The Game (UK, 2014)

Satisfying complex

Satisfying complex

I’ve no idea why the BBC shelved this spy drama for 18 months and ran it on BBC America six months before its UK premiere as Toby Whitehouse’s series is top drawer. It convincingly recreated dingy 1970s complimented by an excellent cast and a suitably noir narrative that managed to pull all its threads together without too much straining of credulity. I think I read somewhere that it was a mix of Spooks (action-orientated) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (both the TV series and the film): that just about sums it up.

Happy Valley (UK, 2104)

Under pressure

Under pressure

I’ve only just caught up with this television series broadcast last year on BBC1 and winner of the Best Drama BAFTA. It’s probably the best TV series I’ve ever seen. The ironic title takes in the beautiful scenery around Sowerby Bridge and Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire and uses it as a setting for severe dysfunction at both a social, the amount of drug abuse, and personal level, as Sarah Lancashire’s policewoman Catherine Cawood battles both. Lancashire’s brilliant performance, amongst the many that serve to make this series so good, shows us exterior toughness, as s cop on the beat, as well as interior turmoil of a mother who’s lost a daughter and dealing with a difficult grandchild she has, more or less, adopted.

It works well as a cop drama too with Cawood’s maverick tendencies railing against her superiors’ corruption, superciliousness and ineptitude. Writer Sally Wainwright brilliantly ‘derails’ the cop narrative, to an extent, in episode four (I’m working hard not to give anything away), to switch the emphasis to the lead’s personal demons. The ‘cop’ genre and melodrama meld brilliantly to ensure there’s no sense we are getting the cop’s home life as a way of engaging female audiences whilst the action is for the men.

As defiant female characters go, Catherine Cawood is amongst the best. Although gender isn’t particularly the issue as we are simply watching a strong, human being dealing with crises.  In her representation of the victim of a kidnapping Wainwright is careful to show both the consequences of the experience and the strength required to overcome the trauma.

How can season two match this?!

The Fall series 2 (UK, 2014)

She will get her man

She will get her man

I’ve only just finished BBC2’s second series of The Fall otherwise it would have featured in my year’s top 20; I’m sure it will will be there next year. Central to the series, like many serial killer texts, is the relationship between the hunter and the hunted. Allan Cubitt, he wrote, produced and directed (now that is auteurism in action) is clearly exploring men’s (or is it misogynist men’s?) attitude toward women and so focuses on the psychological, which is also a trope of the genre. So far so conventional but The Fall – both series – have been compelling viewing; what makes it so?

Performance is always important and Gillian Anderson is perfectly cast as the ice-woman that spills tears on her virtually unemotional face. Anderson is an hypnotic screen presence (or is that the heterosexual male in me?) and, I guess, a role model for women who would like to deal with male aggression in such a calm way. Her ‘shameless’ attitude toward her sexual appetite was also refreshing to see; I felt the need to put ‘shameless’ in inverted commas because it is often used as a critical term, in this context, to vilify women who ‘sleep around’ whilst reserving the right of allowing ‘men to be men’ as an excuse for their promiscuous behaviour.

Jamie Dornan’s killer, Paul Spector (a mix of ghoul and voyeur), superbly mixes charm and hatred and Aisling Franciosi pulls off a very difficult role of a precocious, and ultimately demented, teenager brilliantly. The Belfast setting, with sectarian violence simmering beneath the peaceful streets, added to the atmosphere of unease.

The whole cast articulated well Cubitt’s purpose to show up hypocritical attitudes toward women and the complexity of relationships. I particularly liked Gibson’s last word on Spector: that she despised him.

Although the psychological climactic battle with the killer didn’t quite come off, Anderson’s Stella (she is a star) Gibson was too unruffled, and the finale was redolent of Se7en (US 1995), The Fall is an prime example of quality television that is, fortunately, characteristic of our age. If The Fall had been included, half of my top ten films/TV programmes last year would have been for television. Whilst there were many films I missed out on, such as Boyhood (US, 2014), there are TV series that I’ve yet to catch up on.

It’s hard to write about television effectively, and even the British quality press TV critics still seem to be unable to deal with the medium seriously, because of time: The Fall series 2 clocked in at almost six and a half hours. Writing about film sometimes requires a second viewing, to do that for television serials would be virtually impossible not simply because of their the time of individual serial or series, but there is so many to see watch!

The Missing (UK-US, 2014)

Incomprehensible anguish

Incomprehensible anguish

Writers Harry and Jack Williams appear to have taken their cue from Scandinavian noir for this brilliant eight-part thriller concerning the fallout of a missing child. Director Tom Shankland, too, has ensured attention to detail within the framing elevates this high quality drama. The performances are also crucial to the programme’s success; Tchéky Karyo’s sympathetic detective being the standout for me though James Nesbitt’s (Tony) central performance could not be bettered. Karyo is probably best known as Bob in Nikita (France-Italy, 1990) and I can’t helped feeling he’s been under-used since. Setting much of the action in France gives The Missing an international dimension which draws on some of the (slight) exoticism that is part of Scandinavian noir‘s appeal; the brilliant Anamaria Marinca also appears in three episodes.

The Williamses pull off the trick of having a narrative ‘twist’ as the cliffhangar at episodes’ endings and yet none of the directions in which the story is pulled is anything less than plausible. Possibly their biggest triumph is in creating a sympathetic paedophile (Titus De Voogdt); his anguish at his own perverted desires is as strong as Tony’s at the loss of his child.

One criticism, and it is mild, is the relative sidelining of women. That said, it is a drama that sits comfortably next to The Killing and The Bridge which makes it a major triumph.

The Trip to Italy (UK, 2014)

Perfect doubt act

Perfect doubt act

This sequel to The Trip (UK. 2010) is the same as before as Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon riff against one another as, usually, friendly, comedian rivals. The improvisation is stunningly high in quality and often difficult to keep up with as the depth of reference, both cultural and to the ennui of middle age, is delivered with such rapidity that laughter has to be stifled or the next hilarious observation might be missed.

Despite the humour, the series is melancholy in nature as one of the themes is male middle age angst, emphasised in the regular use of the autumnal music of Mahler, I Am Lost to the World, and Strauss, At Twilght. At one point Coogan muses that he is now invisible to young woman that surround them on a restaurant balcony. To solve the problem, he suggests that he and Brydon look the other way.

In the Line of Duty, series 2 (UK, 2014)

Beyond reasonable doubt?

Beyond reasonable doubt?

It concerns me, as it should, that I can’t remember whether I’ve seen the first season of Jed Mecurio’s ‘corrupt cop’ series. That’s why I blog; lest I forget. I didn’t blog about it so I probably didn’t see it but I should have done. Series two was extremely good, up until the final episode. They, reportedly, had to add a scene to the finished final episode to make it clear what had happened; I’m still vague. And the documentary style, ‘what happened to them afterwards captions’ added to the impression that the episode was rushed; which it was.

Enough cavilling, it was an excellent contribution to the genre and is a worthy successor to Between the Lines (1992-4) in focusing on the cops that watch the cops. The cast is peerless, with special emphasis on Keeley Hawes who looks as bad as she feels. She was dramatically convincing; actors are too often shot for glamour even in desperate circumstances. I saw a cinema trailer for Channel 4’s forthcoming period drama New Worlds and I’m unconvinced already as the protagonists all possessed modern ‘glamour’.

Between the Lines lost the plot in series three, but there are plenty of dangling ends of dramatic tension hanging around in In the Line of Duty to suggest that it will be a success.

The Bridge (series 2) (Bron/Broen, Sweden-Denmark, 2013)

Gripping characters and plotting

Gripping characters and plotting

The autistic Saga Norén, brilliantly played by Sofia Helin (how difficult must it be for an actor to keep her face immobile?), is as compelling a character, in detective fiction, that I know. She struggles to empathise with others, which she finds harder than solving even the most difficult cases, but she keeps on trying. Her humanity is to be seen in these struggles just as it is in her desire for justice. the Bridge is more than Saga and the writers quite brilliantly weave a tapestry of dead ends and dangling possibilities that allow the ten episodes of the series to speed on with the economy of an B movie. 

Detective fictions works best with compelling characters and Kim Bodnia’s tortured Martin is a brilliant sounding board for Saga’s attempts to relate to others. The Bridge managed to integrate the character interaction with the narrative drive of the crime, particularly well in series one. In this second series the ‘hangover’ from the first continues as an arc with Martin confronting series one’s antagonist in prison. The denouement of series two, brilliantly constructed over the two final episodes, is as devastating as Se7en, and by allowing the images to carry the characters’ thoughts – rather than dialogue – The Bridge confirms television as being the space where daring and fascinating texts are being produced. I’ve avoiding spoilers here, the advice is simple: see it.

Roy Stafford bemoans the dearth of foreign language films in our cinemas, yet BBC4’s 9pm Saturday night slot of foreign language TV crime, where the series was broadcast in the UK, has proved to be a, relative, hit. Why aren’t these viewers, many of whom it’s reasonable to assume are averse to subtitles, not translating their enthusiasm to foreign language cinema? When I show subtitled films to children their negative reaction, to finding the film they’re watching isn’t in English, usually subsides quickly when they realise that they don’t notice the words at the bottom of the screen after a few minutes. Yet very few of these will use that realisation to go on and watch more subtitled films. We live a world of the ‘blockbuster’ and texts that are seen are the ones that everyone else is seeing (something of a tautology I know). So even the BBC4 niche slot becomes, for the ‘chattering classes’, a ‘must watch’ for the ‘water cooler’ discussion at work.

How do we stop the narrowing of our cultural life that is threatened by the commercial difficulty of distributing foreign language films? The BBC, as a Public Service Broadcaster, must take the lead in this. The absence from television of programmes, other than one-off Culture Shows, that deal with ‘difficult’ films is a disgrace. One of the ways I was introduced to cinema was via a season of Jean Renoir films on BBC2, introduced by Gavin Millar, in the late 1970s. The BBC may argue these films are now widely available on DVD but how can audiences get to grips with the history of cinema without guidance? 

In the Flesh (UK, 2013)

Grief and Prejudice

Grief and Prejudice

Broadcast last March (on BBC3) this superbly put together, short (three episodes) television series tweaks the zombie genre by considering what happens after… the zombies are cured. Shot in the north west (Lancashire Pennines by the look of it) In the Flesh considers what happens when the re-humanised zombies return to their communities and, as you might expect, there is a lot of grimness up north. However, equally predictable, there is a lot of compassion.

What’s impressive about In the Flesh isn’t just the highly successful spin on the genre, but the superb execution. It’s slightly invidious highlighting anybody from the cast, who play what could have seemed ridiculous to the hilt, but Emily Bevan (above) shone as the young woman who wasn’t going to wear make up to make her appear human; she was going ‘au naturelle‘. As the series was about grief and prejudice, the emotions were ones that the cast, and audience, could readily engage with. It was the human aspects that, unsurprisingly, were the most gripping. Using the zombie genre successfully allows the human condition to be ‘made strange’, allowing us to think anew about what might, otherwise, become cliche.

There’s a second series in the offing, hopefully it will be as well crafted as the first.

The 7.39 (UK, 2014)

The cost of infidelity

The cost of infidelity

This BBC two-parter of a David Nicholls script boasts two of my favourite actors: David Morrissey and Olivia Colman, ably supported by Sheridan Smith. Actually it’s Colman who’s the support and I was worried, after episode one, that she would be wasted in such a small role. Morrissey and Smith become friends on the titular 7.39 hour-long commute to London and if what follows is predictable, the way it is portrayed is not. Two people behaving unfaithfully, without intending to, in an entirely convincing way.

Nicholls’ novel One Day (2009) was brilliant in its creation of convincing characters and he repeats the ‘trick’ in this TV film. The development of Carl and Sally’s (or should that be Sally and Carl’s?) relationship is entirely logical, if immoral. We can condemn their behaviour at the same time as understanding why they behaved in the way they did. Colman, of course, it turns out wasn’t wasted and her blistering attack on her perfidious husband blew out of the screen and, I’m sure, resonated with many women (probably less men) throughout the country.

I liked the way Smith’s Sally was as much, and possibly more, the one who pushes for an ‘affair’ and how she is the one who, in the end, sees it for what it is. I also loved the marvellous ambiguity on Morrissey’s face at the end when he sees Sally two years after the affair had ended: ‘is he happy for her and/or sad for himself?’

Broadchurch (UK, 2013)

Police procedural and melodrama combine seamlessly

Police procedural and melodrama combine seamlessly

High end drama is enjoying a renaissance on television possibly fired by US series and/or the habit of binge-watching on DVD. Whatever the reason it’s good to see ambitious, strongly-cast, long-form drama creating what’s been called the ‘third golden age of television’. Broadchurch is particularly successful in its structure, over eight episodes, as it manages to engage audiences – who know the great reveal won’t be until the last programme – throughout with its ‘red herrings’. It does this by convincingly elaborating upon the suspects’ backstories and even the most unlikeable (Pauline Quirke’s Susan Wright) are humanised.

The serial deals with vigilantism, the role of the gutter press, the effect of grief and small town community dynamics amongst other things. Stand out amongst the performers are Olivia Colman and Jodie Whitaker, the fact they stand out amongst a superb ensemble cast is high praise. It’s good to see Vicky McClure too, who manages to be the hard-edged journalist with a heart.

I can’t be sure whether direction on television has become more cinematic, as I haven’t watched enough TV over the last 20 years, but I suspect it has. The regular cutaways to the churning ocean (Broadchurch is on the coast) was an apt, and beautiful, metaphor for the turmoil of the community. Despite the ‘bum’ note of giving credence to a ‘psychic’ this was a gripping and satisfying serial.