A Murder at the End of the World review: Emma Corrin and Harris Dickinson shine in gripping, pacy thriller

Murder mystery navigates its way through a century of detective influences, from Conan Doyle to Gillian Flynn

Nick Hilton
Tuesday 14 November 2023 06:30 GMT
A Murder at the End of the World trailer

In software development, there are two dominant management methodologies: waterfall and agile. In the former, the desired outcome decides how the work is achieved – we want to make a compelling murder mystery, Disney+ might say; how do we do that? – but with agile there is more stakeholder involvement, more iteration. Could it be a bit more Agatha Christie? Perhaps a touch of Scandi noir? Shall we throw in a locked room? It is this latter approach that seems to take the lead in the streaming platform’s new techno-whodunnit, A Murder at the End of the World.

Emma CorrinThe Crown’s original Princess Diana – is Darby Hart, a computer hacker and true crime author. She has just published a book about taking down a cold case serial killer alongside Bill (Harris Dickinson) an artistic fellow sleuth from Reddit. “It’s really hard to fall in love for the first time while tracking a serial killer,” she muses, wistfully. But six years later they’re estranged – that is until they both show up at the Icelandic retreat of tech visionary Andy Ronson (Clive Owen). Among the guests at a futuristic hotel in the tundra are Andy’s wife Lee (“the greatest female coder in history,” played by Brit Marling), an irritating millennial filmmaker (Jermaine Fowler), an over-accomplished doctor (Alice Braga) and a host of other luminaries. With all these bright sparks in one place, what could go wrong?

Well, a dead body turns up on the first night, rather scuppering plans for a quiet, intellectual retreat. At this point, the show slips neatly into a more conventional thriller mode. In the present day, Darby hunts a killer through the snowy gloom, while, in flashback, she and Bill track a relentless murderer who leaves jewellery on his victims. Darby (who has, apparently, been labelled “Gen Z’s Sherlock Holmes” by the press) is half-Nancy Drew, half-Lisbeth Salander. Gamine, tattooed and able to bypass any computer system, she might’ve stepped off the pages of a Stieg Larsson novel. Yet Corrin also brings that wide-eyed, youthful vulnerability; an openness to seeing good, and bad, in the world. “No one sees a 24-year-old girl coming,” Darby tells a fellow guest, with a wry smile.

Murder mysteries are having something of a renaissance in Hollywood, after a few decades in creative Siberia. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out films are largely responsible for this (the sequel, which involved a tech billionaire inviting a ragtag collection of guests to a remote retreat involves a rather similar construct), but Disney’s own Only Murders in the Building has offered a farcical spin on the genre. With its rather twee title (evoking, for me, Werner Herzog’s 2007 nihilistic penguin documentary, Encounters at the End of the World), you’d be forgiven for expecting AMatEotW to also be darkly humorous. Instead, it is played almost entirely straight, anchored by winningly sincere performances from its two young English leads (both playing Americans), Corrin and Dickinson.

Perhaps the key to understanding the show’s tone lies with its creators, Marling and Zal Batmanglij, her collaborator on strange, twisty thriller The OA. Indie darling Brit Marling (“Brit Marling, indie darling!” sounds like a playground chant at the Hollywood High School) could be easily reduced to “Greta Gerwig without the jokes”: both are beautiful, actor-writer-directors who are transitioning from indie credibility to mainstream success. But while A Murder at the End of the World is undoubtedly her most commercial project, it remains a distinctive take on an And Then There Were None-style mystery.

Crucial to its success is, in fact, a willingness to embrace cliché. The OA was, at times, opaque and genre-defying. A Murder at the End of the World takes its heroine from young adult fiction, throws in a sinister billionaire (as shows from Succession to The Morning Show have done of late) at a location stripped from the pages of Henning Mankell or Ragnar Jónasson, and then liberally sprinkles genre tropes. A snowstorm keeping them in the hotel? Check. A murder just as someone was about to reveal a crucial clue? Check. An uncreative but useful sounding board sidekick? Check. The fact that some of its depictions of AI (“alternative intelligence,” which Ronson prefers to call “artificial”) already feel antiquated (a supposedly amazing rendition of a chapter of Harry Potter in the voice of Ernest Hemingway feels very much within the capabilities of ChatGPT) inadvertently colludes in creating the air of a Golden Age crime novel.

Taking on these components means, ironically for a show about impossible technologies, not reinventing the wheel. But that’s a good thing. In its simpler moments, A Murder at the End of the World is a gripping, pacy thriller. It navigates its way through a century of detective influences, from Conan Doyle to Gillian Flynn, with an agility that leaves it never less than wholly watchable.

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