Best Interests review: Emotional drama walks an impressive tightrope
Jack Thorne's new drama addresses the most delicate of subjects tactfully and is buoyed by two powerhouse performances.
Best Interests could have so easily not worked.
Don't get me wrong, it was never likely that Jack Thorne, whose previous works including Then Barbara Met Alan and Criptales have addressed issues surrounding disability tactfully, would have produced something callous or insensitive.
That said, this could easily have strayed into mawkishness or overwhelming sorrow, becoming an endurance test for the viewer - well-intentioned, but misjudged. After all, for the vast majority, the idea of spending four hours being devastated by a TV drama is not necessarily an appealing one.
Thankfully that is not the case. Best Interests quickly negates any expectations that it will be four hours of misery and emotional manipulation, by telling its story with honesty, detail and warranted complexity.
The four-part drama follows Nicci and Andrew, a married couple who are told soon after their second daughter Marnie is born that she has muscular dystrophy and that her muscles will further deteriorate throughout her lifetime, causing other complications to key organs. They are warned that they should prepare themselves for the possibility that Marnie's life will not be a full one.
When Marnie is 13, she is rushed to hospital with a severe chest infection and put on a ventilator, not for the first time. It is soon after this that Marnie's paediatric consultant recommends to Nicci and Andrew that it would be in her best interests to stop treatment, and to allow her to die.
Nicci is adamant that Marnie can recover and that the doctors should do everything in their power to keep her alive. Andrew, on the other hand, begins to have doubts about this course of action, particularly as Nicci is driven to start taking legal action against the hospital.
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It's a seriously sensitive subject and, for some, the sheer emotionality of the topic at hand will be too much and will put them off.
I cannot in good conscience recommend that those who feel that way tune in regardless. This may not be the emotional battering ram it could have been, but it is still a deeply distressing watch at times.
What I can say is that the series manages to expertly walk the emotional tightrope by dealing with a heavy subject matter with the respect it deserves, while also keeping a healthy sense of objectivity.
The episodes are packed with procedure, from the medical implications of Marnie's condition through to the legal processes by which the hospital's decision-making is governed.
It's this which reminds us that there is not only an emotional and moral quandary at the heart of the situation it is discussing, but intellectual questions as well. There are debates of science versus opinion, quality of life versus quantity, how care is best delivered and how needs are prioritised, all baked into the series cohesively and without heavy-handed exposition.
In doing so, the narrative dips us in and out of the maelstrom of heartache, and makes the truly emotional moments not only manageable, but actually more effective.
I can't possibly speak to the experiences of those who have gone through situations such as that which is depicted here, but the story Thorne has written and the characters' responses to it feel real here.
Thorne has smartly chosen not to adapt a real-life case of a specific family, but as the writer himself said at a recent screening and Q&A, it was still important that he provide an accurate "reflection" of the truth those families have experienced. Based on the reactions in the room at that screening, it seems that, at least for some, he has.
There are times at which the dialogue strays into an overload of sentimentality (there are numerous conversations around the definition of love which detract somewhat from the show's naturalism), but when the subject matter is this charged it actually shows a fair amount of restraint that the entire piece hasn't been overwhelmed by heightened, overtly philosophical debates.
It also helps these moments that they are being delivered by performers as accomplished as Sharon Horgan and Michael Sheen. Horgan gets the more attention-grabbing part here, with Nicci barrelling through the series at almost all times in between fury and agony.
Given her comedy background, it is a show-stopping, breathtaking turn, and one could certainly see her appearing in more meaty, dramatic roles in future.
Meanwhile, Sheen is more quietly devastating as Andrew, who internalises his anguish more readily and suffers because of it. Sheen is utterly assured in the role as you would imagine, but it's his willingness to go smaller in order to further emphasise Horgan's performance which proves the key to the successful dynamic.
The rest of the cast are equally impressive. Noma Dumezweni stuns in every second of screen time she has in a smaller, but critical, role as Marnie's paediatric consultant.
Meanwhile, Alison Oliver superbly fleshes out the complex role of Marnie's sister Katie, whose own experiences and opinions regarding not only Marnie's situation, but that of her whole family, are rightfully given a great deal of focus.
Niamh Moriarty also proves vital in her role as Marnie, as she crucially gives life to the girl around which the show's events revolve. Thorne remembers that this story is not just about how Nicci and Andrew's lives are being impacted, but is fundamentally about what happens to Marnie's life, with frequent flashbacks helping to illuminate her life thus far.
To do this, the series does dart around in time a lot. Initially, this can be jarring, and the first episode adds an unnecessary complication with title cards which (sort of) delineate whose story we're following.
However, once you get past this misjudged stylistic flourish, it becomes clear that the time jumps are necessary not just from a character stand-point, but from a tonal perspective too.
They do help to flesh out the characters, but they also mean that the light is successfully mixed with the shade, as we see the family's lives before Marnie's most recent medical emergency. This also gives the actors a wider range to play with. There is comedy here, and it works because of its well-considered placement in the story structure of each episode.
Meanwhile, the look and feel of the series is suitably straight and to the point - we don't need camera trickery or inventive staging, the script and the performances are rightly doing the heavy lifting here.
Best Interests will no doubt affect each individual viewer differently - for some the storyline will be too tough to deal with, for others it will prove a powerful exposure to a situation that can otherwise only be understood by those with lived experience.
But those considering whether to watch the series can rest assured that the subject matter has been tackled unflinchingly yet sensitively, and the enormous questions the series poses aren't given easy answers. It's impressively detailed, well-structured and features some mesmerising performances.
It may not be an emotionally overwhelming slog as may have been feared, but by the time the credits roll on the final episode, it will still most definitely have knocked you for six.
Read our interview with Sharon Horgan on Best Interests, Bad Sisters and putting women centre stage in the latest Radio Times magazine - out now.
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