I suppose it was the montage of major politicians – Thatcher, Blair, then Trump in the opening credits – that first sounded the alarm.
It was a bold statement to make about a new thriller – the sense of scale, the relevance of world events, weighty subjects. But did ITV’s new drama starring Helen McCrory deliver on its promise? Not quite.
Not to say there weren’t good things about this story following the intrigues of McCrory’s Emma Banville, a tenacious human rights lawyer investigating the case of Kevin Russell (Sam Swainsbury), a man jailed 14 years ago for the murder of a schoolgirl.
As Emma, Helen McCrory produced a quite dazzling performance of a woman who is clearly smart, no-nonsense, funny and down to earth. It’s just that Homeland writer Patrick Harbinson’s script let her down a bit, desperately piling on the character quirks until there were far too many.
There was the red leather jacket, the liquorice-flavoured roll ups, the battered car and the unusual marriage. Just one of these things would have been enough to blare out the message that she’s someone who doesn’t give up the fight or bend to the rules. Add them all together and it felt a bit crowded – especially when Emma started taking batteries out of smoke alarms so she could puff away in the cheap hotels she stayed in.
It felt at times as if Harbinson had seen all those Scandi noir thrillers and thought, ‘well Saga had a Porsche in The Bridge, Sarah Lund had her jumpers in The Killing, we’ll give Emma a clapped-out Volvo as her little thing’.
The exposition in the opening episode felt a tad clunky at times and some of the lines whiffed a little of cliché. We’re told Emma will defend anyone whether they are “sex offenders “or “Mad Mullahs”. Who says Mad Mullahs these days?
Her efforts to clear the supposed killer’s name came to the attention of the victim’s family and they lined up a press photographer to catch her in the act of fighting injustice. Fine. But when her character said she could “imagine the headlines” before suggesting one that sounded like nothing I have – or will – ever read in a newspaper, I cringed a bit.
Emma’s relationship with long-term boyfriend Steve, played by a bizarrely miscast John Bishop, also seemed to stretch credulity. A woman who clearly loathes the press, she has hitched herself to a tabloid photographer who simply “thought she was lovely.” Here’s hoping this relationship can be fleshed out (and explained) a bit more in episodes to come.
While the series gets off to a stuttering start, it’s certainly not irredeemable. The storytelling is brisk and packed with plot, the themes are important, McCrory is dazzling (as always) on screen and there is a potentially interesting thriller ready to come out.
I’m also looking forward to seeing more of Michael Gambon’s (yes Michael Gambon’s!) shadowy grandee Sir Alastair McKinnon, the Master of a Cambridge College and former Cabinet Office official whose nefarious phone calls at the end of episode one pointed us to a world of international intrigue where the actual child murderer is involved in some kind of Anglo/US plot.
Handled well, this could be worth watching.