Friday, 28 March 2014

True Detective

True Detective is the latest HBO hit to have mass critical acclaim.  It started on Sky Atlantic about a month ago, and we're now five episodes in, out of eight.

To a great degree it deserves the praise. It's unusual in its scope, following two detectives over many years as they investigate a serial killer in Louisiana.  The two main performances from  Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are excellent, and the ageing has been done really well.

This is what we would have written if I'd reviewed it at the third episode, but then the fourth, the 'Hells Angel' one suddenly seemed to go completely off piste, as McConaughey infiltrates a biker gang to try to chase up a lead.  It's as if they suddenly wanted an action episode - and the final ten minutes were brilliant - but in doing so they threw out some of the style of the earlier episodes to get it.  However we're in the minority on this one, because IMDB reviewers gave that episode an amazing 9.8 rating, the highest of the whole series...

We wait to see how it progresses.  One very promising point through:  It's been pitched as an anthology format, so the second series will have a different cast of characters and story, and not tie themselves in knots of TWNHs like Homeland has done.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Turks and Caicos

So you didn't know that 'Page Eight' was the first in 'The Worricker Trilogy'?  Neither did we.  So here we are breaking our own rules and reviewing a 'returner'.  Sort of.  It has been a couple of years since the first part and the third follows next week, so all that we remembered was that Bill Nighy was a mild-mannered, reluctant spy of the old school, let's say one of Le Carre's more decent creations, and got himself into hot water investigating the government's involvement in illegal torture during the war on terror.

Strangely enough, that's what this one's about too.  Ewan Bremner as his unlikely friend Rollo Maverley and Ralph Fiennes as slimy PM Alex Beesley must have enjoyed the first one so much they've returned for cameos, while Winona Ryder, Helena Bonham Carter and Christopher Walken join in the fun.  Because this is a lot of fun, even while it purports to be about Very Serious Things.  The theatre is Hare's natural home, and while this lifts the dialogue beyond the usual bland televisual standard, it also requires that little extra suspension of disbelief which a stage and the dimming of the house lights usually aids.  Do jaded security operatives really spy on big-time crooks on glamorous, if rather sleazy islands?  We can't help thinking that the reality is more 'death in a plastic bag' than 'death in paradise'.

On its own theatrical terms, though, it's rather like a Greek tragedy: the hero asks what has happened to (a sense of) shame; the heroine (Helena Bonham-Carter playing beautifully straight, for a change, as Margot Tyrell) risks everything for her lost love and his moral scruples which were once also her ideals; there is a woman so damaged by men that her only escape is to bury her own morals (inspired casting of Winona Ryder as Melanie Fall).  Christopher Walken, as shady CIA operative Curtis Pelissier, is even a sort of chorus, dogging Johnny, making him question his motives.  Suffice to say that, as with the Greeks, the rot is deeply embedded in the state, and the state these days is a global one.

Great ending-that-isn't-an-ending, leading us nicely to the final part.  No doubting that Hare crafts a good drama that is almost a eulogy to lost values, but we can't help thinking this is, more than anything else, a rather elegant way for Hare to declare his extreme dislike of modern politics.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Widower

ITV brings us another dose of prime time true crime, courtesy of Jeff Pope, who penned the West dramatization 'Appropriate Adult'.  Here it's Reece Shearsmith (who must have had a busy few months with this and 'Inside No 9') who sends the shudders south as Malcolm Webster, whose rather bland and gormless manner belies a propensity to spend more than he earns and a rather more alarming one to incapacitate and then murder his wives.  Poor Claire (Sheridan Smith) is the first to fall foul of him in Aberdeenshire in 1994, when he stages a car accident and makes off with the £200k life insurance.

While not having the notoriety of the Wests or similarly outlandish serial killers, Webster must have had some considerable skill at hiding his immoral tendencies, since he wed twice and was attempting to do away with another woman at the time of his arrest.  He didn't target particularly vulnerable women either.  Yet by beginning each woman's story at the point of marriage, when he has already won them over, and then focusing on his short temper, need for control and subsequent abuse of them, his appeal doesn't come across at all.  And where, once he stopped nursing, did he get hold of all that Temazepam?

Thursday, 6 March 2014

37 Days

This new 3-parter, screened on consecutive nights on BBC2, tells the story of the complicated countdown to the First World War from the point of view of the senior figures in the opposing governments.  It's about as clumsy as drama gets while still being riveting in its telling of the strange coincidences and politics that led to bloodshed.  For a start, the cast of the British cabinet is such that you identify the actors more than their historical counterparts, while the German Kaiser's staff all speak English viz ze German accents, Ja!  There are also helpful young narrators on either side, junior clerks, small cogs in big wheels, who introduce us to characters and their foibles from a future perspective.  "In those days, we weren't thinking of war..." and so on.  At one point an absurdly effeminate Austrian slinks onto the set and walks towards camera looking like an escapee from an Adam Ant video c. 1982.  Far be it from us to say they weren't terribly dandy types, but he's not the only Boche-lover to mince across the screen.  While the British are presented as crusty old backbiters, the other side indulge in sissy massages and have their hair oiled to dripping point while declaiming foppishly.  Overall it has the feel of a made-for-schools drama.  Lots of stiff dialogue that in the hands of lesser actors would creak loudly enough to drown them out.

In fairness, it does clarify the points between the assassination of someone most British people had never heard of in the 'boring' and faraway Balkans and the outbreak of European war, and the effort of tuning into the rather wordy hour is rewarded entertainingly enough.  Ian McDiarmid, in particular, is superb as no-nonsense Foreign Secretary Edward Grey.  We're not going to be surprised in the remaining episodes, but we'll still watch, in the hope that it will evolve into the sort of classic historical drama that, without boasting, we do quite well here.

Maybe in another hundred years they'll be portraying the Russians and Ukranians in the same light, but let's hope not.