important for its plot, so if you’re afraid of that authentic period racism, this is not the adaptation for you. I’ll spare you the deeply problematic terminology in the review, though.
Eight strangers – among them a retired judge (Vladimir Zeldin), a secretary and governess (Tatyana Drubich), a former policeman (Aleksei Zharkov) and a soldier/mercenary (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) – arrive at an isolated island mansion (on what I shall call N-word Island). They all have been invited, each guest for a different reason, by a certain U.N. Owen, a person quite unknown to everyone. On the island, the group is awaited by a freshly hired couple of servants (Aleksei Zolotnitsky and Irina Tershchenko), who have neither seen nor heard their new employer. Supposedly, Owen has been held up on the mainland and will join the party the next day.
Owen and his various promises to the various guests turn out to be a lie once dinner time arrives. A gramophone recording explains the sins of all ten guests; everyone is responsible for the death of at least one other human being, and everyone, the recording explains, is going to pay for their sins. Which is exactly what happens: one after the other, the guests are killed in ways echoing an old British nursery rhyme that just happens to be posted in everyone’s room. Soon, the guests realize they really are the only people on the island, so the killer must be one of them. But who is it, and will they find out before everyone’s dead or broken by the situation?
I am, in general, not much of an admirer of the works of Agatha Christie. In part, it’s a problem I often have with the cozy subgenre – I just can’t bring myself to care if it was the butler or the young relative who killed Lord Arsebutton for his money, and really, why should I? Christie’s case is further weakened by her love for perfectly annoying detectives (why isn’t anyone murdering Poirot and Miss Marple, for Cthulhu’s sake?), her classism, and the intensely improbable construction of many of her mysteries.
I do make an exception for novels like Ten Little N./Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None, though, because there is little that is actually “cozy” about them, but who’d call a literary sub-genre the “bleaky”? Ten (let’s make it easy on ourselves with the title) is a novel whose basic set-up has fascinated many a movie director, too, but all of them have balked from giving the film its proper, grim ending. Or rather, all of them except Soviet director Stanislav Govorukhin, whose Desyat negrityat not just keeps all the uncomfortable elements of Christie’s original novel including its ending, but focuses on them to create the psychologically dark period piece the novel deserves.
In Govorukhin’s hands, the sometimes somewhat dry book turns into a claustrophobic nightmare that at times feels like a horror film. The director often uses consciously cramped framing – even in shots taking place outside the house – to emphasize how the situation the murderer constructed for his victims throws them back onto themselves, their guilt – even though not all of them feel guilty, and this isn’t a movie where a feeling of guilt saves anyone from anything anyhow – and the pasts deeds whose consequences they can’t escape anymore, if they ever could or did. There’s an incredible sense of tension running through the movie that belies the surface talkiness of its script (though Govorukhin knows quite well when to let his characters stop talking, which becomes clear in the last stages of the film), the seeming simplicity of Govorukhin’s direction, and the film’s length of 129 minutes. On paper, this might still sound like your typical cozy mystery plot, but in practice, this is a film interested in, and awfully good at, exploring the existential darkness inside of and around its characters. And, if we want to give the film a political dimension instead of one sitting between philosophy and psychology, can it be an accident that every character in the film – the killer of killers being no exception – has at one point killed by misusing a position of authority and trust?
The actors, especially Drubich and Kaydanovskiy, are fantastic, selling the moments of naturalistic break-downs as well as those of heated melodrama. They – and the script, of course – also manage to turn what could have been a series of vile people who get exactly what they deserve (let’s call that the “Dexter hypocrisy syndrome”) into complex characters who have at one point in their lives given in to weaknesses that – this seems to be a particularly important point for the film – are universally human. These aren’t all “bad” people, or “good” ones, or “misunderstood” ones, but just people deserving of compassion even though they have done horrible, or callous, or weak, things. Which, on the other hand, doesn’t mean Govorukhin is willing to pretend his characters are the sort of people acting well under outside pressure.
The film’s only weakness in my eyes lies in the construction of its plot, or rather, how artificially constructed it is. There’s a central plot point – and we can thank Christie for that – that just beggars believe when you stop and think about it for a second (and, to digress for a parenthesis, it is ironically a plot point contemporary movies like the mildly diverting Sawseries seem to have fallen in love with wholesale), needing everyone still alive at a particular moment to be outrageously dense or credulous, and the killer to be extremely lucky and talented in the ways of the pulp yogi. However, Govorukhin’s direction is so strong I couldn’t help but look with raised eyebrows at the solution of the film’s mystery, yet still be decidedly enthusiastic about the film as a whole.
The mystery isn’t the point of the film anyhow. Desyat Negrityat is all about showing what made its characters what they are, and what they become.